India’s interests are led by it's economic and strategic compulsions to checkmate an expansionist China and play its rightful role in the strategic landscape beyond Pakistan.
By Brig NK Bhatia (Retd)
The last few years have seen India play a pragmatic role in the Gulf to shun its past baggage and engage the region to further its interests by maintaining a very fine balance between the regional players. India’s interests are led by it’s economic and strategic compulsions to checkmate an expansionist China and play its rightful role in the strategic landscape beyond Pakistan. Importantly, the Gulf nations, predominantly Saudi Arabia are also keen to shed their isolation and open up to engage with India without the baggage of its close relations with Pakistan.
New Delhi’s interests are led by three important factors; secure energy supplies, interests of large Indian diaspora in the Gulf and checkmate a hostile and belligerent neighbourhood. All these factors automatically manifest themselves into Indian security interests.
Growing Defence Cooperation with Gulf countries ensures securing sea routes for the movement of its oil supplies and anti-piracy operations. Beyond that there has been the need for active cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism, money laundering and elimination of organised crime since the impact of these activities is impinging on the stability of the region. The focus has thus increasingly remained on expanding cooperation in the fields of defence and security relations.
India’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have seen a dramatic upswing during the last five years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Saudi Arabia and UAE twice besides paying visits to Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
The visit to Saudi Arabia on October 28-29 culminated in the signing of 12 Agreements/ MOUs. Amongst them three agreements related to the defence sector — Strategic Partnership Council Agreement, Agreement on Security Cooperation and MoU between Saudi General Authority of Military Industries (GAMI) and Department of Defence Production, Ministry of Defence concerning collaboration in military acquisition, industries, research, development and technology.
The establishment of Strategic Partnership Council was the most significant. The economic impact of the increased bilateral cooperation also saw increased investments by Saudis in Indian companies including an agreement between Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves (ISPRL) and Aramco to part lease 2.5 million tonnes crude for Padur storage in Karnataka.
The ties with the UAE were earlier elevated to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This culminated in an increased commitment by Abu Dhabi to guarantee ISPRL to work on a seven-year contract to fill up storage tanks of 5.860 million barrels of crude oil in its facility in Mangalore. The agreement has also resulted in enhanced exchanges between the armed forces of the two sides besides handing over of a number of fugitives wanted by India for economic and organised crime. Similarly, agreement with Oman has led to Indian warships being given access to the strategically located Duqm Port. Indian naval ships will be able to use the port and dry dock for maintenance of its military vessels. India has also been using refuelling facilities for its aircraft at Salala on a regular basis.
The improved relationship with the Gulf countries had a significant impact in extending an invitation by ‘Organization of Islamic Nations’ (OIC) meeting where India was invited as ‘Guest of Honor’ country by the UAE despite an objection from OIC member, Pakistan. Late Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had addressed the inaugural session of the 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on March 01, 2019, in Abu Dhabi.
The other aspect of Indian deftness has been its engagement with Iran. In spite of a very aggressive US stand on imposing sanctions on Iran and increasing rivalry and chasm between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dominate the Gulf landscape, India has continued to maintain its engagements and cordial relations with Iran due to it being traditional source of hydrocarbons and India’s gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Eurasia and Russia. The need to maintain connectivity to Central Asia and Afghanistan through Port of Shahid Beheshti, where India has invested substantially and is part of the Trilateral Transit Agreement (Chabahar Agreement) between India, Iran and Afghanistan necessitate that the engagement is maintained. Indian PM Modi met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar also met his Iranian counterpart twice in a span of three months between June and September 2019. India’s engagements with Iran notwithstanding, the future of any significant progress in Indo-Iranian relations hinges upon reduction of animosity between USA and Iran. Internal dynamics playing out in Iran would also impact the stability of the region.
Gulf region today hosts 9 million Indians and accounts for USD 55 billion remittances. It is India’s biggest trading block and accounts for over USD 100 billion in trade and nearly 50 per cent of its oil supplies. The enhanced economic and strategic ties have been beneficial to both sides. Stable and enhanced strategic relationship with Gulf nations has enabled India to absorb the after-effects of developments in Jammu & Kashmir with all countries in the region supporting the Indian viewpoint.
The future challenges for India in engagement with the Gulf region are the shifting dynamics and changing the landscape of intra region conflicts in ideology and alignment. On the other hand, with China and Pakistan aligning closely to further Chinese OBOR, India will need to play its cards well by remaining engaged with the Gulf nations and further expanding the scope of its economic and strategic relations.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)