Issue No. 18
Monday, 17 December 2012
By: Abhijit Singh National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi
India's interest in the Middle East has been growing for some time now. As its weight on the international scene has increased, the imperative of playing a bigger role in the affairs of the Middle East has acquired a greater salience and urgency. This includes a call to play a potential mediatory role between Iran and the West, as well as to contribute towards stability in countries being blown over by the ‘Arab Spring’.
The origin of "Middle East" goes back to the days of the British Empire, when most English colonies lay to the East of Britain. India, the crown jewel of the empire, was seen to be representing the “East” (with “East” stretching to as far as China), while Japan and Asia Pacific were referred to as the "Far East". Arab Countries in Western Asia were simply designated as the “Middle East” - the "middle" in the term implying that it was halfway between the more important areas of the world. In the modern era, usage of the term "West Asia" has been on the rise, and it is certainly the more geographically apt term. But many still persist with the "Middle East", a label especially popular among Western governments, scholars and academics.
And while the nomenclature of the region continues to be much contested, the political dynamic too seems to be in rapid transition. Though India has tended to be cautious in defining a role for itself in the region, there has been a gradual shift in New Delhi's strategic priorities. Not too long ago, India’s policies in the Middle East had an extreme ideological slant. In the past few years, it has developed a more pragmatic bent and is engaging the regional nations on individual merit and in constructive and mutually beneficial ways.
Alas! The resolution of past contradictions has not been as ‘quick’ or ‘effective’ as one would have hoped for. Notwithstanding its revised pragmatic posture, India’s new proactive policy in the Middle East continues to stutter, confounding political observers and analysts. While courting individual countries to shared national benefit, issues of discord and dissent continue to fester, complicating India’s policies of engagement and outreach.
There has been a glut of writings on this subject, but rarely does one come across a work as comprehensive and objective as Persian Gulf – 2012, the inaugural issue of which was released last month. Edited by Professor P R Kumaraswamy, the book provides a detailed and well-rounded account of India's relations with the Middle East, and an analytical description of the various facets of the engagement with each of the individual states. The authors critically assess the many dimensions - political, strategic, diplomatic and economic – of India’s ties with the Middle East and focus on the relevant issues that have shaped New Delhi’s policy decisions towards individual countries.
Against the historical backdrop of an emerging India, the authors examine relations with key Middle Eastern states - evaluating India's concerns about security in the region and its own developing economy. The accounts provide a wealth of information not available elsewhere and offer a detailed analysis of trade, cultural and political ties, and people-to-people relationships.
In a riveting introductory chapter Prof Kumaraswamy charts the history of India’s relations with the Middle East and brings out the region’s centrality to India’s great power aspirations. The acknowledgement of the primacy of the Middle East, he perceptively notes, is not adequately reflected in India’s “interests, involvement and policy”. Much of the new interest in the region is driven by energy and oil, which makes the emerging relations ‘transactional’ and ‘commercial’, rather than the ‘politically strategic’ determinant. While it is understandable that the maturity of India’s foreign policy establishment would be measured by its handling of the essential triangles with Iran, Israel and the US, New Delhi’s leverages will be circumscribed by a hesitation to base its responses outside the narrow confines of its energy and security relationship with Iran and Israel respectively.
The chapter in Iran looks at the many facets of the India-Iran relationship. The “payments for oil” crisis is well documented, as is the chronology of events that led to the impasse. One would, however, have liked to see a bit of commentary on the ‘attitudinal’ aspects of the crisis. It is, fundamentally, a manifestation of India’s inability to think imaginatively on finding a viable and pragmatic solution to a problem that is basically ‘political’ in nature.
Whilst the great mass of facts makes it a useful reference source for those wanting to know more on the subject (for instance the exact nature of the trade relationship India shares Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) the volume does not bring out the internal dynamic between the various countries, especially the Israel question that does sometimes tend to bog down India’s relations with some of these states. Significantly, the authors adopt a realistic view of bilateral relations, not allowing their idealistic inclinations, to influence their analysis.
The message implicit in the writings is worth reflecting upon: that while multilateral relationships are important for India in matters of security and economic interest, bilateral relations play into national interests in a much more robust way. As a corollary, bilateral policymaking must be distanced from the demands of the larger geo-political order, which sometimes acts as a drag on relations two nations share. The upshot is clearly and methodically established: India needs to carefully weigh the relative importance of its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern states before deciding whether new policy initiatives are required to augment existing relations.
The data in the book is statistically accurate, but it tends to overlook a great deal of empirical evidence on the issue of bilateral relations. For instance, Indians tend to be emotional in discussing their relations with Iran – making deep nostalgic references to the civilizational links with Iran. The Iranian approach, on the other hand, exudes a real-politic approach to dealing with India. When Iranian leaders talk of civilizational ties, it is without nostalgia or emotion. So it is when Iran wages a covert war against Israel making India a hunting ground for Israeli nationals. Iran does not allow wistful nostalgia come in the way of sponsoring an act of terrorism against Israel on Indian territory. These are dimensions that need to be explored.
India’s strategic and national security interests should be the decisive factor in Delhi's policy-making towards the Middle East. Yet, there must be an element of enlightened and high-minded thinking in India’s approach. As important as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel are to India’s energy and security needs, Delhi's policies in engaging with these nations must be fair, even-handed and premised on strategic imperatives, rather than purely commercial considerations.
As India moves towards global power status, its decision makers will be aware that its prestige and status have a direct correlation with its economic development. For growth to continue apace, India will need to re-energise its trade, commercial and cultural relations with all partners in the Middle East. The political class in Delhi is doubtless alive to this reality. But to imagine this can be done successfully, without one relationship having an impact on the other, is ‘wishful thinking’. Delhi will need to balance its various relationships in the Middle East, in a way that one is not rewarded at the cost of the other. With a sufficiently nuanced foreign policy, it may be possible to leverage individual relationships to optimal affect.
Otherwise, India will be irrelevant to the Middle East, even while continuing to delude itself of its ‘defining’ role in the region.
Note: This review was originally published in South Asia Monitor, New Delhi. Link
Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Email
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy