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.
Factors influencing India and West Asian relations
The fundamental drivers of India’s relation with West Asia have been trade, energy and human resources. India has had friendly relations with the West Asian countries throughout the history. India has always supported the Palestinian cause and simultaneously kept equidistance in the regional conflicts. 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.
On the part of the West Asian countries, they have realised that relying on the finite resources like oil is not secure and are now keen towards diversification and investment to reduce their dependency on oil. 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. Even though the relationship between the India and West Asia has been mutually advantageous, it lacks diversity in the agenda. 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 Kuwait. 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. India’s large diaspora in the region 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 UAE has allocated land for constructing a temple.
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. Since 2014, the Indian Prime Minister has paid visits to UAE in 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2022, Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2019, Bahrain in 2019, Oman, Jordan and Palestine in 2018 and Qatar in 2016.
Today first and the fundamental development is the growing proximity of India with the West Asian countries. As mentioned before, India has always had a good relationship with these countries but today the relations are being redefined to match the new realities. When the GCC was inaugurated, India was shunned away because Pakistan was threatening to leave the conference if India will be given a space. Today, India’s closeness to the region has resulted in them distancing from Pakistan. 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’.
These developments are not isolated of course, they should be juxtaposed with India’s relations with the US and Israel which are growing strong. 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.
Economically, 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 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 labour-intensive sectors such as textiles, gems and jewellery, leather goods and food processing. This agreement will encourage other such trade agreements for India in the region.
This new nearness also emerges from their compatible and shared concerns for regional and international security. Both nations realise that the security of the Gulf and Indian ocean go hand in hand.
Saudi Arabia, which is more or less the leader in the Gulf is also building remarkable relations with India. This growth in relations is evident in the recently conducted naval exercise called ‘Al Mohed Al Hind’ which was a first. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trips to Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2019 and reciprocated by the Saudi Crown Prince in 2019 have been significant in consolidating these bonds. Both the countries are shedding their traditional approach.
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.
Moreover, the recent developments are also the effect of the new foreign policy of India which was able to navigate across binaries of the West Asian world. The current government has been able to cultivate close relations with countries like Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and others and simultaneously has seen growth in relationship with Israel.
The Indian tradition of non-intervention and its nonpartisan behaviour in the intra-regional disputes has been a major factor in the closeness of the two entities. Moreover, the Indian Prime Minister also expanded the idea of neighbourhood by bringing in the concept of ‘neighbourhoood by sea’ which makes the countries in West Asia as India’s ‘maritime neighbours’.
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 neighbourinng 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. And lastly, both India and West Asian countries are growing interests in areas such as space exploration, artificial intelligence, cyber security, bioinformatics etc. these areas too have large possibilities of cooperation.
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.