Up until recent years, India-Middle East relations were largely driven by economic considerations. In the latter half of the 20th century, India’s political ties to the Middle East were dictated by Cold War polarity and rising hostility with Pakistan. However, India must now expand these economic relations to account for its growing strategic security interests. The energy trade, for example, adopted a strategic dimension when India realized the importance of oil in determining global and military power status. The country’s net imports from the Middle East slowly increased from the 1990s, as did Indian investment in Middle Eastern states. While Pakistan remains the traditionally predominant South Asian ally, India’s increasing strategic and economic partnership with both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia should not be overlooked.
The Middle East has many historical, economic and religious links with India, many of which extend far beyond relations with the West. Indian Emperor Ashoka had multiple ties with Ancient Egypt’s Ptolemy II, and many Arab traders and Syrian Christians settled on the Indian coast, arriving as early as 52 CE. Maritime trade between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf brought Muslims settlers to India. The influx of Islam was only further strengthened with the Mughal rule. Colonialism reinforced the similarity between the two regions, as the British Raj administered Arab states with much resemblance to their colonial rule in India. Although many Western countries believe India doesn’t have direct strategic interests in the Middle East, this disregards the significance of centuries of historical and economic connections.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognizes that Saudi Arabia is vital to Indian interests, having personally visited Saudi Arabia just eight months after his first visit to the Middle East, during which he traveled to the UAE. India’s economic stakes are clear – over 90% of India’s current imports from Saudi Arabia are oil. Saudi Arabia houses a 2.8 million-strong Indian population, with remittances from Indian workers reaching almost US $36 billion in 2015-16. While Riyadh lost market share with China and the United States, it has replaced Iraq as the principal supplier of crude oil to India. These bilateral ties were strengthened during Modi’s visit, with both countries agreeing, in a joint statement, to extend their commercial relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The joint statement between India and Saudi Arabia outlined various areas of cooperation, including education, research defense and security, private investment, cultural relations, diaspora issues and counterterrorism. Cultural and personal political ties have been formed ever since the late Saudi King Abdullah referred to India as his second home during his historic visit in 2006. Riyadh conferred the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit medal, the kingdom’s highest honor, on Modi – a symbolic gesture that is even more significant given that such an honor has not yet been bestowed on any Pakistani civilian leader.
India’s burgeoning economic relationship with the UAE is not to be disregarded either. Ever since British rule made the Indian rupee legal tender across the seven emirates in the 19th century, currency and trade have underscored the Indian relationship with the Gulf States. The UAE host 2.6 million Indians in the Emirates, with remittances totaling $8 billion – considerable numbers considering the small landmass of the country. Modi’s visit to a camp for migrant laborers indicates that concern for the Indian diaspora will be a key aspect of his foreign policy in the Middle East. The UAE rank as India’s second largest trading partner, and Modi’s visit to the country revealed intentions for a further 60% increase in trade within the next five years. The UAE have been especially supportive of an alliance with India, investing $75 billion in Modi’s ambitious infrastructure plans for India. Their participation in India’s 2016 International Fleet Review and collaboration in Indian defense manufacturing reflect a genuine attempt to build security ties. As a result, Modi established a “Strategic Security Dialogue” between the countries’ national security advisors and national security councils, which will host regular naval, Special Forces, military and aviation training.
For Middle Eastern states, India presents itself as a reliable economic partner. As surrounding nations struggle to find their bearings in the midst of a souring U.S.-Iran relationship, reaching out to dominant East Asian players may preserve the regional balance of power. Trade between Saudi Arabia and India has grown significantly through energy trade, with India becoming Saudi Arabia’s fifth trading partner and Saudi Arabia’s exports to India totaling US $20.3 billion. Indian companies have invested about US $55 billion in the UAE and India remains the UAE’s top trading partner. By 2016, over half of India’s oil and gas was imported from the Gulf states. New Delhi can also provide technical guidance on diversifying domestic economy, having expanded their tertiary sectors considerably. At the start of the 21st century, Gulf States stopped exclusively looking towards Pakistan as their primary South East Asian connection. India, with its flourishing economy, was a viable market for energy trade, foreign direct investments and joint venture agreements.
While Modi has accelerated economic trade with Middle Eastern states, he will have to simultaneously pay attention to the volatile regional geopolitics. A weak Saudi Arabia and a weak UAE, India’s top two trading partners in the Middle East, will pose an economic threat to India’s energy imports. India is the third largest consumer of energy in the world, after China and the United States, and it is unlikely it will let its stakes in energy supply be compromised. Moreover, an unstable Middle East poses a political threat to the Indian diaspora. India’s previous inability to impact Middle Eastern geopolitics and to provide security for its diaspora led to costly evacuations, including the airlift of 200,000 Indians from Kuwait during the Gulf War, the largest evacuation in history.
