During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the latter, in a first by an Arab nation perennially in conflict with Israel, granted Air India, the national carrier, approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv over and through Saudi territory.
Can India use this soft power and more to bring down the growing tensions among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran?
A tall order, but is doable, insists diplomat-scholar Talmiz Ahmad who served in West Asian region for over ten years as India’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Ambassador Ahmad thinks that of all the global diplomacy India is currently engaged in, the one in West Asia is truly unprecedented. It gives India a unique position to play peacemaker.
Taking forward his premise, one should consider the biggest likely hurdle: how will an unstable and unpredictable Donald Trump administration take an Indian initiative? India and the US have been consolidating their ties exponentially. Will that help?
And how will a Brexit-hit Britain, well past its imperial grandeur, take it? Britain historically and the US since the last century have been the principal players behind much that has been happening, particularly the conflicts, in West Asia.
The Saudi-Iran-Israel tensions keep the region on the boil and their impact goes well beyond. Everyone is walking the tight rope. And that is an understatement for India the way it has been interacting with diverse nations in the region, many of which are at daggers drawn with one another.
Yet they all come to India and host Indian leaders. These visits have yielded numerous agreements and memoranda of understanding, setting the agenda for the future collaboration in multiple areas of mutual interest.
It is another matter, however, that India has acquired a reputation for not fulfilling many proiects – some not taking off some others delayed. This is not unique to West Asia, though. Fortunately, even if the projects are missed and hived off to others, India’s goodwill continues.
And nowhere else this goodwill is more visible than in the presence of eight million Indians working in countries across West Asia, out-populating nine of them. It has not been easy, though. The turmoil of the past few years in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen has unleashed untold sufferings on Indians working there.
The USD 70 billion earnings by Indians being repatriated home last year, a global highest, have fallen due to an unprecedented fall in crude oil prices and simmering geopolitical tension in the Persian Gulf. They may nevertheless remain as formidable as the oil and gas that flows from the region to meet 65 percent of India’s growing needs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in the last nearly four years visited and/or hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Palestine, Oman and Iran. Among numerous minister-level consultations, foreign minister of Syria, besieged by five combating forces, visited in January.
The UAE Crown Prince was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day last year. Within a six months’ span, Modi both visited and played host to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, India did not toe the US/Israeli line on Jerusalem at the United Nations and Modi travelled from Tel Aviv to Palestine.
Significantly, India, while getting cozy with Trump – also daughter Ivanka and son, Donald Trump Jr. — also deals with Iran, Trump’s bête noire in the region. President Hasan Rouhani’s visit is yet another signal, not just to the US, but to all players in the Gulf region, of India’s long term intent.
The Rouhani visit yielded significant results that need sustained follow-up. Not just that, it has gingerly pushed the Chabahar project, being jointly worked with Iran. India has secured control of the first phase of the port that it has built to gain connectivity to Iran and through it, Afghanistan, bypassing a hostile Pakistan and with future prospects of reaching Central Asia.
Far from being ceremonial in nature, these interactions have consolidated defence ties and investments in India’s energy, infrastructure and other key sectors.
The stage for this Look-West Asia was set by government of P V Narasimha Rao (who also initiated Look-East Policy) in the 1990s. It was assiduously followed up by premiers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But those were different times and circumstances.
The Modi Government has shown a better understanding by undoing a historical error on Gwadar which once belonged to Oman and was offered to India during the Nehru era. Understandably, it was then thought that Gwadar could not be defended in an attack from Pakistan.
Another act of the “late-Latif” has been to gain access to Oman’s Duqm port, long after many others gained a foothold there. It is nevertheless useful if India has to secure its presence along the Gulf and Africa’s eastern sea coast.
The importance of these ports cannot be underestimated, not the least in competition to China that is rapidly expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region, directly and through Pakistan. Chabahar is a smaller project compared to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but has greater potential of access to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. It is more doable, if only the US does not put a spoke, because both India and Iran are on the same page.
A little comparison of India’s ‘Look/Act’ policies would be appropriate. Tackling South Asia, its immediate neighbourhood, easily the most difficult part of its diplomatic task, has kept faltering as it meets new challenges practically each day. The Maldives developments are a pointer, so is a less friendly government taking shape in Nepal, and both have China as the common adversarial factor.
The China factor is stronger in India’s “Act East” Policy. But there India is tying up with the US, Australia and Japan to enhance its clout. By contrast, the ‘Act West’ policy leaves India to devise its own strategy that in some instances is at odds with the Anglo- American interests.
Given the turbulence in West Asia, many would advise India to have a hands-off approach, and focus only on its bilateral interests in the region. However, India cannot afford to ignore this perilous challenge. It needs to play a role in resolving the regional conflicts.
Unlike Pakistan that is happy to dispatch troops to seek leadership of the Muslim ‘ummah’, for India, sending troops would be unwise. India’s military presence is neither sought as of now, nor desirable. Given the goodwill it enjoys, and with a reputation of neutrality, the Indian presence should remain non-combatant, in areas where its economic assistance and knowledge are made available directly to the people.
This neutral role helps India as a prospective interlocutor in West Asia. Its relations go back to ancient times, long before that region got divided into modern-day nations. In contemporary terms, India’s ties with each of those nations have been bilateral and transactional. Indians have not participated in any of their conflicts. Nor have Indian Muslims been part of any terrorist group like Al Qaida or the ISIS.
Indians have played peacekeepers on behalf of the United Nations. It is time India uses its unique position to play the peacemaker.