Opinion

A deft tightrope walk over West Asia

Nicolas Blarel | Updated on May 20, 2014

Years of practice India's Look Middle East policy has stayed on course Lightspring/shutterstock.com

India has been able to balance conflicting interests and engage relevant parties. And that’s served it well

In February 2014, India managed a rare diplomatic coup de force when it hosted, in the same week, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif.

Over the past two decades, India has adroitly managed to develop relations with diverse Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Palestine, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some see this balancing act as indicative of a broader new approach to the region, defined as India’s Look Middle East policy.

There has been a clear shift away from India’s preference to engage with a select group of regional partners (“proxy” policy) to a “multi-engagement” strategy in the last two decades.

Eggs in the wrong basket?

India has historically been involved in Middle East politics through centuries-old commercial ties and cultural-religious connections with the Gulf states and through a more recently shared colonial history. Consequently, when India became independent, it tried to build on these ancient ties to establish relationships with all the regional players emerging from colonial subjugation.

India originally supported Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, with the impression that Cairo was a legitimate spokesman for Arab interests.

However, India’s Cairo-centred policy came under fire in the late 1960s when support for Egypt directly conflicted with India’s regional and national interests. Indian leaders failed to analyse how its close relationship with a secular-nationalist Egypt gradually alienated it from other more conservative regimes like Saudi Arabia and Jordan which, in the meantime, furthered their relations with Pakistan.

India’s pro-Egypt bias also led Delhi to unconditionally support Nasser’s military adventurism in 1967, which escalated to a military confrontation with Israel. The military defeat accelerated the decline of Egypt’s prominent position in pan-Arab politics in favour of traditional monarchical regimes.

To continue to elicit Arab support on the Kashmir dispute against Pakistan, but also to meet its growing energy needs, India decided to strengthen political links with the Gulf states, especially Iraq and Iran. Subsequently, Indian leaders no longer exclusively deferred to Cairo’s judgment on regional affairs.

A policy of multi-alignment

Two series of developments in the 1990s allowed India to permanently reorient its Middle East policy. First, both the Gulf War and the Oslo peace process revealed important divisions within the Arab-Muslim world, whether it was with regard to supporting the Saddam Hussein regime, or the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The state of confusion left India with unprecedented diplomatic leeway in the region.

For instance, widespread Arab criticism regarding the PLO’s support of Iraq during the war and Arab-Israel peace conferences in 1991 limited the negative diplomatic implications of India’s opening up to Israel. Consequently, India had a unique opportunity to move from a policy of partnerships with a few local players to a policy of multi-engagement.

Second, India’s economic growth, rising international influence, and new status as a nuclear weapons state have made it an attractive partner for most Middle Eastern states. For example, despite unanimously condemning India’s counter-insurgency efforts in Kashmir in the early 1990s, none of these countries has let the Kashmir dispute become an insurmountable obstacle in developing relations with Delhi. Middle Eastern states have increasingly looked at India as an emerging geopolitical power, a major destination for their primary exports, and a possible venue for investments.

Because of these evolving perceptions, India has been able to develop relations with each country in a bilateral and separate fashion. India no longer attempts to take sides in inter-Arab disputes. Rather than a planned grand strategy, Indian governments have gradually realised, since 1992, that doing business with all the protagonists has been the most beneficial course of action.

The most visible illustration of this policy shift was India’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, a country which it had long neglected for fear of estranging its Arab partners. Over the last two decades, India has also simultaneously developed strong strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Cooperation in counter-terrorism between India and these countries has also added a new strategic dimension. Gulf and Arab countries are no longer just a source of oil and the destination for Indian labour; they have also become economic and political partners.

Tough act to follow

Nevertheless, India’s balancing act has also proved to be increasingly difficult to sustain. As the Israeli-Iranian and Shia-Sunni rivalries have escalated in recent years, India has been pressured to take sides. Until now, India had managed to maintain an economic and political partnership with Iran despite US pressures and Saudi and Israeli concerns.

India has historically been one of Iran’s largest crude oil buyers and has also has an eye on Iran’s natural gas reserves. However, the possible Iranian involvement in an attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in February 2012, and international sanctions against Tehran, have strained the relationship. The recent nuclear deal between the US and Iran might again modify the unstable equation.

When it comes to the West Asian region, India has simultaneously sought to maintain regular access to energy resources and markets, preserve the welfare of its large diaspora (seven million expatriates), acquire high-tech military equipment from Israel, limit the diffusion effects of socio-religious tensions, and compete with China for influence.

Until now, India has been able to satisfy these conflicting interests, hoping that its attractive economic profile to economic investments will permit it to maintain this delicate balanced engagement.

The objective of Indian diplomacy has been to manage, rather than to drive, India’s multi-relationships.

In this context, the new Look Middle East initiative from December can be interpreted as an attempt by the Ministry of External Affairs to better control and coordinate the different levels of engagement.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington and a graduate research assistant at the Center on American and Global Security. By arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

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Published on May 20, 2014
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