India's Political Inroads in Middle East


Photo source: The New Arab

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

After China started mediating deals between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia were no longer the only two outside players active in Middle East politics. Realising this, India as a middle power, is also quietly exploiting the political vacuum there.

In May 2023, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan, his Emirati and Indian counterparts, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman talked of an ambitious initiative that would establish road, railroad, and seaport links, fostering stronger economic links between the Middle East and India.

This project is the result of several meetings held by the I2U2 Group since July 2022. Comprising India, Israel, UAE, and the US, the group mainly focuses on economic growth and trade interactions, rather than strategic or political matters.

Despite talk of the US’s declining influence in the Middle East, Washington is currently striving to merge its Indo-Pacific strategy. It is doing this to curb China’s expansion in the region, with its renewed and active engagement in the Middle East. It hopes to achieve this by leveraging ties with Delhi, showing a growing interconnection between these two geopolitical regions.

The prospect of these deeper connections in the Middle East was initially unveiled in 2021. India, Israel, and the UAE forging together has been called by analyst Mohammed Soliman, as an ‘Indo-Abrahamic alliance’. 

Historically, ties between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent grew stronger during the British Raj, encompassing both economic and strategic aspects. After gaining independence in 1948, India largely kept a political isolation from the Middle East due to its non-aligned status in the Cold War, though it opposed Western influence in the region and showed solidarity with Palestinians. However, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership since 2014 has sought to deepen its trade and strategic relations with Middle East.

For United States, building upon initiatives like the 2020 Abraham Accords, where Israel and the UAE normalised relations, the United States sees this potential Indo-Abrahamic alliance as an opportunity ‘to do more with less’ in the region. Moreover, the Abraham Accords have been advantageous to India, as they have facilitated a political framework for Delhi to operate regionally with ease, as Hindutva doctrines have supported Israeli expansionism in lieu with American allies, mostly monarchial states.

Additionally, India has built a close alliance with Israel, despite only establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fostered close relations with Modi, sharing converging views on many political issues. It has been Israel which has provided training, surveillance equipment, and radar technology to Indian police in India-administered Kashmir, while Delhi currently stands as the largest buyer of Israeli-made weapons.

Along with security and military ties, Israel’s membership of the I2U2 means it would be closely involved in the negotiations in the recent connectivity deal. Despite Israel and Saudi Arabia’s current lack of official diplomatic ties, the US has still pushed for a normalisation agreement between the two. 

According to analyst, Mohammad Soliman, ‘Riyadh has nurtured good relations with Israel and India and may look to this grouping as a strategic opportunity in the long run.’

These ideological associations have certainly laid the foundation for the wider strengthening of economic ties. India has always considered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an essential economic partner, benefiting from hydrocarbon imports and remittances from Indian expats. And more recently, India and the UAE have collaborated on space programs while Abu Dhabi has committed to over $100 billion worth of investments in Indian sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and renewable energy.

Like with Israel, India has also benefited from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s support over Kashmir, particularly as Emirati investments in the disputed territory have solidified Delhi’s control over it, albeit straining relations with Pakistan.

Bilateral ties between Cairo and Delhi also have increasingly grown, incited by India’s recognition of Egypt's pivotal repositioning in the Mediterranean and its growing economic and military significance.

This momentum was further strengthened by the visit of Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi to Delhi in January 2023, where he emphasised the importance of forging economic relations with India to address Egypt's fiscal challenges. Such ties could also boost Egypt’s inclusion into the I2U2 forum, further increasing its cooperation with India.  

For India’s part, it has maintained a timid approach toward China's involvement in the region. While welcoming initiatives like recent mutual appointments of Emirati and Iranian ambassadors, India's silence over the China-brokered Saudi-Iran talks reflected its reservations about Beijing’s influence.

India may prefer working with the US over China in the Middle East. However, India still has its own independent approach to the region beyond the US’s strategic vision. A proof of this is Delhi’s discussions with Abu Dhabi to settle non-oil trade in Indian rupees as opposed to the US dollar, though oil trade remains settled in dollars.

According to Jonathan Fenton Harvey’s Oped in The New Arab: ‘Given the nuances of India’s foreign policy, along with its own economic cooperation with China, US officials may be wrong to solely see Delhi as a bulwark against Beijing. Nonetheless, India’s presence in the Middle East reflects the growing multipolar nature of the region.


Popular Posts