Recalibration in the Middle East: Where Does India Stand?

The Middle East has been going through major recalibrations in the past few months. These recalibrations have been both intra-regional and extra-regional. Internally there has been a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the Gulf States and Syria and between the UAE and Qatar. External recalibrations pertain to China’s growing clout and the United States’ apparent waning influence in the Middle East. China’s profile in the region has significantly risen when it brokered the peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March this year. 

Even as these realignments have been taking shape, for its part, India has continued with its consistent outreach to the region. 

With a packed schedule of diplomatic outreach to the Middle East early this month, India has further intensified its already strong engagements with the region. From May 1-3, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan visited Saudi Arabia. Muraleedharan’s visit came close on the heels of his visit to Jeddah from where he coordinated Operation Kaveri carried out by the Indian military to rescue the Indian citizens stranded in Sudan. Saudi Arabia’s role was most important in this rescue mission as it provided the base for the Indian Navy and Air Force to carry out this operation.

Parallel to Muraleedharan’s visit to Saudi Arabia, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval travelled to Iran on May 1. 

Later on May 7, the national security advisers of India, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the UAE met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This meeting focused on developing a joint infrastructure that would connect the Gulf and Arab countries with railway links and then extend this connectivity to India through shipping lanes. Connecting the Middle East with South Asia would give a major boost to the economic ties between India and the Middle Eastern countries. This project would also expand India’s infrastructure cooperation to the Middle East. Earlier India was involved in railway project in Sri Lanka and Metro project in Mauritius.

India’s growing footprint in the Middle East has been simultaneous to the region’s internal and external recalibrations. The impact of these developments in shaping India’s engagements with the region needs to be considered.   

Intra-regional Recalibrations

For decades, India interacted with the Middle East while being mindful of the sensitivities and faultlines of the region implying that while maintaining close ties with the Arab countries, India resisted establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Following the Oslo Accords, India established ties with Israel but continued balancing its relations with the Arab countries and Israel. 

After the Abraham Accords, India has been able to navigate more freely and effectively in the region. With a number of Arab countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, balancing was no more a factor for India at least between the Arab countries and Israel. This realignment also allowed India to participate in the I2U2 initiative along with the US, Israel and the UAE. The Abraham Accords have facilitated India to diversify its engagements with the Middle East. India, which otherwise interacted with the region mostly on a bilateral basis, is now able to participate in minilateral arrangements. Along with the I2U2, the recent meeting between India, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UAE is another addition to the minilateral initiatives. It also highlights India’s importance to the Middle East as the region also seeks to expand its foreign engagements. 

The Middle East has also been subject to rivalries between the Arab countries and Iran and Iran and Israel. However, these internal faultlines did not have much impact on India’s engagements as India was able to maintain cordial relations with all the three entities. 

Extra-regional Recalibrations

Along with the intra-regional developments, the reset in the Middle East is also going on at extra-regional level. The US is no longer the only dominant extra-regional power in the Middle East. China has been steadily expanding its economic footprint across the Middle East and posing a challenge to the US’ influence in the region.

While the extra-regional factor had minimal impact on India’s ties with the Arab countries and Israel, it has conditioned India’s ties with Iran on several occasions. The rivalry between the Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, had not affected India’s close ties with both. Even at the peak of their rivalry, Saudi Arabia and Iran were among the top suppliers of crude oil to India. 

However, India’s relations with the US have always cast a shadow on the India-Iran relations. India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) twice, in 2005 and 2009 over the nuclear issue. This was the period when India was negotiating its own nuclear deal with the US. Further, the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 made it difficult for India and Iran to continue with the energy trade. India stopped oil purchases from Iran in May 2019 to comply with the sanctions imposed by the US. 

Iran is strategically important country for India. India is a stakeholder in Iran as the former is developing projects like the Chabahar Port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, barring the connectivity projects there are little engagements between India and Iran. Iran does not have the economic heft of the Arab countries to invest in India. Neither does Iran host the Indian Diaspora the way Arab countries do. India has well-rounded relations with the Arab countries but not with Iran. 

So while the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would alter the internal dynamics of the Middle East, this development would hardly impact India’s engagements with Iran. But the US’ attempts to realign its apparent losing influence in the region could have a bearing on India’s engagements. The latest connectivity initiative between India, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UAE is perceived as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The construct of the Indo-Pacific and the China factor has increased India’s proximity to the US. But the China factor is unlikely to alter India’s ties with the Arab countries. The Arab countries have been balancing their ties with the US and China. Similarly these countries have diversified relations with India. However Iran, owing to conflict with the US and other Western countries, is consolidating its engagements with China. 

From this perspective the Middle East has become a subset of the US-China rivalry. Though India has maintained cordial relations with the US and Iran, China’s growing footprint could cause India to limit its engagements with Iran. 

India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific Region extends from the western shores of the US to the eastern shores of Africa. It also includes the Middle East. India’s engagements with the Middle East as a part of the Indo-Pacific Region include countering China. This approach would affect the India-Iran relations due to growing friction between Iran and the Western countries. 

India is a stakeholder in the Middle East. But India is also an important power in the Indo-Pacific Region, particularly the Indian Ocean Region. The contestation in this strategic space would shape India’s approach to the Middle East.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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