India’s well-timed ‘Look West’ policy

Successful campaign To win friends and influence people, including Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu   -  PTI

It has deftly reached out to both Israel and the Arab bloc, at a time when OPEC is struggling with low prices and sectarian strife

Scanning global media reports ranging from the Wall Street Journal to broadcasts by Qatar’s Al Jazeera Network, one has been amazed to see the extent of coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel. Some reports carried details of how domestic considerations had an important role in determining India’s policies towards Israel.

It was also noted how despite India’s support for Arab causes, Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off oil supplies to India unless New Delhi closed down the Israeli consulate in Mumbai — a demand rejected outright by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Though Israel’s prime minister and president visited India in the early years after diplomatic relations were established in 1991, Indian leaders fought shy of reciprocating, till recently. While leaders such as APJ Abdul Kalam attached the highest importance to personally promoting defence contacts with Israel, there were unfortunately also cases of defence exchanges being avoided because of domestic political considerations.

No objections

There were virtually no protests or objections by Arab countries to Modi’s visit to Israel. Iran alone voiced reservations. While there were understandably some carefully worded expressions of concern by the Palestinian Authority, New Delhi had covered its flanks carefully, having invited Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas to Delhi a month earlier. India should, however, ensure that while de-hyphenating relations with Israel and the Palestinians, like most European Union countries have done, it remains strongly committed to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, living at peace with Israel.

India has vital stakes in its western neighbourhood, extending from Afghanistan to Turkey across the oil rich Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. This is the region from where we get more than two-thirds of our oil and gas supplies. Virtually the entire region is afflicted by sectarian Shia-Sunni tensions and civilisational Arab-Turkic-Persian rivalries.

More recently, monarchical rivalries between the states of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council have become a source of concern. This region, even more than our eastern neighbourhood, where PV Narasimha Rao fashioned an imaginative ‘Look East’ policy based primarily on regional economic integration, is crucial for stability and economic growth in India.

It is from our western neighbourhood that we get around 65 per cent of our oil and more than 80 per cent of our gas supplies. Seven million Indians live in these Arab Gulf monarchies — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman — which are all members of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council.

Imaginative approach

Just as Narasimha Rao receives primary credit for the crafting of India’s ‘Look East’ policies, Modi has adopted a realistic ‘Look West’ policy. Imaginative diplomacy, including meaningful summit meetings in the last three years, have led to India attaining a unique position in the world, of having good and growing relations with all major nearby regional powers — Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, Egypt and Israel.

What has given India added flexibility in its approach is the discovery of vast amounts of shale oil and gas across the world and most notably in the US and Canada. Several countries, notably Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are also set to add to these growing shale energy hubs. India also has prospects for shale gas development.

The countries which are most adversely affected by this surfeit of energy, with production costs around $ 30-40 a barrel, are the members of OPEC, especially Iran and its Arab neighbours. They literally held the world to ransom pushing oil prices to over $110 a barrel in 2013.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, who earlier virtually blackmailed India with rising oil prices, will find that deprived of traditional markets in the US, Europe, West Africa and Latin America, their future markets will primarily be major Asian economies like China, Japan, India and South Korea.

There will inevitably be two major challenges on issues of energy security in the years ahead. Can major Asian economies, which yearn for an end to tensions in the Islamic world, fashion policies to ensure security of energy supplies? More importantly, the sectarian and civilisational rivalries and tensions in the Islamic world have now been accentuated by monarchical rivalries in Arab Gulf Cooperation Council. Moreover, for the first time, there’s a question mark on the continuation of traditional unity within the Saudi royals.

The trouble in Saudi Arabia

The emergence of the young and strongly opinionated Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince has led to the oil-rich but cash-strapped Saudi Arabia getting bogged down in a brutal civil war in Yemen, where thousands of people have perished and millions are homeless. Salman opened another front by joining Crown Prince Mohammed bin A Zayed of the UAE to form a coalition including Shia-dominated but Sunni-ruled Bahrain and Egypt, to impose sanctions on the gas-rich, neighbouring kingdom of Qatar, ruled by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad.

Qatar is the dominant supplier of gas for Asian countries. It is also the base for 10,000 American military personnel. The Saudi-UAE coalition targeting Qatar made 13 humiliating demands, including curbing of its relations with Iran, with whom Qatar shares the largest gas field in the world. The coalition also demanded ending of Qatar’s ties with groups like Hamas and the Hezbollah, apart from closure of the Qatar-run Al Jazeera Television Network. These demands were accompanied by punitive measures such as bans on travel and transit.

Not surprisingly, Qatar rejected the humiliating conditions, but accepted a Kuwaiti offer of mediation.

After an ill-advised statement by President Donald Trump supporting the Saudi action, the US realised that the rift between the Gulf monarchies would seriously compromise its security interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has urged Qatar to agree to address mutual concerns on terrorism. This could lead to a face-saving way out of the present impasse and overcoming the economic blockade.

But, the role that Turkey and Iran adopt could prolong political uncertainty in India’s western neighbourhood. There are signs that the role of the young crown prince in Saudi Arabia could well shake the roots of the Saudi monarchy and the foundations of stability across the Arab Gulf states.

There are reports indicating Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman may be challenged by former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who could rally traditionalists, despite evident American support for Salman. We could see more uncertainty in the otherwise united and secretive structure of the land of Islam’s holiest shrines, in the months ahead.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on July 26, 2017

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