Navigating the Middle East

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Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
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Developments pertaining to the region and diplomatic challenges for India to walk a veritable tight rope
Ajay Singh
Thursday, April 5, 2018

The past two months has seen a vigorous push of India’s ‘Look West’ policy, especially towards the Middle East. It saw the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, to be followed immediately thereafter by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Palestine, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The ink on the numerous agreements signed during these visits had barely dried when two other leaders, the Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani and Prince Abdullah of Jordan came calling. The engagement of virtually all major Middle East powers shows the growing importance of the region to India’s foreign policy. It also shows the growing importance of India to the Middle East.

For too long India’s Middle East policy was shaped by ‘What will they think?’ especially in our relations with Israel. Now, fortunately it is based on hard-nosed national interest and in developing independent ties with all nations, irrespective of their relations with each other. The power centers of the Middle East are Israel, Iran, Saudi and UAE. Yet these powers have conflicting interests and are often at loggerheads with each other. The Middle East is also a region of perpetual strife which sucks in a host of internal and foreign players. Developing a balanced policy is thus essential if we are to navigate through the minefield of the Middle East.

Understanding the Middle East

The Middle East has been a region awash in oil, with a slew of nations perpetually warring with each other. It has also been a region which, in spite of its modernity is steeped in medieval Islam and is the fountainhead of fundamentalism and Islamic terror.

Today, things are changing. For starters, the world is no longer dependent on Middle East oil and its importance to the West has decreased. The US and its allies are no longer likely to be the security guarantors, nor will they be so willing to prop up Saudi, Kuwait, the UAE and their other former allies the way they once did. Although Israel – Arab conflict has remained dormant since the historic peace accord of 1992, the Palestinian issue is alive and still erupts periodically. The Middle East remains the most strife prone place in the world with wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen claiming over 2 million casualties. The Islamic State has finally been defeated but the specter of Islamic fundamentalism still hovers. In the chaos of the Middle East, the prime players that are emerging are Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel. It is the equations between these powers that will shape the dynamics of the region.

Israel was once allied with Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi regime to balance the waves of Arab hostility all around it. It now views Iran as its greatest existentialist threat – more so after Iran developed its nuclear capabilities. Even though Iran has capped its nuclear program under the US –Iran nuclear deal, the recent threats of Donald Trump to revoke ‘The worst deal ever made’ can make Iran’s nuclear program re-erupt, with disastrous consequences all around.

Iran, through a series of slow, subtle maneuvers has emerged as the strongest player in the Middle East and a Champion of Shia Muslims It has helped prop up its ally, President Assad, through seven years of the Syrian Civil War, and with Russian backing, Assad seems to have turned the tide. It is also a major influence in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip through its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, and today is perhaps the only major supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Its creeping influence across the Middle East has brought it into conflict with Saudi Arabia. Though the struggle between the two Middle East powers is a political one, it has taken on the overtures of a Shia-Sunni conflict. Israel too has gradually eased towards Saudi to negate the rising influence of Iran. In fact, all the theaters of conflict in the Middle East-be it the Syrian Civil War, the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, or the Yemen Civil War – are now being seen as a conflict between Shias and Sunnis and are ipso facto proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In each case, whether it be Yemen, Syria or Iraq, Iranian proxies have had the upper hand and each victory has only consolidated its position in the neighborhood. Yet in spite of its perceived successes, Iran is isolated in the region and at constant threat from USA and Israel about the status of its nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia too is going through its own period of change.  With oil no longer being the blank cheque it once was, the nation has to develop alternate sources of revenue. Prince Mohammed –Bin – Salman has also realized that he cannot depend on the US or Western allies to provide the security as it once did. That has to be developed from within. Saudi Arabia was in the forefront to create an Arab Coalition in Yemen and Islamic Military Alliance to fight Terrorism. Though ostensibly regional groupings, these are largely Sunni groupings directed at Iran and its militias. The rise of Shia and Sunni nationalism could creep beyond the region to envelop the entire Islamic world.

Yet, the saving grace is that the Middle East is finally waking up to the dangers of Radical Islam. The rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State has largely been due to the tacit support they received from Arab states. Now with these groups threatening the very existence of the rulers, many have come out openly espousing a more tolerant version of Islam. This may actually help curb the fundamentalists, but then it will take around a decade or so of concerted effort for it to finally bear fruit.

