West Asia is a part of India’s extended neighborhood. Our engagement with West Asian countries dates back to Indus Valley and Dilmun civilizations (modern Bahrain). There is hardly any region in the world with which we have better, warmer, and more cordial relations than the Arab World.
Geographies of the region have played a significant role in their bilateral relationship. Traders, scholars, and diplomats would often traverse the sea and land routes linking India to West Asia and the Arab peninsula. Transferring merchandise, knowledge, and culture in the process. Even today, much of India’s external trade passes along the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and the Suez Canal.
53% of India’s oil imports and 41% of gas imports come from the Arab region. And 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.
Apart from energy security, the other areas of our engagement with West Asia include food security, human resource exchanges, connectivity, and diversification of trade.
Although started on a high note, Saudi Arabia’s support to Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir and during the 1971 Indo-Pak war were major impediments in their bilateral relations.
However, since the 1990’s, realizing each other’s importance, both countries have taken steps to improve ties. The historic visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 and the Delhi Declaration marked the new beginning of their ties. The Riyadh Declaration signed during PM Manmohan Singh’s visit in 2010 raised the level of bilateral engagement to a ‘Strategic Partnership’.
Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trading partner and a major economic partner in terms of energy security. The country supplies about 18% of India’s crude oil and 30% of the LPG requirement. The country has been working on diversifying its largely oil-based economy to manufacturing, technology, and tourism. There has also been a strong support to bringing about several cultural as well as business reforms, and India can play an important role in the process.
UAE occupies a key place in India’s West Asia Policy. India-UAE bilateral relations have received impetus from time to time with the exchange of high-level visits. They have been trading partners since the beginning of the early 1950s. India is also the largest trading partner of UAE. India’s exports to UAE are well diversified with a large basket. UAE is also the 9th biggest investor in India.
Indians make up the largest ethnic group making roughly 30 % of the population of UAE. This is another significant factor that has contributed to the strengthening of bilateral ties.
The biggest achievement of the relations can be said to be the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ signed in 2017.
PRESENT STATUS OF RELATIONS
Since the past few years, India has grown closer to the Arab Countries. Oil and trade remittances from the Indian diaspora from these two countries have formed the basis of Indian engagement in the Arab World. And as C Raja Mohan comments, Under PM Modi, the engagement with the Arab Gulf has become deeper.
The last 7 years have also coincided with a significant deterioration of Pakistan’s relations with the region, especially with Saudi Arabia and UAE. And UAE has also stopped issuing visas to Pakistanis because of security reasons.
Prime Minister Modi in an interview referred to UAE as a “valuable partner” and remarked that the UAE-INDIA relations are “at their best ever”. UAE’s investments in key sectors in India are growing. And the Prime Minister’s visit to UAE has also resulted in the Indian consortium gaining a stake in Abu Dhabi’s massive oil reserves for the first time.
Harsh V Pant in his article “The Reality behind India-Saudi Arabia’s Growing Ties” has analyzed the shifting approach of India’s Foreign Policy towards Arab Countries. Since, 2014 India has pushed an aggressive strategy of partnering with key regional powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel in a bid to attract investments and forge deeper security partnerships.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, India and Arab cooperated on the repatriation of stranded citizens, in both directions. Vande Bharat Mission, the largest repatriation exercise, was successful because of this cooperation. Further, India also emerged as the first provider of humanitarian assistance to the Arab World during the crisis.
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.
India-Arab relations are based on strong political ties and a deepening understanding. Our economic relations have to be stepped up to a higher level to match the strategic partnership and strong momentum in the bilateral understanding at the political level. Arab countries and Indian businesses can both benefit by participation in economic growth and development.
Both Saudi and India are undergoing unprecedented transformation internally, thereby creating myriad opportunities for their counterparts. The strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and India is witnessing new dawn, well illuminated in the light of cooperation during the pandemic.
The ties between India and UAE are on an upswing in the last few years. India has also invited investments from the UAE in key sectors of the Indian economy such as infrastructure including logistics, food parks, highways, ports, airports, renewable energy, and defense.
The gulf is gradually pulling away from Pakistan and coming closer to India. India has a multi-faceted relationship with the Arab World. due to its sinking economy, Pakistan is more of a liability for the Arab countries. India has had historical ties with the Arab World and they have been defined by trust. Moreover, India also has the world’s second-largest Muslim population defining religious ties.
There is a huge potential in the growing Arab economies while many Arab countries have FTAs with the EU and the USA. Aatmanirbhar Bharat provides a vision of India’s plan to become a $5 trillion economy by promoting Make In India- Make for the world through integration with the global economy. With both engaged in reforms and transformational changes in the economy, the strong political understanding and goodwill between the people provide the tremendous potential to take economic engagement at a higher level.