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Modi Transforms India’s Approach to the Middle East

11 Oct 2019
By P R Kumaraswamy
Modi and Netanyahu in 2017. Source: Flickr.

When it comes to India’s position on the Middle East, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempts to keep all parties happy.

For a long time, India’s relationship with its extended neighbourhood in the Persian Gulf was characterised very simply by energy imports and migration outflows. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India in May 2014 and has since built a deeper relationship with the Gulf through careful enhancement of diplomatic ties. It has paid off — India is economically and strategically better placed now, so much so that Muslim Gulf states had a largely muted reaction to India’s removal of the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim majority state.

India has established rapport with many Middle Eastern states in conflict with one another, maintaining relations with Israel, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Syria. This balancing is possible because Modi sidesteps politico-strategic issues and concentrates on bilateral economic relations. Although India is not unique in managing tricky Middle Eastern ties, Modi has been impressive in navigating complex and changing geopolitical contours. His opposition to unilateralism and external interference with a simultaneous willingness to soften rhetoric has been key to his Gulf success.

Consider New Delhi’s interactions with Israel and Palestine as an example of its careful diplomacy. Even with Israel, where security cooperation and arms procurement is a primary form of interaction between the two countries, Modi publicly focuses on forging cooperation in agriculture and water management. Equally, discussions of economic assistance and skill development are more prominent in his meetings with Palestinian leaders than talks of Palestinian statelessness.

When it comes to India’s position on Israel and Palestine, Modi attempts to keep both parties happy. New Delhi has moderated its Palestine rhetoric, without removing support for Palestine, to keep Israel onboard. India has previously declared East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state. This position has shifted to support “a sovereign … Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel” but without any explicit reference to East Jerusalem.

The same holds for the growing Iran–Saudi Arabia tensions and the Saudi boycott of Qatar. Under US diktats, India has considerably reduced — but not stopped — its oil imports from Iran while maintaining its involvement in the development of the Chabahar port close to the Iran–Pakistan border. Likewise, New Delhi has remained friendly with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, importing a significant amount of Qatari hydrocarbons despite the Saudi-led multinational political and economic boycott of Qatar.

India’s foreign policy is sticking to its own priorities and principles. Despite New Delhi’s growing proximity to Washington, it has been reluctant to endorse US decisions on contentious issues such as JerusalemGolan or the nuclear deal with Iran.

India’s careful foreign policy has resulted in increased security cooperation between New Delhi and the Middle East and even diplomatic backing from the region when it has butted heads with Pakistan.

Security cooperation has emerged as a vital component of India’s engagement with the Middle East. Military imports from Israel have always been a key part of security cooperation but cooperation has expanded to other states and to other aspects of security. Under Modi, security concerns such as counter-terrorism, terror financing, money laundering and sea-lanes of communication figure prominently in India’s diplomatic relations, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Strong security cooperation includes the continued extradition of fugitives to India.

India’s diplomacy has also secured the neutrality of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE in India’s stoushes with Pakistan, despite the natural affinities that may exist between them and Pakistan. Saudi and Emirati involvement partly diffused tensions between India and Pakistan following the February 2019 Pulwama attack, a suicide attack that India blames Pakistan for. India additionally received diplomatic support from the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). Similarly, the issue of Kashmir has left Saudi Arabia and the UAE surprisingly neutral. Except for statements from the OIC Contact Group on Kashmir and Iran, traditional friends of Pakistan have been mostly silent.

These developments led to the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi lamenting that ‘the guardians of Ummah [the Islamic community] have also made investments [in India] and they have their own interests’ despite solidarity over Islam and Ummah. New Delhi’s diplomacy has aligned the Middle East closer to India and further from Pakistan.

China is a player that should not be forgotten in discussions of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Its Belt and Road Initiative creates enormous opportunities in the region and could pose an economic challenge to India’s plans. China’s growing interaction with the Middle East will increase its diplomatic influence. At the same time, India has an advantage over China, having treated its Muslim populations somewhat better. India will continue ramping up its diplomatic initiatives across the Middle East, partly as a response to China’s increasing participation in the region.

The Middle East could seriously benefit Modi’s aspirations to transform India into a US$5 trillion economy by 2025. For this to happen, India must attract a large portion of Gulf Arab investment for the development of infrastructure. While the political intent, relationship-building and interest are there, Modi will be judged by his ability to walk the talk and induce a flow of Gulf money into India.

P R Kumaraswamy is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Honorary Director of the Middle East Institute, New Delhi.

This piece originally appeared in the East Asia Forum on 11 October 2019.