India and the UAE-Israel Rapprochement

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed
Credit: Prime Minister's Office, Government of India / GODL-India

How would you react when two of your best friends in the region comes to an agreement after years of discontent?  According to the deal, the United Arab Emirates will formally recognize the state of Israel. In return Israel would halt its plan to annex portions of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. When the news of the Abraham Accord broke out on Aug. 13, New Delhi was one of the national capitals which warmly welcomed the deal. The official reaction from India’s Ministry of External Affairs was: India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalisation of ties between UAE and Israel. Both nations are key strategic partners of India.”

In fact soon after the agreement UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan had called India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar and had briefed him about the new ties. 

For India, both UAE and Israel are strategic partners with which it had developed robust diplomatic ties especially since the advent of the Modi government in 2014. Israel is one of India’s biggest defense partners and UAE is the third largest trading partner of India after the United Sates and China. It is also one of the largest source of India’s energy and home to India’s largest diaspora in the region. The Gulf region is extremely important for India in terms of energy security, trade, maritime security, food security, sea lines of communication and the existence of a huge Indian diaspora. Therefore, any volatility in the region can have both positive and negative implications back home. For a long time, India found itself in a dilemma with regard to its Middle East policy where by it was caught between the Arabs and Israel which was mostly a zero-sum game for a longtime until the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.

UAE

In 2015, UAE became the first country in the Middle East where Modi visited ever since he became prime minister in 2014.  India sees UAE not only as an economic power but also as a significant player in politics and security in the Middle Eastern region. During the Cold War, relations between India and the UAE were mostly subjected to trade and expatriate labor and no Indian Prime Minister had visited the Emirati federation since Indra Gandhi’s visit in 1984. India’s leaning towards the socialist and secular regimes in the Middle East that sided with the Soviet Union, and Arab Gulf monarchies strategic and military ties with the United States and Pakistan put both the nations on the opposite orbits. This was evident in GCC’s consistent support of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.  However, after the end of the Cold War and with a change in relations with the United States, things were more favorable to India.  By the mid-2000s India’s economic relations with UAE grew stronger together with the remittance of Indian expatriates in the UAE. Since the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, he strengthened the existing ties between two countries and explored new avenues of cooperation which resulted in the comprehensive strategic partnership signed in August 2015 and increased cooperation in security and defense related aspects such as counter terrorism, maritime security and cyber security. The reciprocal visit by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) to India in 2016 and 2017 strengthened the bilateral security partnership. In fact MBZ became the first non-head of the state to be the guest of honor in the Indian republic day function of 2017. The UAE invited India to participate in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting in Abu Dhabi as a guest of honor in 2019 and conferred the ‘Order of Zayed’ UAE’s highest civilian award on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The UAE also pledged Rs 700 Crore in the wake of the devastating floods that rocked the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala in 2018. Today India’s relations with UAE rests on four pillars – trade and commerce, energy security, security and defense and welfare of its expat community. Indians are the largest expatriate community in UAE today estimating to be 3.31 million

Israel

India’s position on Palestine was clear since the days of Mahatma Gandhi when he made his famous statement in 1938 “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French”.  India was one of the nations which opposed the creation of a Jewish national home by partitioning Palestine. Though India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recognized Israel on September 17th 1950, diplomatic relations were established only after four decades. During these period India’s political wave was highly sympathetic to the Arabs and especially to the Palestinians. A host of factors were responsible for these actions. The domestic concerns of the Indian Muslims by way of antipathy towards Israel, India’s desire to garner the support of Arab states on the issue of Kashmir vis a vis Pakistan, huge economic, energy stakes together with the presence of a huge diaspora shielded India’s pro-Arab policy together with the non-cooperation with Israel until 1992.

India’s traditional position on Palestine was that  “India supports a negotiated resolution, resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders side by side and at peace with Israel…”

Change of mind in 1992

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the creation of a U.S.-led world order India’s foreign policy began to be more pragmatic. With the break up of the Soviet Union which was until then India’s major defense partner, India had to look for more diversification of its defense markets. In fact the Arab states were making positive overtures towards Israel by way of the peace negotiations through the Madrid Conference of 1991. The change of mind was also because of the Arab world’s consistent support of Pakistan and an increasing number of  critical resolutions by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemning India on its affairs in the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Jewish lobby in the United Sates too played an important role in opening up of India’s diplomatic ties with Israel.

In the words of former Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, “What have the Arabs given us, if I may ask? Did they vote for us in the Kashmir issue? Were they supportive of us when we had the East Pakistan crisis (1971)?”

By supporting the Palestinian cause, India expected the support from the Arab and the Muslim world or at least absence of criticism. But Tel Aviv consistently supported India’s claim on Kashmir and covertly supplied New Delhi with small arms and ammunitions during India’s war with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 at the time when there were no diplomatic relations between the two.

Iran and the U.S., Israel, GCC triangle

One of the common concerns that unites the United States, Israel and the GCC is the common threat perception over Iran. The UAE has territorial disputes over three islands with Iran and has downgraded its diplomatic ties with the Shia Republic since 2016. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see Iran as a destabilizing force in the region. In May 2018, President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and European Union. In fact Tehran had called the recent deal “as an act of strategic stupidity and stab in the back” to Muslims. It is perceived that a common threat from the Shia Iran provided the Sunni Arab kingdoms to move closer to Israel. India will not have to think much about the choice that it needs to make between Iran and the U.S.-Israel and GCC Triangle. Although Iran was once the second largest oil supplier to India at one point of time; earning the wrath of the GCC, Israel and the United States today will be too costly for India whose stakes are too diversified with all three of them.

What India gains?

Although India’s relationship with the Arabs was not a problem to Israel, but India getting too closer to Israel may annoy some of India’s traditional Arab friends and also earn domestic criticism due to the formers annexation policies and human rights record in the West Bank and Gaza. For a section of the Indian population especially the Muslim minorities dealing with Palestine is always a sensational issue close to their heart. The left and secular parties in India have always capitalized on these minority sentiments thus keeping all the ruling coalitions in New Delhi to keep bare minimum relations with Israel except the right-wing BJP-led NDA. The UAE is the third Arab nation to open diplomatic relations with Israel after Egypt and Jordan. But unlike Egypt and Jordan, India’s ties with UAE is more vibrant, making it a powerful strategic, defense, economic and energy player and hosting the largest Indian diasporic community in the region. Therefore the natural question comes, if a powerful regional player like UAE can engage with Israel by keeping  aside the concern of the Palestinians, then what is preventing India to have deeper cooperation with Israel? 

According to the Ministry of External Affairs India’s total expatriate population in the GCC nations constitute to be 8.5 million.  The Indian public will be more aware, and its expatriate population are more exposed to the Gulf nations unlike Egypt or Jordan. Therefore in case of any change in mind by a GCC nation such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman which may follow the UAE way in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, will give more legitimacy and leverage for India to engage with the Jewish state irrespective of who rules New Delhi in the years to come putting aside all international and domestic criticism on fostering ties with Israel. Moreover, it will also pave way for the greater cooperation of Indian federal states with Israel. Presently various Indian states such as Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Punjab are in the forefront of cooperation with Israel especially in areas such as agriculture, irrigation and horticulture and water management.

While GCC is India’s strongest economic and energy partner amounting to $120 billion, Israel is one of India’s largest defense partner, and the United States with which its strategic partnership is growing at a faster rate will undoubtedly help India to play a greater role in the global affairs. At this moment when the relations with China is at one of the lowest points, the relations with the United States and its Gulf allies will be very much important to India.

Ashok Alex Luke is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a researcher in International Relations at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.