India’s commercial and cultural relations with the region have ancient roots.
By Dr. Anisur Rahman
Geopolitically West Asia occupies an important position in international relations due to its geographical location and proximity to continents and countries – South Asia, China, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. The region is strategically significant due to its enormous energy resources, trade route links to different parts of the world and the fact that it is a place of origin for the Abrahamic religions. It is the world largest oil-producing region accounting for 34% of world production, 45% of crude oil exports and 48% of oil proven reserves. All powers seek a stake in the affairs of the region due to the abundance of natural resources. It is also a region plagued with instability largely due to the involvement of external forces, and sometimes due to internal conflicts.
Great powers like Europe and America have at various times and with varying degrees of success dominated over the region. The famous Great Game left a devastatingly lasting impact on the states, its’ politics, peoples, environment, resources, and economies. Till date internal as well as external transformations such as political instability, civil wars, sectarian rivalry, religious extremism, and secessionist movements are making it volatile and precarious region.
The regional dynamics of the region is rapidly changing. Regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are contending each other’s views and divided on the basis of their deep vested interests. At the same time, international players and multi-lateral organizations are also involved in proxy conflicts in the region.
India’s commercial and cultural relations with the region have ancient roots. People to people contacts were established between the two great civilizations in those early days when the merchants of the Kulli culture in Southern Baluchistan and the early Sumer dynasties were in existence. Later the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D. to about the 10th century A.D. may be termed as the golden age of trade relations between India and the Arab world. Our relations are still growing stronger based on common brotherhood, mutual friendship, trade, and commerce.
An important factor influencing India’s foreign policy is her socio-cultural affinity of Indian Muslims owing to – Macca and Madina located in this region. Every year more than a lakh Indian Muslims go for Hajj, providing a binding force between two regions. For the past four decades trade, energy and human resource have been the principal drivers of India’s economic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.). India has been heavily dependent on energy supplies from the region, while Indian expatriates have constituted a substantial share of the regional labor market. Remittances from the region were last estimated to be fifty percent of the total of 80 million USD coming to India.
Though relationship between India and the region has been mutually advantageous, it remains far less diversified and productive than it could be. In the era of globalization and liberalization, the Indian economy has been consistently growing, as have been its requirements for energy. It is important to know that over four-fifths of India’s oil and gas requirements are met from external sources. Oil and gas security is important for the country’s energy security. India was the third-largest consumer of oil and fourth-largest LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) importer in 2017. To meet its requirements, India has been heavily dependent on West. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait are the chief countries that fulfill the major demands of India’s energy. Hence, the strategic importance of West Asia for India has been of utmost importance.
There are two ways that India has been engaging with the region in terms of geopolitical strategy. The first, as mentioned, it has been making allies and collaborating economically with countries to safeguard its energy security. At the second level, it has been engaging selectively in socio-political contacts. As one of the largest diaspora population in the region, it is one of the largest targets for India’s practice of soft-power diplomacy.
India’s soft power is clearly visible in terms of culture, language, skills, Bollywood, food, yoga, its democratic character, neutrality, and non-interference, international law and multilateral diplomacy to name a few. Similarly, the diaspora too adopts various means to influence the government of the homeland and host countries. During the recent time, the reliance on soft power diplomacy as a foreign policy tool has been incorporated by Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi.
The presence of Indian diaspora has also become an important element of spreading soft power prerogatives. They are looked upon as an unofficial ambassador to foreign policy and an important bridging link between two regions. One cannot deny the fact that Indian diaspora in the Gulf has been neglected. However, the role played by the Gulf diaspora is profound in India’s development. It is only recently that India accorded importance to the Gulf region as is clearly evident in the diplomatic visits paid by Indian PM to the countries of the West Asia in general and to the Gulf States in particular. His visits to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Iran, and Israel have yielded results, like UAE allocating land for the construction of a temple. The Qatar-Saudi blockade, and the ongoing U.S. sanctions over Iranian Nuclear deal are the two contentious issues, which India is watching closely. The change instance of India’s foreign policy has been due to the large influx of labor from India to the economies of the GGC, which account for nearly 9 million contributing significantly for both the economies of India and the Gulf.
It is pertinent for India to adapt our West Asian policy in a way that our national interest could be promoted in terms of trade, energy security, the export of human resource and security of its labor and remittances. Our policy needs to focus on being mutually beneficial, candid and acceptable to many countries of West Asia. Notably, our diaspora policy has become a major source of soft power diplomacy by the Indian government. Our energy security in West Asia is well protected.
Keeping in mind that the region is a hotbed for global political gameplans, India needs to devise strategies to secure its geo-strategic interests. U.S., Russia, China are selling military and technological equipment to the Gulf countries, while India as an emerging soft power is cautiously watching from the distance. Till date, India’s main interests in the region are economic in nature and our West Asia Policy is pragmatic, clear and acceptable. Moreover, the Indian diaspora is being tapped as an asset and has become a major source of soft power diplomacy helping to promote India’s interest in the region. Although our energy security is protected in the region, we need to re-engage with all stakeholders more dynamically and diplomatically in order to promote national aspirations of ‘New India’.
(The author is Professor & Director, UGC-Human Resource Development Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed are personal.)