Whither India-Gulf Strategic Ties?

By N. Janardhan | United Arab Emirates - Political Analyst | Mar 09, 2017
Whither India-Gulf Strategic Ties?

India's interests and capabilities extend well beyond the sub-continent. This essay is part of a series that explores the geopolitical dimensions, economic ties, transnational networks, and other aspects of India's links with the Middle East (West Asia) -- a region that plays a vital role in India's economy and its future. More ...


 

In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to pilot India-Gulf ties beyond oil, trade, and expatriates. In the search for new avenues to convert the reigning ‘buyer-seller’ relationship into a more meaningful one, the new mantra is ‘strategic’ partnership. What are the imperatives that make a relationship strategic? Is it all encompassing or specific to the security sphere? Are India and the Gulf countries ready to move out of their comfort zones and explore uncharted terrain? If so, how and when? If not, why?

Attempting to analyze these questions inevitably take us to the heart of the festering conflicts in the Middle East. They also expose the failure of regional players to evolve conflict resolution mechanisms. While reconciliation among regional adversaries should be encouraged, the vested interest (or lack of it) of extra-regional powers hinders meaningful progress.

Linking the above strands of discourse, this essay explores the future of India-Gulf ties in all spheres and some out-of-the-box security dynamics, especially the possibility of evolving an alternative security mechanism in the Gulf. It specifically highlights the opportunities and challenges for Asian countries, especially India, in the quest for a new collective security architecture and stability in the region.

New Outlook

The starting point is recognizing that while a ‘new’ India and Gulf have emerged during the last two decades, both will again be different over the next decade. Assuming that the Indian economy grows at the predicted rate of about seven percent and the Gulf economies diversify and readjust their economic fundamentals amid low oil prices, India-Gulf ties are headed for interesting economic times.

Following are some pointers from post-2000 Gulf-India developments that could be construed as strategic.

First, the genesis of strategic economic engagement can be traced to the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) countries adopted a ‘look East’ policy, which included India.[1] This facilitated the India-Gulf trade bill to touch $200 billion annually.[2]

Second, in putting aside religious ideology and dealing with India as they did with Pakistan, the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) states conveyed that economic sense is common sense.[3] This and the late King Abdullah’s visit to India in 2006 — the first by a Saudi head of state in 60 years — contributed positively to India’s image and served as an acknowledgement that the Gulf is also taking note of India’s interest in the region.

Third, in the security realm, the 2010 Riyadh Declaration and 2015 Abu Dhabi Declaration strategically elevated the partnership to the next (comprehensive) level.[4] The impact of these, in terms of hard security, may take a while to evolve, but in terms of soft security, there is evidence of increased Indian cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in counterterrorism statements and operations.[5]

In terms of hard security, the India-Qatar defense cooperation pact stops “just short of stationing (Indian) troops” in Qatar.[6] This and the India-Oman defense cooperation agreement, also signed in 2008, are templates for future security cooperation.[7]

Against this backdrop, what could future strategic engagement entail?

First, if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) in 2015 —  the first by an Indian premier in 33 years — was strategic, the unprecedented quick reciprocal visits of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to India in 2016 and 2017 are of greater political-strategic value to New Delhi’s new ‘Think West’ policy.[8]

This is positive because while the G.C.C. countries pursued a ‘look East’ policy over the last 15 years, Indian diplomacy has been busier improving relations with Western countries than with neighbors closer home.

Second, strategic economic engagement may manifest, for example, in how the proposed $75 billion U.A.E.-India Investment Fund is operationalized. Again, for example, investment in the food storage sector could be linked to infrastructure projects, as opposed to the G.C.C. countries’ idea of buying cultivable agricultural land to ensure food security.

... in the security arena, one needs to link India-G.C.C. strategic ties to the ‘shift’ away from the G.C.C.’s reliance on the decades- old U.S.-centric protection net. 

