Swallowing considerations of national pride after inheriting a bankrupt economy with collapsing exchange reserves that forced India to mortgage its gold in 1991, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao undertook a policy of economic liberalisation. These measures not only radically changed the contours of domestic economic policies, but also led to closer economic integration with our economically vibrant eastern neighbours. Quite logically, this new dimension in our foreign policy was labelled ‘Look East’.

In our western neighbourhood, it was ‘business as usual’. The only significant change was our long overdue establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Smart moves

India is now, a quarter-century later, seizing the opportunities provided by the geopolitical changes that followed the worldwide discoveries of shale oil and gas. Till barely five years ago, the OPEC cartel of oil-producing countries virtually held us hostage to their whims and fancies because of their ability to raise oil prices at will. The discovery of huge resources of shale oil and gas, particularly in North and South America, Australia and even in parts of West Asia, has sent global oil prices crashing. It has also given new leverage to large consumers such as Japan, China and India to get the oil-producing countries in our immediate western neighbourhood to deal, on more mutually beneficial terms, with large neighbouring oil and gas-consuming countries.

We have risen to the occasion to actively engage oil-rich neighbours to our west, where over six million Indians reside and remit over $50 billion annually. We can also be proud that we have dexterously avoided being drawn into sectarian Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian and other rivalries in the region. Prime Minster Narendra Modi has skilfully established an Indian strategic profile with key players in the region by his visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, while seeking to forge an energy and connectivity partnership with Iran, based on shared interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Following the American-led military interventions in Iraq and Libya and the suffering inflicted on the hapless people of Syria by meddling from external powers such as the US and Russia and regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, millions of Syrians have fled their homes. This is a region where national borders drawn at the end of World War 1 are susceptible to being redrawn.

India has avoided getting drawn into these rivalries, from which will emerge no real winners, while people suffer in countries like Yemen. The Trump Administration’s first military operation in Yemen, undertaken a few days after he assumed office, was a fiasco. Pakistan has undermined relations with traditional friends Saudi Arabia and the UAE by making promises of military assistance and then backing off in Yemen. China has, however, played its cards well by keeping out of sectarian rivalries, while securing investment opportunities.

Binding ties

This year began with India hosting the ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. Modi had earlier visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. FDI from the UAE, which is India’s tenth biggest foreign investor, has been increasing.

Collectively, the Gulf Arab countries constitute our largest trading partner, accounting for 15 per cent of our global trade. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are individually our third and fourth largest global trading partners. A country with which we need to cultivate closer ties is Iraq, whose oil exports to India are rapidly expanding, like the Iranian exports after the end of UN sanctions. Iraq, with its immense oil production potential, can also become a good investment partner in the energy sector. We need to look at possibilities of linking oil purchases to investment in Iraq. Naval cooperation is also increasing with the Gulf Arab countries, where proximity gives us some advantages over China. Our naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba has scheduled visits to the UAE and Oman

We cannot, however, be sanguine about these developments, as we are still perceived as a country that takes interminably long to finalise investment decisions. Iran has always been a difficult partner, when it comes to issues of investment. While we now use the western Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for the transit of our goods to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia, we appear to be facing delays in finalising the terms of participation in the construction of the Chabahar port. This project, given Pakistan’s disinclination to give us transit facilities and its propensity to squeeze Afghanistan by delaying transit of its goods, is crucial for Afghanistan and India. It needs careful follow-up and monitoring at the ministerial level, to remove bottlenecks.

Good connections

The tie-up with the Arab monarchies will be reinforced during the proposed visit of the Jordanian king to India. Given our wise decision to delink relations with Israel and the Palestinians, Jordan could serve as a good connecting point for visits of Indians to meet leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the monarchy in Jordan has continuously maintained a good personal rapport with Indian leaders. We also have a moral obligation to stand by our principled position of supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue which, while guaranteeing Israel’s security, also leads to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

India has come along way from the 1970s when Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off oil supplies if we did not close down the Israeli consulate in Mumbai. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rejected the demand, despite our foreign exchange reserves being precariously low. It is heartening that Modi wull undertake a standalone visit to Israel. It is shocking how our defence and other ties with Israel were undermined in the recent past by some senior ministers seeking to keep a distance from their Israeli counterparts because of narrow, partisan, domestic political considerations. Israel has been a reliable friend and has stood by us in times of conflict, including during the Kargil war. There is no need for us to be apologetic about our relations with the Jewish state, especially at a time when many of our Arab partners are finding Israel a useful ally, amidst the sectarian and civilisational rivalries and tensions prevalent in the Islamic world.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan