Written By: Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
India, presently, is undertaking its Middle East policy very seriously due to its energy needs, internal security challenges, regional/global political and economic objectives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revamped India’s Middle Eastern approach to boost economic and military engagement with the regional leading actors and also compete with China and Pakistan for influence in the West Asia. Though the regional strategic environment is complex and volatile, yet New Delhi is shrewdly encountering the regional internal divisions and rivalries, engaging Iran, Saudi Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council, remarkably. Besides improving its bilateral relations with the leading Middle Eastern Muslim countries; India is intelligently maintaining its robust commercial and defence relations with Israel.
The critical examination of India’s Middle East policy underscores that New Delhi has successfully cultivated better diplomatic relations with all the major actors of the Middle East, especially with Israel, Iran and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the end of Cold War. In this context, the Indian diaspora (seven million expatriates) is playing a critical role. The Indian diaspora remits $33 to 35 billion back to India every year. It is also facilitating New Delhi in cultivating better relations with the Middle Eastern ruling elite and business community. Indeed, these countries are competing among themselves for their hegemony in the region, but India is intelligently maintaining close relations with all the relevant regional actors for the sake of its “Look Middle East” Policy.
India always considers Middle Eastern states important for its energy needs and for the pursuit of its political, economic, and military objectives in the regional and global politics. Nevertheless, today New Delhi’s main focus is on the Persian/Arabian Gulf states, with only minimal interest in the Maghreb and the Levant. Historically, New Delhi was very close to Cairo. The former used its amity with the latter for boosting its role within the Non-Aligned Movement. The end of Cold War and demise of former Soviet Union immensely altered the global politics. The transformation in the global setting makes India attractive for the United States and its likeminded nations. India intelligently seizes the moment for maximizing its stature in the community of nations and improving its relations with the Indian Ocean rim states. Consequently, during the last two decades, an impressive shift has taken place in India’s bilateral relations with the leading regional Middle Eastern States. Precisely, New Delhi has not only improved its image in the Middle East, but it also structured it relations with each Middle Eastern state in a bilateral and separate fashion.
New Delhi has established very close diplomatic relations and defense cooperation with Israel despite the continuity of Palestinians problem. Rhetorically, New Delhi remains an ardent supporter of Palestinian statehood. Realistically, however, India has been distancing from Palestinian cause. For instance, “India abstained both in July 2015 and in March 2016 from supporting a Palestine-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch a probe by the International Criminal Court against Israel for war crimes during the 2014 Gaza crisis”.
Ironically, the Middle Eastern states including Saudi Arab and Iran did not object the warming bilateral relations between Israel and India. New Delhi and Tel Aviv maintained informal relations for many decades. Nevertheless, both announced formal diplomatic relations in 1992. Prior to the 1990s, New Delhi was keeping clandestine contacts with Tel Aviv for refining its missile program and hatching conspiracies to sabotage Pakistan’s nuclear program. The review of literature proves that the weaknesses in India’s indigenous missile program obliges it to approach Israel with the connivance of the United States to overcome the technological obstacles. For instance, the leading Indian missile scientist, Dr. Abdul Kalam (latter became President of India) visited Israel in June 1996 and in the early months of 1997. He visited Israel to receive its assistance in the development of the Indian missile program, especially Agni project. He had shown interest in Israel’s developments in the surface-to-surface missile and theater missile defence systems (Arrow) technology and components.
The Indo-Israel Defence Partnership has constructive contribution in India’s armed forces modernization. Since 2006, Indian Defence Research and Development Organization and Israel’s Aerospace Industries have been working closely. The latter transferred sophisticated technology and equipments to India. On February 22, 2017, India’s Cabinet Committee of Security, a government body headed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and responsible for military procurements, approved 17,000-crore ($ 2.5 billion) a medium range surface-to-air missile (MR-SAM) system for the Indian Army. The missile has a range of 50-70 km. The missile is designed to defend against any type of airborne threat including aircraft, helicopters, anti-ship missiles, and UAVs as well as cruise missiles and combat jets within the range of 50-70 km.
India, recently, finalized $2.5 billion dollars deal for MR-SAM with Israel. Five regiments of the Indian Army would be beneficiary of this new Indo-Israel missile contract. The deal is for 200 missiles for five regiments, each getting 40 units. It was reported that: “The system will be based on the older Barak system of Israel, which is in use in India. It is being changed as per requirements.” In March 2017, New Delhi initiated negotiations with Tel Aviv for purchasing two more long-range Phalcon Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS). In addition, New Delhi would also purchase high-tech military equipments from Israel. These developments manifest that Indo-Israel defence cooperation is supplementing Indian military buildup and modernization.
