West Asia is a land connection between Asia, Africa, and Europe. People call it the back door of Europe and the door to Asia and Africa.
The Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea all meet the land mass of West Asia. It is a hub for trade between different parts of the world. Here are also the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles, which are two of the most important rivers in the world.
Since oil was found in this area, it has become much more important. The world powers have gotten involved in this area because they think it is important for their security.
India’s strategy towards West Asia has gone in many different directions over time. During the Cold War, India had close business ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were at opposite ends of the political spectrum in the area. Even when India became more friendly with Israel in the 1990s as part of its efforts to broaden its international ties in the post-Soviet world, it was careful not to hurt its long-standing relationships with Muslim countries. The two-way method has been turned into a three-way foreign policy to fit the needs of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the three most important countries in West Asia.
The Arabs were a link between India and the West. They learned things from India, like how to count, and traded with them. India sent spices, foodstuffs, jewels, textiles, muslin, and other goods to the Arab region, while the Gulf region sent pearls and dates to the West.
Table of Contents
Evolution of India’s West Asia Policy
From the beginning of time, the subcontinent and the Gulf have had a close relationship. Britain had tight control over the Gulf littoral because it was so important for protecting India, which was the crown prize. The area is more than just a place where Israel and Arabs fight with each other. Since the fall of the USSR, the area that used to be called “West Asia” has grown a lot and is now called the “Greater Middle East.” India and this area have been connected for a long time. It is where India gets the energy it needs to meet its growing wants. It is also a huge market for goods, services, and trained workers from India.
India’s strategy towards West Asia has gone in many different directions over time. During the Cold War, India had close business ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were at opposite ends of the political spectrum in the area. But the two countries’ relationships were nowhere near as good as they could have been.
After 1991, India’s relationships with the surrounding area changed in amazing ways. As soon as he took office in June 1991, P.V. Narasimha Rao made big changes to the economy and foreign policy to fit the new global strategic situation. Ideology, a protectionist economy, and support for Third World issues were thrown out, and pragmatism based on the national interest became the most important driving principle. India stopped looking at West Asia through the lens of its problems with Pakistan. It also stopped using harsh language to criticise the policies of other countries and stopped making policies that were defensive and reacting. India also made a conscious effort to get closer to the US, which is now the only global leader. Importantly, India started to reach out to all West Asian countries, not just a few, based on how they could help each other.
After getting Arafat’s full agreement in person, Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic ties with Israel in January 1992, even though there was a lot of criticism at home. Since then, the bond has grown stronger. At the same time, India made sure not to hurt its long-standing relationships with Muslim countries. The two-way method has been turned into a three-way foreign policy to fit the needs of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the three most important countries in West Asia. Rao called out to Iran in December 1992. His trip there the following year was very successful. During the 1990s, India and Iran’s strategic goals in Afghanistan became more similar. This laid the groundwork for a long-term relationship that will be good for both countries.
As the world celebrated India’s rise and grew more worried about China’s, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf friends started to see India in a very different way.
Relations between India and West Asia are getting more and more strong and broad. This is clear from the number of visits between their leaders in recent months. India’s relationships are becoming more and more strategic. One example is that Oman is making it official that it is giving the Indian Navy a base at its Duqm port.
Even though there have been political problems, India has worked hard to keep all of these different ties on a good path. Since the trouble in West Asia got worse in 2011, India has stuck to a “hands-off” strategy. This is because India believes that changing a government from the outside is against international law and norms. India has tried very hard not to take sides in any of the rivalries or wars in the area. At the same time, India has backed all efforts to stop the barbaric Islamic State as well as U.N. diplomatic efforts to end disputes through talks.
For many years, India didn’t do much in West Asia. Instead, it benefited from good ties with many other countries. But India wouldn’t want to be on the sidelines when China is becoming more important in West Asia. As India’s interests in the area grow, it needs to put more diplomacy and political energy into keeping up with the changes in the Middle East.
How important is the ‘Look West’ policy?
India has a policy called “Look West” that is similar to its “Look East” policy. The “Look East” policy helped India trade and invest with its Asian peers.
India’s decision to use the “Look West” strategy in 2005 shows that it wants to work with its neighbours in West Asia. Threats of terrorism and theft have been added to bilateral agreements.
The Gulf countries have been supportive of India’s efforts to get more involved in the region. They see India as a big, stable, democratic country that is becoming a political and economic power in Asia and around the world. India has a lot of neighbours, and West Asia is one of them.
Pros of the ‘Look-West’ Policy
• If India had a strong and fearless “look-west” strategy, it would recognise Pakistan’s importance in the world of politics.
• Instead of being a problem, Pakistan could connect the Indian subcontinent to the energy-rich area.
• Pakistan could also serve as a way for people, things, and energy to move between India and the rest of West Asia.
• Pakistan has started to see its location less in terms of geopolitics and more in terms of geoeconomics. • Even more important, Pakistan’s “Look East” policy has changed a lot since it joined the security arm of the ASEAN.
• India will be able to get to Iran, Afghanistan, and the rest of Central Asia by road. At the moment, India has to go around Pakistan and go through Iran to get to Afghanistan.
