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8.2] India’s Relations with West Asian Countries

“Diplomacy is converting friends into allies, neutrals into friends and adversaries into neutrals.”

India’s Relations with West Asian Countries

1. Introduction

The relationship between India and West Asia goes back to the times of the first civilizations when human started trading in pottery, gems and grains. The region has had spectrum of impact throughout the Indian subcontinent; on music, on language, on history and culture. Today, West Asia is an important region due to its geographical location and abundance of natural resources. Both the entities have enormous impact on each other’s economy and global position.

2. Factors influencing India and West Asian relations

2.1 Trade and Economic Relations

If West Asia can be considered as one region, India’s total trade with the region crosses $170 billion annually, far greater than India’s trade with US ($128 bn) or EU ($134 bn). Thus, trade has remained a fundamental driver of India’s relation with West Asia.

More than 50% of India’s energy imports are supplied by the Arab countries. As Indian economy has been consistently growing its need for energy resources has also been growing. This demand has been mainly fulfilled by Saudi Arabia, Iraq and UAE. This need for energy security forms the first layer of India’s engagement with West Asia which it fulfills by making allies and collaborating economically.

However, as Sanjay Bhattacharya suggests, the nature of the partnership has evolved from mere hydrocarbon ties between buyer and seller to participation in upstream and downstream projects, joint ventures in refineries, and the building of strategic oil reserves.

On the part of the West Asian countries, there is a realization that relying on the finite resources like oil is not secure and they are now keen towards diversification and investment. UAE wants to emerge as the world’s new tourist attraction and technological hub. Saudi Arabia wants to transform into an economic powerhouse. Whereas, Qatar is hoping to host world events and conferences. These countries have started massive infrastructural programs to diversify their economies and are using their massive financial reserves to invest internationally.

Today, these countries see India as the potential partner to achieve their aspirations. For these economies, India is the preferred partner for investment. Saudi Arabia which is the fourth largest trade partner of India has promised an investment of $100 billion in India in sectors like petrochemicals, infrastructure, manufacturing, mining. Even UAE has planned to invest $7 billion in food corridor in India.

The developing proximity can be viewed in the light of CEPA or Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement signed by UAE and India on 18 February 2022. It is a landmark agreement which aims to intensify bilateral trade of non-oil merchandise in next five years to $ 100 billion. It will facilitate bilateral investments in labor-intensive sectors such as textiles, gems and jewelry, leather goods and food processing. This agreement will encourage other such trade agreements for India in the region.

2.2 Indian Diaspora

India’s large diaspora in the region (around 70,00,000) gives it reason to engage socio-politically in the region. India has immense soft power which it derives from its culture, language, skills, Bollywood, food, democracy, neutrality and non-interference. It is the presence of diaspora and the play of soft power and diplomacy that Prime Minister Modi recently inaugurated Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu stone temple.

Indians make up the largest ethnic group making roughly 30 % of the population of UAE.  Indian working force contribute heavily in the West Asian economy and in turn India is benefitted by the remittance. Moreover, a large part of Indian population visits Mecca and Medina as per their religious customs.

2.3 Palestine Cause

India has always supported the Palestinian cause and simultaneously kept equidistance in the regional conflicts. However, now the Muslim world itself is divided on the cause. Earlier, India had to maintain the balancing act between the Arab world and Israel but today, because of the Abraham Accords India expects to have a smooth sail in the region.

2.4 Recent Developments

Recently, India has started paying ardent attention to the West Asian region which are evident in the frequent interactions between the highest leaders of India and the West Asian countries.

Today, these countries are readily condemning state sponsored terrorism in support of India and are also ready to understand India’s stand on Kashmir. In October 2019, when NSA Ajit Doval visited Saudi Arabia after the abrogation of Article 370., the Saudi government stated that Riyadh ‘expressed understanding of India’s approach and actions in Jammu and Kashmir’.

This new nearness also emerges from their compatible and shared concerns for regional and international security. Both nations realize that the security of the Gulf and Indian ocean go hand in hand.

Lately, the US has shifted its focus away from the region for it is no longer heavily dependent on the region for oil and is focused on tackling the Chinese emergence. This means that there is a void to be filled by some new player in the region. In this scenario, India is seen appropriate for the role of the security provider in the region.

2.5 Impediments

Saudi-Iran rivalry, which destabilizes West Asia is the major impediment in India’s relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi funding to Wahhabi Islamic groups around the world and tacit recognition of terrorism is also problematic for India. And Pakistan’s engagement with Saudi Arabia is yet another concern for India.

3. Way Forward

Today, we can see many new possibilities for cooperation between India and West Asian countries. First of all, after the Covid-19 pandemic immense scope for investments in the healthcare and the pharmaceutical industries. Higher education is another area where India can look forward to build strong relation with West Asia. India should encourage student from the region to study in India like students from India’s neighboring countries do. Moreover, India has already decided to give green signal to Indian ‘Institutions of Eminence’ like IITs and IIMs to open branches in the GCC countries.

Although India’s relations with the West Asia in the defence has started growing, there are huge possibilities for cooperation in the field of defense manufacturing. Further areas like space exploration, artificial intelligence, cyber security, bioinformatics etc. these too have large possibilities of cooperation.

4. Scholarly Perspectives

“The strategic importance of West Asia lies in its geography, its essential resources… However, West Asia suffers from the curse of centrality.” – Former Vice President Hamid Ansari

“West Asia is not a place for display of India’s power. It is a place for augmentation of India’s power.” – Prof. Girijesh Pant –

“Our policy should be based on the mature recognition of the limits of our capabilities. India’s passivity is fine in unpredictable and volatile environment. If speech is silver, silence is golden.” – Former Ambassador Ranjit Gupta

“India’s foreign policy should change in accordance to its changed status. India should be a leading power and not just a balancing power.” – S Jaishankar

“India should leave the passive approach and should raise its diplomatic profile.” – Chinmaya Gharekhan

5. Conclusion

West Asia is of utmost importance for India, both geopolitically and geoeconomically. India has started showing a realistic approach towards the region, keeping its national interest at the top. Moreover, India’s global ambition requires it to build up influence and allies in the most crucial and sensitive region on the globe. India has potential, and West Asia has capital, their relation is simply a positive sum game.

Posted in PSIR NOTES

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