India’s Nimble West Asian Diplomacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in Delhi on Saturday. Image Credit: PIB

As finance minister Arun Jaitley returns from a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday, he will have executed another step in India’s deft manoeuvres in West Asia. Jaitley’s trip comes on the heels of a three-day visit to India by Hassan Rouhani, president of the Saudi’s arch rival, Iran.

India’s West Asian diplomacy has enjoyed a high profile over the last month. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completed a bonhomie-filled six-day tour of India even as roads and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari signed a $2 billion railways deal in Tehran.

On February 6, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj went on a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia, where she was given the honour of inaugurating the annual Al-Jenadriyah cultural festival.

This was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-nation trip to the region. After a stopover in Jordan, Modi headed to the West Bank, becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to set foot in Palestine.

In Ramallah, Modi backed a ‘sovereign, independent Palestine living in a peaceful environment’. His visit to Palestine came just seven months after he became the first Prime Minister to visit Israel. While that visit caused sparked some discontent in Ramallah, India signalled there was no substantial change in its policy towards Palestine, when in December, it supported a UN resolution rejecting the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Modi’s next stop was the UAE. The two sides inked a memorandum of understanding between a trio of Indian state-owned companies (OVL, BPRL, IOCL) and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company for a 10% stake in the new offshore concession of Lower Zakum. The Prime Minister then flew to Oman, where, where the two countries concluded a pact that would allow the Indian Navy to access the strategically located Duqm port in the country’s south east.

Just days later, as Modi was hosting Rouhani in Delhi, India and Iran signed a lease agreement for Chabahar’s Shahid Beheshti port.

India’s interests in West Asia

Hydrocarbons constitute the bulk of India’s imports ($71 billion in 2016-17) from the Arab world. Most of this oil and gas comes from the Gulf. There are also some nine million Indian expatriates in these countries, and their remittances (about $38 billion in 2015) help cushion India’s foreign exchange reserves and enable it to buy those hydrocarbons.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman on February 12. Image Credit: PIB

While India typically looks to the Gulf as a source of fuel and remittances, its relationship with Oman is unique. Its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, has ruled for half a century and has kept his kingdom out of the region’s internecine conflicts, in particular the Saudi-Iran cold war, which manifests most violently in Yemen.

Oman’s location- facing both the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and a short sail from the subcontinent- makes it strategically attractive. The Indian and Omani navies have been conducting biennial exercises since 1993 and have had a ‘strategic partnership’ for a decade. Oman has provided Indian naval ships berthing facilities in the past. The agreement on Duqm port, which has a deep draft that can accommodate larger vessels, ought to increase the Indian Navy’s reach in the region. According to at least one source, India also operates a naval listening facility about 500 km north of Duqm at Ras Al-Hadd.

India’s relationships with two major non-Arab countries of the region, Israel and Iran, also have their unique attributes. Israel is a major source of arms for India and the two countries generally enjoy robust trade ties. Like the Gulf countries, Iran is a significant source of hydrocarbons for India, and now appears prepared to offer discounts to increase its market share.

Besides the obligatory talk about shared civilizational ties, India also sees Iran as strategically crucial- though this is a sentiment that is not fully reciprocated. For India, the Chabahar port is a crucial hub in providing an alternate=ive route to Afghanistan, and perhaps at some later date to Russia and Central Asia. But for the moment, its economic viability is questionable and Iran doesn’t appear to be as interested in its promised strategic outcomes.

The limitations of being everyone’s friend

Several experts have noted India’s ability to maintain strong ties with countries that are at loggerheads with each other. This balancing act has required nimble diplomacy but is also admirably straightforward: India simply pursues bilateral ties with each country separately and declines to be drawn into their quarrels.

There is, however, an obvious trade-off in this approach: Being everyone’s friend means placing limits on how close you can get to each of them. For instance, India’s ties to Israel preclude it from engaging in military cooperation with Iran even though both countries seek it. Similarly, Oman’s relatively hands-off approach to the region’s conflicts give India the space to seek naval cooperation.

For the foreseeable future, these limitations will be acceptable to Delhi. India does not seek to shape the political order in West Asia and is content with more transactional relationships with the region’s countries.

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