India’s recently–developed stake in the region is partially a response to Pakistani efforts to extend its economic relations with the Gulf States. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been especially close since the 1960s, when Saudi King Faisal endeavored to bring the newly founded Pakistani state into an Islamic orbit and the Muslim world. This political alliance has lasted until today, as Saudi Arabia gave an “unconditional loan” to the Nawaz government in 2014 to bolster its foreign exchange reserves. A strong military alliance between the two countries subsequently grew from the political affinity, with Pakistani troops stationed in the Royal Kingdom for the latter half of the Cold War and at the disposal of the Saudi king during the first Iraq war. India is naturally wary of any developments between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia launched an Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) with 41 countries in an effort to curb regional terrorism. The Pakistani government increased its participation this March, appointing a former army chief as the head of the IMA and contributing 7,000 troops to the alliance. With 70,000 troops already defending Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, Pakistan plays a major role in counterterrorism initiatives. India wants to increase security collaboration with the Gulf States to protect waterways (notably the Indian Ocean) in order to prevent any dangers to their energy trade. If Pakistan chooses to concentrate collaborative efforts in the Middle East on military cooperation, such interests may be threatened.
The UAE, on the other hand, have historically kept relations open between both India and Pakistan. The largest Indian and Pakistani populations in the Gulf States are in the UAE, and hence send back considerable remittances to their respective countries. The communities in the UAE have remained quite cordial with each other, with the Abu Dhabi International Airport celebrating both the Indian Independence Day (held on August 15th) and the Pakistani Independence Day (held on August 14th). However, this political neutrality may be changing. The death of five of Emirati diplomats and the wounding of the Emirati ambassador to Kabul during relief assistance in Kandahar, Afghanistan on January 11th – perhaps at the hands of the Taliban – left a nasty mark in Pakistan-UAE relations. It cannot be a coincidence that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was then treated very comfortably as a guest of honor during India’s Republic Day march on January 26th. Furthermore, the relative silence of the Pakistani government in confronting various Jihadi terrorist groups has been a recurrent source of irritation for the UAE, who have always declared their intolerance for Jihadi terrorism. The relative economic benefits of a stronger Indian alliance cannot be underemphasized either. The volume of trade between India and the UAE is almost tenfold the volume of trade between Pakistan and the UAE. While the UAE are the fourth largest investors in Pakistan, these investments pale in comparison to their flourishing investment relations in India.
Evidently, Gulf States will not always favor Pakistani cooperation over an Indian alliance. Saudi Arabia’s repatriation of Indian terrorist Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, who was implicated in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, signaled that Riyadh was willing to increase cooperation with India at the risk of conflicting with Pakistani interests. The UAE have similarly deported multiple terrorists of the Indian Mujahideen, who have connections with Lashkar-e-Taiba. New Delhi must take this opportunity to consolidate India’s security engagement in the Middle East by institutionalizing relevant bilateral treaties and joint ventures. Steps in this direction were taken recently when Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was involved in preparing Modi for his visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A strong India-Saudi relationship is important for the global fight against terrorism, and may tilt the debate surrounding Islamabad’s state-sponsored terrorism in New Delhi’s favor. Such an alliance would isolate Islamabad and may be enough to put pressure on Pakistan to confront these allegations.
With increasing multi-polarity in the Middle East and retreating foreign policy from the United States, other countries have shown a calculated interest in the region. China’s growing economic influence and strategic ties in the Middle East, specifically with Saudi Arabia and Iran, have prompted India to engage in a more pro-active foreign policy. Beijing sees the Middle East as a viable trade route between East Asia and Africa or Europe, and it has accordingly signed multiple security agreements with Saudi Arabia and promised diplomatic protection to Iran. Russia, as well, is trying to use its connections with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to influence pro-Western Gulf States.
However, unlike most other interested states, both India and Middle Eastern states share struggles in dealing with sectarian divisions. Instead of viewing the traditional enmity between Hindus and Muslims as grounds to avoid extending interactions with Muslim states, India has the unique opportunity to share its experiences of improving pluralism and tolerance. An example of cultural goodwill, for example, was shown when the UAE agreed to build a Hindu temple. Much of the bitterness between the West and the Middle East has largely to do with miscommunication and intolerance. On the other hand, India, a diverse country of over 1.25 billion people and over nine major religions, has been the prototype for pluralist democracy. So while the domestic debate in India doesn’t focus on the conflict between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, India’s political scenario will be much more familiar and relevant to Middle Eastern actors than any Western framework.
India cannot afford to ignore the Gulf States, continue regional foreign policy preoccupied with Pakistan or simply limit relations with the Middle East to an economic lens. Commercial interests should overrule any domestic political sensitivity about Hindu-Muslim relations and Shia-Sunni ideologies. As Saudi Arabia promotes counterterrorism measures and the UAE promote coastal defense, the Middle East has proven it can be a good political and economic regional partner for India. As traditional alliances are altered by a new inter-state status quo, it is necessary for Modi to demonstrate India’s significance in global politics.