New Delhi has established very close diplomatic relations and defense cooperation with Israel despite the continuity of Palestinian problem. Rhetorically, New Delhi remains an ardent supporter of Palestinian statehood. Realistically, however, India has been distancing from Palestinian cause. For instance, “India abstained both in July 2015 and in March 2016 from supporting a Palestine-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch a probe by the International Criminal Court against Israel for war crimes during the 2014 Gaza crisis”.
Since early 1990s, India has fostered strong strategic partnership with Iran. The strategic partnership was further cemented in the beginning of twenty-first century. Though Bush Administration declared Iran as a member of ‘axis of evil’, yet India augmented its defence cooperation with Iran. India and Iran formally entered into a bilateral defence pact in November 2003. Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) assisted practically Iranian nuclear establishment. On September 23, 2004, the Bush Administration under the authority of the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act sanctioned two Indian scientists for their activities in Iran. Dr. R. C. Surendar and Dr. Y. S. R. Prasad, both former directors of the Nuclear Power Corporation India. (The Washington Times, Thursday, October 21, 2004). On December 21, 2005, the administration sanctioned Sabero Organic Chemicals Gujarat Ltd., etc. again under the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act, for transfers of certain chemicals to Iran.
The Indo-Iran defence agreement was revitalized in 2009. It’s an open secret; Iran has been facilitating India in the materialization of its sea, road and railway connection with Central Asian States through Afghanistan. For instance, in 2014 India invested more than 85 million US dollars at Chabahar Port. India managed to engage Afghanistan through Iran. India and Iran’s strategic convergence on Afghanistan received a boost with the establishment of the Trilateral Transport and Transit Corridor on 23 May 2016. The trilateral transport and transit corridor, certainly, reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan. Simultaneously, it increases India’s access to Afghanistan. Ironically, Iran severely condemns Israel, but it has been nurturing better relations with New Delhi. Similarly, India has been maintaining close relations with Iran despite the United States serious reservations on the Iranian political system and its nuclear program.
India has gradually been improving its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In February 2014, the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al Saud visited New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first two Middle East visits were to Abu Dhabi in August 2015 and Riyadh in April 2016. His visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates resulted in stronger diplomatic, economic and defence engagements. According to the India–Saudi Arabia Joint Statement issued on April 3, 2016, both states cooperate to “dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states.” Though, details of New Delhi’s strategic understanding with Riyadh remain largely unknown, yet in the realm of counterterrorism Riyadh has been cooperating with New Delhi. For instance, Saudis deported Indian terrorist Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jundal in 2012.
The United Arab Emirates is also strengthening its ties with India. The Indian diaspora was permitted to build a temple in Dubai, during the visit of Premier Modi in 2015. Moreover, immediately after Modi’s visit, the UAE seized the Dawood Ibrahim’s possessions, and deported Afsha Jabeen to India. Sheikh Moahmmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, was invited by Premier Modi as the Chief Guest at the 2017 Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. Presence of the Crown Prince at the parade ground substantiates both states deepening bilateral relations. Importantly, India and Qatar bilateral relations impressively improved during the last decade. In 2008, New Delhi committed “to protect Qatar’s assets and interests from external threats”. Similarly, Bahrain and India signed memorandum of understanding for defence cooperation.
The preceding discussion reveals that the ruling elite of the Middle Eastern states seems more interested in economic and military cooperation with India. They are deliberately ignoring the growing dominance of Hindutva forces in the Indian politics under the leadership of Premier Modi. Importantly, the Hindutva ideology portrays Islamic religion and civilization as intolerant, hostile to Hindu values, proselytizing, expansionist, repressive, and violent and therefore condemns it strongly. The right wing Hindu nationalists have not given up their dream of regaining the lost territories (the sacred lands of Hinduism and Buddhism lost to Islam during the second millennium, as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council, puts it) and restoring the Hindu supremacy over the entire Akhand Bharat (undivided India). Moreover, today, the Indian Muslims' condition is miserable. On April 25, 2017, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) led government announced an end to holidays for Eid Milad-un-Nabi, Jumma-tul-Wida. Precisely, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been using the Hindutva slogan to exploit the anti-Muslim feelings for mustering the support of the Hindu vote for winning the elections.
To conclude, the positive trajectory in the Indian economic growth, military advancement and New Delhi’s multidimensional relations with the United States have enhanced India’s significance in the Middle Eastern nations' foreign policy. Rich Middle Eastern nations ruling elite view India a possible venue for their investment. While, India is endeavoring to use its current advantageous position in the region to dilute Pakistan’s influence in the Middle East. Therefore, it’s imperative that Islamabad ought to revamp its policy to enhance its economic and diplomatic connectivity with the Middle Eastern states.
The writer is Associate Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.