When the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) was formally announced during the G20 Summit that India hosted in September 2023, the sense of excitement among all partner countries was palpable.

While it caters to the strategic interests of India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other partners that actively sought supply chain alternatives to counter China’s growing influence, the enticement to IMEC is grounded by the recent geopolitical shifts in the Middle East.

Back channel talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia facilitated by the US, were being dubbed as the new chapter in the geopolitics of the Arab world.

However, the troubled Israel-Saudi relations worsened after Israel’s retaliatory attack against Hamas’s October 7 offensive last year.

Connectivity boost

But given that IMEC proposed connecting Al-Haditha in Saudi Arabia to the coastal city of Haifa in Israel, there were hints of the agreement heading in the right direction.

However, a recent statement from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry signalled that the country will not establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv unless a two-state solution is achieved. This has hit the US plans to alter the Middle East’s status quo, while also creating a roadblock for IMEC. The strained Saudi-Israeli relations has also hit New Delhi’s strategic interests.

However, India is also in a position to leverage its ties with Gulf countries. Under the Modi government, ties with Saudi Arabia have reached new heights.

From the establishment of the India-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council in 2019 to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bilateral engagements with PM Modi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, the bilateral relations have blossomed of late.

As both Saudi Arabia and UAE are diversifying their economies from oil, New Delhi is crucial for the geoeconomic interests of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, ensuring the smooth establishment of the Middle East component of the IMEC that relies on the trilateral cooperation of these three countries.

Abraham accords

Under the Abraham Accords, the US brokered an agreement, which has helped India increase its trilateral cooperation between its two oldest partners –– Israel and UAE.

Ever since the agreement was brokered between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, two significant breakthroughs helped India — the I2U2 grouping of Israel, India, UAE and the US, and the flurry of agreements that followed, leading to improved trilateral trade initiatives.

The establishment of the I2U2 included a $2 billion investment and technological assistance for agricultural initiatives in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Additionally, support by I2U2 partners is also being provided for a hybrid renewable energy project in Gujarat. Beyond the I2U2, the improvement of Israel-UAE relations helped kickstart the India-Middle East Food Corridor, a resilient food supply chain that ensures food security.

Several analysts have hinted at Saudi Arabia trying for a civil nuclear deal that has been in the works with the US since 2012. This presents India with an opportunity to assist Saudi Arabia in achieving one of its core strategic objectives by leveraging its experience in negotiating the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2006. This could pave the way for establishing a mutually beneficial quid pro quo arrangement with New Delhi seeking Riyadh’s relaxation of its stance on Israel, thereby facilitating the realisation of the IMEC.

The alignment of India’s interests with those of Saudi Arabia presents a pivotal opportunity to fully realise the potential of IMEC, effectively bridging the divide between geopolitical ambitions and economic imperatives. The present moment demands decisive action on India’s part, emphasising its ‘Look West’ policy, with Saudi Arabia emerging as a key partner in this endeavour.

While India has traditionally maintained a cautious approach towards the Arab world, the time has come for New Delhi to leverage its diplomatic heft to advance its strategic interests, which hinge upon the successful implementation of IMEC.

Hazra is a consultant with Ministry of External Affairs and Kanuparthi is Senior Manager, Policy at Aakhya India. Views are personal