G Parthasarathy

Looking West with strategic autonomy

G Parthasarathy | Updated on March 20, 2019 Published on March 20, 2019

There are an estimated 7.6 million Indian nationals living in the GCC states who remit back around $40 billion annually.   -  Reuters

New Delhi’s imaginative diplomacy in West Asia especially with the Gulf monarchies is bound to pay rich dividends

Ever since Independence in 1947, India has carefully crafted its policies, to avoid getting drawn into the vortex of regional conflicts and global rivalries, which could adversely affect its national interests. The initial years were spent in seeking good relations with both the Soviet Union and the US.

There were, however, instances like the 1971 conflict, when relations with the US were strained, following the emergence of a Sino-American quasi-alliance. This was also a period when adoption of Soviet style centralised economic planning led to India’s declining role in global trade and economic affairs and a relatively slow rate of economic growth.

These policies kept us lagging well behind the progress achieved in the fast growing economies in our eastern neighbourhood.

The near collapse of the Indian economy in 1991 coincided with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It was the vision and foresight of then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that led to the dismantling our “licence, permit, quota Raj”.

A new era of liberalisation and rapid economic growth then enabled us to emerge as one of the fastest growing economies of the world. It was during Narasimha Rao’s tenure that we combined economic liberalisation, with economic integration, with the fastest growing economies in the world, adopting an imaginatively crafted “Look East Policy”. “Look East” has been invaluable in promoting India’s interaction with and access to trade, investment and technology from countries like Japan, China and South Korea.

What we, however, lacked in this period was a clearly enunciated policy, in our western neighbourhood, across the Indian Ocean to East Africa, and to the shores of the oil, gas and cash rich countries in the Persian Gulf. Our approach to our western neighbourhood was rather myopic and excessively fixated on Pakistan.

This Pakistani fixation only increased with the post 9/11 developments in Afghanistan. But, our imaginative economic assistance in areas, ranging from hydroelectric and irrigation projects, to electricity transmission and support for education and training in Afghanistan, received extensive international attention and acclaim. This demonstrated the positive role India could play even in a war weary country, which was being torn apart by Pakistan sponsored terrorism.

The Islamic countries in our western neighbourhood are challenged by sectarian (Shia-Sunni), civilisational (Persian-Arab-Turkish) and religious (Jewish-Islamic), rivalries and tensions. India has skilfully conducted its diplomacy, avoiding taking sides in sectarian and civilisational differences, while advocating reconciliation between contesting states.

New Delhi has scrupulously stayed away from the rivalries that have led to civil wars and human suffering in Yemen and Syria. India has also refused to yield to American pressures and has, thus far, continued oil imports from Iran. Imaginative diplomacy by New Delhi and Kabul enabled India to get the US to waive sanctions for development of the Chabahar Port. Moreover, Iraq is now emerging as a significant energy partner. Its leadership needs to be carefully cultivated.

Crucial Gulf ties

The most crucial relationships for India, however, pertain to its ties with the Gulf Monarchies — all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

They provide 42 per cent of India’s overall oil requirements. There are an estimated 7.6 million Indian nationals living in the GCC states. They remit back around $40 billion annually. Around 5.5 million Indians live and work in the UAE and Saudi Arabia alone. Annual trade with GCC countries is now around $104 billion. The UAE is India’s second largest export market, globally.

The last decade has seen a remarkable transformation in our earlier myopic approach to relations, across our western neighbourhood. Recent years have been marked by high-level visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

These two countries, work closely together on virtually all, crucial regional issues.

This Saudi-UAE relationship is also one marked by high dependence on the US, especially on issues of regional security. The US, in turn, uses the substantial regional influence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to promote its interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was evident in the role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in facilitating US dialogue with the Taliban and even in recent tensions between India and Pakistan.

India’s rise in high-tech sectors is reflected in the senior positions Indian experts hold in the Gulf, where professionally and technically qualified Indians are significantly engaged in the knowledge-based economic projects, such as Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and the Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZ).

The India-UAE bilateral relationship has evolved into a significant partnership in the economic and commercial spheres. India-UAE trade is around $52 billion, making India the largest trading partner of UAE, while UAE is India’s third largest trading partner, after China and the US. The UAE is significantly, the second largest export destination of India, with exports of over $30 billion.

Modi’s visit to the UAE was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister, after Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1981. He soon paid a second visit to Abu Dhabi in 2018, after welcoming the UAE Crown Prince Shaikh Mohammad bin Zayed in New Delhi, in February 2016. The red carpet was similarly laid out in New Delhi for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman last month.

Respecting New Delhi’s sensitivities on coupling Saudi Arabia’s relations with Pakistan and India, Crown Prince Salman did not visit New Delhi immediately after his visit to Pakistan. He spent a day in the UAE, before arriving in New Delhi.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been forthcoming in promptly deporting/extraditing Indian and foreign nationals, wanted for serious crimes in India. There appears to be greater readiness in not only avoiding partisanship on issues like Pakistan sponsored terrorism, but also in welcoming India as an “Honoured Guest,” to meetings of otherwise none too India friendly forums like the OIC, deliberately overruling Pakistani objections.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are poised to expand investments in India substantially. While much noise was made about the $20 billion investments pledged when Crown Prince Salman visited Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have expressed their readiness to invest in the $44-billion Ratnagiri refinery and petrochemical project, which will substantially add to our existing annual exports of $40 billion, of petrochemical products.

The commercially wise Arabs know the difference between investing money and sharing profits in viable projects in India, on the one hand and dishing out “aid” to a perpetually bankrupt recipient, which is, forever, in the quest for doles and donations, on the other.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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Published on March 20, 2019
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