• The main idea behind this strategy was that peace between India and Pakistan would be important because it would make it easier for countries in the subcontinent to work together economically and for countries in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Gulf to work together across regions.
• The region’s geoeconomic potential can’t be reached until the Kashmir problem is solved. Pakistan has separated the Kashmir problem from the building of pipelines from Iran and Central Asia to India over land.
Building pipelines across Pakistan would also make it easier to build roads connecting India to Afghanistan and Iran. India could offer to negotiate trade and transit treaties with all four countries. India could also suggest working with Pakistan to promote free trade between South Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Any long-term answer to the Kashmir problem would have to involve creative political cooperation between the two parts of the state. It would also need the full normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan.
• The new strategic idea of Pakistan as India’s gateway to the West will come to life through projects like interconnected power grids, natural gas pipelines, and transnational highway roads. In turn, India will be Pakistan’s way into the East.
India’s Priorities in the Gulf
• Energy Security: Nearly 60% of India’s crude oil comes from this area, with Saudi Arabia being the biggest provider. The area is also where India gets most of the LNG it imports.
• Trade and Investment: The Gulf is still one of India’s best places to do business, and trade numbers keep going up, especially with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. India also wants to get Foreign Direct Investment from the Gulf area, which has a lot of cash.
• The Palestine problem: India hasn’t changed its mind about the “two-state” solution for Israel and Palestine. It still supports all efforts to find a solution, including the controversial issue of Jerusalem, which Israel has claimed in its entirety since 1967.
• Building Strategic Ties: India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council needs the backing of the Gulf countries. The partnership between India and UAE has become a Strategic Partnership.
• Protecting the Interests of the Diaspora: One of India’s top goals in the Gulf has been to protect the interests of the 9 million Indians who live outside of India. A lot of money comes from the Indian community in the Gulf. The Reserve Bank of India says that from 2006-07 to 2009-10, the Gulf area was responsible for an average of 27% of all remittances to India. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are where most of the money comes from.
• Military Cooperation: Both India and the Gulf countries are worried about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, which are getting worse.
India has been getting closer to countries like the United Arab Emirates and Oman in terms of military cooperation.
India and Oman’s armed forces practise together on a daily basis, and Oman also lets Indian ships and planes refuel.
India just got permission to use the important strategic port of Duqm in Oman in the Arabian Sea for military use and logistics support. It will give India a bigger presence in the area around the Indian Ocean (IOR).
This will help India’s maritime plan to counter Chinese activities and influence in the area.
India and the United Arab Emirates have decided to work together more on defence in a number of ways, such as through military-to-military exchanges, training of personnel, and making more defence equipment.
• Fighting Piracy: India and the Gulf countries have both been hit by piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden. India needs the Indian Ocean to be safe so that it can trade and get energy. India’s position in the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean would be strengthened if it worked with the Gulf countries to fight piracy.
• Building up India’s soft power: In West Asia, India’s diaspora and its part in promoting a positive image of the country is its most unique soft power asset. People often say that Indian workers are peaceful, tolerant, and ready to work hard even in bad conditions. India’s strategy of not getting involved and being neutral is also a form of soft power. West Asian countries like UAE also took part in International Yoga Day.
• Political Uncertainty: Since the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010, security in West Asia has been getting worse and worse.
The security situation on the inside of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has gotten worse. The regional powers continue to fight proxy wars based on ethnic lines, pouring a lot of money and weapons into their favourite groups to help them win.
The involvement of countries outside of the area, like the United States and Russia, in the internal conflicts in West Asia (Syria), has made the situation even worse.
• Terrorism: Terrorism is now the biggest threat to security in the area. The growth of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups has made the Indian community in West Asia more vulnerable.
• competition between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel: This competition has been making West Asia less stable and has had an effect on the region’s geopolitics. Young Indians who have become radicalised and joined Islamic State are another big problem. This rivalry can be seen in the US’s recent decision to leave the JCPOA.
It will be hard for India to keep its relationships with all three countries in check without making any of them angry.
• India and Israel have close ties. Iran doesn’t like how India’s defence and strategic ties with Israel are getting closer, so Iran has started to use China and Pakistan to get more from India.
• The China factor: China has made quick progress in the Gulf by buying shares in the upstream oil and gas sector and successfully getting into Arab markets.
Through the OBOR plan, China keeps building roads to west Asia.
o Because India can’t handle South Asia, which is on its own border, Gulf Arabs are more likely to look to China as a better security partner than to India.
• The “trust deficit” between India and Pakistan has made it hard for India to move forward with its economic interests in West Asia, such as the Iran-India-Pakistan (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline projects.
• Arab slowdown and nationalisation: Falling oil and gas prices and the rising cost of ‘war conditions’ have caused Arab Gulf economies to slow down. This has led to salary cuts, layoffs, fewer job opportunities and the ‘nationalisation’ of Arab Gulf workers, which hurts the Indian expatriate community.
• Sanctions on Iran by the US: The US is pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran and has warned to put economic sanctions on the country. This could make it harder for people to talk to each other, give conservatives more confidence, and threaten regional security even more.
India also trades a lot of oil with Iran and has a stake in Chabahar port and other projects that will join the two countries.