Balancing the Middle East

It is this quagmire of the Middle East that India has to navigate. Our foreign policy has to balance Israel. Iran, Saudi and the UAE and other players of the region. Yet, the initiatives of the past two months show that we have succeeded in attaining a fine balance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit was the first by an Israeli Prime Minister to India in 15 years.  It reciprocated Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Tel Aviv last July-also the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel. But then these years had been marked by a false sense of placating Arab states of the region. Now that Indo-Israel ties are finally out of the closet, this vital relationship can steam ahead.

Israel is one of India’s largest defense suppliers (after USA and Russia) and India has expectations that Israel providing high end defense technology will boost our ‘Make in India’ initiatives.   Israel’s offer to set up a $40 Million Technical innovation Fund will provide access to new technologies in IT, agriculture, defense and manufacturing. India and Israel are also the prime targets for Islamic terror and coming together in this regard, is essential for both. The visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Chabad House, the site of the horrific killing of Jews during the Mumbai attacks of 2008 brought out how starkly both nations are affected by Islamic terror.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to India was followed up almost immediate by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Palestine – again a first by an Indian Prime Minister.  Here, Prime Minister Modi expressed his affirmation of the Two-State theory as the only way to durable peace in the Middle East. With President Trump’s ill-conceived decision to shift the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the USA is no longer being considered as ‘a honest broker’ and India may be called upon to play a more active role  in this thorny issue – something we should wisely avoid. Our support there, to both parties, should be purely moral and economic.

The second leg of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to UAE and Oman again helped provide the fine balance to our Middle East policy. UAE is a major energy provider and also holds a 9 million strong expatriate population. The inauguration of a Hindu temple there was an overdue acknowledgement of the large Indian community there. Yet more than economic, the UAE also has strong strategic significance. With China extending its footprint westwards, developing our strategic linkages there is vital, not only to maintain our energy security but also to develop our connectivity further towards Europe.

To that end, the lease which was provided to use Oman’s Duqm port for anti-piracy operations and logistical purposes gives us a much needed foothold in the region. The agreement to host joint naval exercises with the UAE in the Persian Gulf will again expand our strategic foot print in the region. Equally critical was the agreement with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to park its crude in India’s storage facilities which will make India a storage and transit hub for Gulf oil.

The visit of President Hassan Rouhani to Hyderabad and Delhi was perhaps the most significant of the Middle East initiatives. Perceived as a threat by both USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran looks for support in the region. It has stood by India in difficult times and even at the expense of ruffling US feathers (and perhaps even Israeli) this is a relationship that should be nurtured and preserved.

Topping the agenda was the operationalization of Chabahar port and the agreement to lease part of it to India. The first consignment of Indian wheat left for Afghanistan last October and the port was formally operationalized in December. Hopefully by the end of the year, rail and connectivity from Afghanistan to the Iran border will have been developed and the port will be able to attain full potential. Chahbahar will provide a much needed lifeline to Afghanistan to the sea and help unlock its economy. It would indirectly strengthen the government in its battle with the Taliban – a common threat to both India and Iran. It will also give provide us the much needed connectivity to Afghanistan, the Central Asian States and thence to Europe. This connectivity will be further enhanced with the operationalization of the North South Transport Corridor which will connect Mumbai to Central Asia through the port of Bandar Abbas on the Straits of Hormuz. Iran thus can become India’s gateway to Central Asia and Europe, just as Pakistan has provided the same to China. 

It is significant that during the visits of Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Rouhani and then Prince Abdullah of Jordan, a common theme was the need to stand up to Islamic terrorism, and condemn its sponsors. The same theme also found echo during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to UAE and Oman. Although Pakistan was not named as such, there was no doubt as to whom the reference was directed at. The threat of Islamic terror now transcends religion, and coming together in this manner will help combat it.

The initiatives of the past two months have seen India carry out a fine balancing act between the disparate powers of the Middle East. The Middle East, in spite of its strife and instability, is a region of great strategic importance to India. It is this balanced outlook which will ensure that our long-term interests are maintained in this strategically vital region.