When Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014, some observers expected a shift in India’s Middle East policy, and more particularly a tilt toward Israel. Instead, Modi’s first two regional visits were to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. However, his Gulf trips should not be seen solely as a continuation of the policy of engagement with all relevant regional actors in the Middle East, which was initiated in the early 1990s. There is a more perceptible security focus in India’s engagement with its Gulf partners than in the past and an increasing confluence of India’s neighborhood and its Gulf policies.
Breaking with past Indian governments, Modi publicly acknowledged the robust commercial and defense relationship with Israel. While these ties have been burgeoning since the late 1990s, Modi and his new government quickly expressed the need to further elevate bilateral ties to the political-strategic level. An important signal in that regard was the announcement in June 2015 that Modi would become the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Modi had also publicly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September 2014 and did so again during the Paris Climate Change Conference in November 2015.
This regular political interaction stands in sharp contrast to the previous ten years of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule in India during which then prime minister Manmohan Singh did not meet any Israeli official. In parallel with the new dialogue, India abstained both in July 2015 and in March 2016 from supporting a Palestine-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch a probe by the International Criminal Court against Israel for war crimes during the 2014 Gaza crisis. This led to further speculation of a possible shift in India’s traditional pro-Palestinian voting pattern in multilateral fora.
However, the reality is that the Middle East was not an important policy priority for the Modi government during its first year in office. In spite of Modi’s important diplomatic activism, which led him to visit more than 25 countries in his first fourteen months in office, he did not stop over in any of the region’s capitals. This changed in August 2015 when he chose to travel to the United Arab Emirates, and not Israel, as his first destination in the Middle East. That trip, along with the April 2016 visit to Saudi Arabia, demonstrated that there are various long-term and more immediate factors that can account for a renewed focus toward the Gulf.
Structural conditions were already propitious for increased public exchanges. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are India’s fourth- and third-largest trade partners, respectively, as well as its first- and sixth-largest sources of oil. They are also home to important diaspora communities, with 2.0 million Indian expatriates in Saudi Arabia and 2.3 million in the UAE who respectively send $11.0 and $13.2 billion in remittances back to India. Modi’s visits were merely a public acknowledgment of India’s increasing interdependence with the Gulf states.
Furthermore, the Gulf stopped being an exclusive domain for Pakistani influence and interests when India began cultivating better ties with the Gulf economies fifteen years ago. The interest was reciprocal because both Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw India as an important emerging market for their energy exports, foreign investments, and joint venture opportunities. The rapprochement also partly coincided with the growing diplomatic isolation of Iran, another important energy provider for India.
In addition, there has been an increasing realization among Indian politicians and diplomats of the key role of actors other than the central government, whether they are state governments, private entrepreneurs, or the diaspora, that have directly engaged various Middle Eastern actors at the transnational level for the past two decades. These incremental and long-term links have attracted less public attention and been removed from the primary political inhibitions affecting the Indian central government’s foreign policy initiatives. As the Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted in early March 2016 at the Raisina Dialogue, India’s “footprint” in the region has been “relatively autonomous of strategic calculation.” This indirect Middle East policy has been mostly dictated by markets and individual entrepreneurship. But there is now an open political willingness to build on the goodwill that these transnational links have created over time.
More immediate factors can account for the specific timing of the visits to the Gulf. By neither joining the Yemen coalition against the Houthis—who are reportedly supported by Iran—nor contributing troops to quell dissent in Bahrain, Pakistan sent mixed signals about its unconditional military support to the House of Saud. New Delhi has perceived the turbulence in Pakistan’s ties with the Arab Gulf as a window of opportunity to expand India’s own security engagement with the Gulf states and to institutionalize long-term counterterrorism cooperation.
This impetus was clear in many of the outcomes of Modi’s visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Discussions during the visits concentrated on ensuring that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are no longer fallback bases for Pakistani and Indian terrorist elements and money. Several extradition, intelligence sharing, and anti-money-laundering agreements were signed or institutionalized following both trips. Immediately after Modi’s Abu Dhabi visit, the UAE seized the noted Indian terrorist Dawood Ibrahim’s possessions, and soon after the visit, the UAE sent Afsha Jabeen back to India, who had allegedly been involved in recruiting for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Similarly, the India–Saudi Arabia Joint Statement during Modi’s visit on April 3 called on states to “dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states.”
This defense and counterterrorism cooperation with the Gulf states partly continues the policies of previous UPA governments. The strategic partnership signed with Saudi Arabia in 2010 included robust antiterror cooperation measures. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s 2012 deportation of Indian terrorist Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jundal and who was involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, had already signaled a willingness to increase counterterrorism cooperation, even if doing so clashed with Pakistani interests. Similarly, the UAE has deported in the last three years various operatives from the Indian Mujahideen, an Indian terror group with close links to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The apparent change since 2015 stems from the open realization that India’s regional, economic, and, increasingly, security interests are closely interlinked with events in the Middle East, and more particularly with the Gulf. The active involvement of India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in preparing Modi’s visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia demonstrates a convergence between India’s Gulf, neighborhood, and internal security policies.
After an initial suggestion of a move toward Israel, Modi has signaled a significant recalibration of India’s engagement with the Middle East region. He made it clear at the UN that it would not revise its traditional position supporting an independent Palestine nation “at peace with Israel.” Modi also postponed giving any specific dates for his Israel visit, preferring that President Pranab Mukherjee make the historic first visit by an Indian head of state to Israel in October 2015. Instead, Modi chose over the last year to focus on strengthening ties with India’s Gulf neighbors.
These latest developments have also raised some new problems for Indian diplomacy. Until now, India’s ability to balance conflicting interests and to engage all relevant parties in the Middle East has served it well, but it remains to be seen whether the renewed focus on the Gulf states will affect India’s traditional ties with Iran or further delay Modi’s visit to Israel.
Nicolas Blarel is an assistant professor of international relations at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University. His book, The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise Since 1922, was published by the Oxford University Press in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @nicoblar.