By Harsh Kumar Upadhayay
The signing of the Abraham Accords and the subsequent normalisation of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, followed by Israel and Bahrain, have reconfigured the political alignments of West Asia. In a world which is passing through uncertain times, characterized by power rivalries, armed conflicts, the looming fear of food crisis coupled with pessimistic market sentiments in a post-pandemic era, the Abraham Accords have not only created opportunities for bilateral engagements between the countries of West Asia but also have led to the creation of a Quadrilateral cooperative framework between India, Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
The quadrilateral grouping was popularly dubbed as the “West Asian Quad” until last year, has now graduated
to become “I2U2- where ‘I’ stands for India and Israel while ‘U’ stands for the United States and the United Arab Emirate.
On 14 July 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of UAE participated in the inaugural I2U2 virtual summit. This grouping has its roots in the meeting of the four foreign ministers from respective countries in October 2021. Initially, this grouping was called the ‘International Forum for Economic Cooperation’. This grouping aims to strengthen the economic partnership by identifying the areas of converging mutual interests in trade, investment and infrastructure by leveraging each other’s complementary capabilities.
It is pertinent to understand this grouping in the context of the ongoing bilateral cooperation amongst its members. All the members in this grouping have bilateral relations of strategic significance. India and Israel have excellent bilateral relations encompassing defence and agriculture, while the ties between Israel and the UAE have gained momentum
since the normalisation of their bilateral relations, owing to the Abraham Accords. For the US, the UAE is the “Little Sparta” (a term given by Gen James Mattis signifying the role of the Emirati Armed Forces in their role against extremists and terror outfits in the middle east), while its ties with Israel are renowned and legendary. The signing of the
Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and the UAE, the ongoing talks of an FTA between India and Israel, coupled with the already existing FTA between the UAE and Israel, can help this grouping triangulate the economic partnership.
With the vibrant economic engagements that the US has with the other three countries in this grouping, the prospects of I2U2 as a mini-lateral grouping are promising. However, for any such mini-lateral framework to succeed and acquire significance, long-term vision, the commitment of their leadership coupled with converging interests of all the members are required, in the absence of which they do not tend to prosper beyond a certain point. In the last meeting of the foreign ministers held in October 2021, the initial shape and the agenda for this grouping were defined, which is now being institutionalized to help convert government-to-government ideals into concrete programmes through business-to-business interactions.
Six areas of cooperation have been identified, ranging from water and energy to health and food security, along with transportation and space. The I2U2 Group will advance a hybrid renewable energy project in Gujarat consisting of 300 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar capacity complemented by a battery energy storage system. The US Trade and
Development Agency (USTDA) will fund the initial feasibility study of 330 million US dollars. With 2 billion US dollars, the inaugural I2U2 summit announced the idea of developing a joint food corridor in India funded by the UAE to ensure the food security of the Emirati state. This idea is inspired by India’s strategic petroleum reserve of Padur in southern
India, which is supported by the UAE in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Here, India is providing land and human resource for ensuring food security; the UAE, in return, is fulfilling India’s energy requirements. The US and Israel are lending their technical expertise and financial resources to drive the objectives of this grouping. The UAE is already among India’s top trading partners, with bilateral trade touching 59 billion US dollars until last year. This grouping also has the potential to institutionalise the ongoing agriculture and water-technology cooperation between India and Israel.
Although the prima-facie assessment of this grouping appears to have geoeconomic priorities over geopolitical ambitions, one cannot ignore but speculate on its geostrategic underpinnings. For Israel, the I2U2 is a new concept as it has never been part of any such regional grouping in the past. This grouping is not only a platform for Israel to exhibit its improved diplomatic relations with an Arab counterpart but is also an opportunity to further negate the calls of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement by gaining market for its companies in a quadrilateral framework.
For India, this grouping helps expand its strategic manoeuvrability in West Asia. Earlier, as a consequence of Arab-Israel rivalry, India couldn’t imagine and enter into a common cooperative venture with Israelis and Arabs on board. India had to walk a delicate geopolitical tightrope to balance its relationship with Arabs and the Israelis.
This is no longer the case! Not only does this grouping remove significant strategic obstacle apart from creating opportunities to attract Foreign Direct investments (FDI), the I2U2 will help New Delhi deepen its politico-economic clout in West Asia. Despite these strategic opportunities, India might have to balance its relations with Iran as all the other members of this grouping have inimical relations with Iran.
Historic and well-established ties with Israel and the UAE will not prevent the United States from growing wary of a gradual Chinese encroachment to command influence in West Asia. Through minilateral groupings such as I2U2, Washington will attempt to negate any Chinese economic outreach by expanding and reframing its relationships in West Asia. The I2U2 provides a suitable platform for the Emiratis to pursue a vibrant economic and technological outreach, besides having food security on their agenda. The Emiratis are driven by their ambition to become an economic and technological powerhouse to gain an additional edge in a post-oil future of the Persian Gulf.
Harsh Kumar Upadhayay is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) at the Indian Institute of Technology- Madras, Chennai.