Third, in the security arena, one needs to link India-G.C.C. strategic ties to the ‘shift’ away from the G.C.C.’s reliance on the decade-old U.S.-centric protection net. In recent years, there have been calls for exploring the idea of incorporating several international actors who could act as security guarantors in any future collective security arrangement, including Asia.

The point is that principal Asian players would have to stop riding ‘piggyback’ on the U.S. naval presence in the region’s waters at some point and find their own means of securing their sea lanes. Since this aligns with the security requirements of the region, and assuming that the U.S. engagement in the region will diminish in the decades ahead, it opens interesting and diversifying possibilities in the region’s security arena.

Gulf Security and Omni Balancing

Over the last decade, the security debate in the Gulf has revolved around two viewpoints — one, less international involvement in the region’s affairs; and the other, more internationalization of the region.

Since the dominant view favors the second option, several Gulf leaders and academics have backed the idea exploring new security arrangements.[9] This and the shift in the economic power center from the West to the East enticed the G.C.C. countries to explore alternatives, particularly in Asia, including India.[10] Thus, ‘omni balancing’ means the region’s ties with the United States are no longer exclusive.[11]

... some Indian scholars, including this author, have been ... exploring possibilities for a new collective security architecture for the Gulf, which would involve both Asian and Western powers, including the United States

It is in this context that some Indian scholars, including this author, have been propagating the idea at both Track 2 and Track 1.5 levels of upgrading the G.C.C.-Asia buyer-seller relationship to a strategic one. They are also exploring possibilities for a new collective security architecture for the Gulf, which would involve both Asian and Western powers, including the United States.[12]

U.S. Fatigue

The failure of the United States to limit the chaos in Iraq, the nuclear deal with Iran — which compromised the G.C.C. countries’ perceived security concerns — and the inaction in Syria has heightened the region’s fatigue with the United States. It is true that though the G.C.C.’s ties with Asia are expanding, no other international actor can replace the United States — even if it is a “superfrugal, superbroke, superpower”[13] — in the short- or even medium-term future. But this could change in the longer term.

Simultaneously, a sense of U.S. fatigue with the region is also prevalent. The gist of U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2014 was that Washington would limit U.S. military intervention in conflicts around the world. This policy, endorsed by the new President, Donald Trump, reflects the desire to focus on domestic issues.

Against such a backdrop, prognosis on the long-term India-Gulf relationship is based on three premises. First, a relationship based purely on economic engagement is untenable in the long run. It needs to convert the transaction-based relationship into a strategic one. Second, it makes economic sense for India to be part of any new international security system in the region that looks beyond the prevailing U.S.-centric security paradigm. Similarly, it would be beneficial for the Gulf countries to have India on board too. Third, the Gulf countries may better recognize India’s influence if the latter assures them of strategic cooperation in any future security architecture.

Roadblocks

But India’s quest to advance its strategic interests in the Gulf faces major deterrents. First, rabid Saudi-Iran animosity has also dragged in the U.A.E. and Bahrain. This tension has rendered Indian Track 2 and 1.5 efforts lacking punch to push the idea of G.C.C.-Iran rapprochement and collective Gulf security. Second, there is inadequate Asian consensus, especially with the India-Pak rivalry, India-China competition, and Japan-South Korea reluctance to work with China.[14]

Thus, though the Gulf countries are ready to explore alternatives, the fear of Iran and the lack of credible and concrete alternatives makes them stick with an ‘unsatisfactory’ United States.

Out-of-the-box Approach

Despite the present Saudi-Iran feud, the Kingdom could finally come to terms with Iran-West rapprochement, which could facilitate G.C.C.-Iran ties and result in “some sort of cold peace,” as Obama suggested.[15] A preliminary proposal that may move things in this direction is the Iranian regional security pact offer made at the 2007 G.C.C. Summit in Doha, which may also help India’s future plans.[16] This would promote the idea of collective security and the prospects for India’s role in it.[17]  

Either in anticipation or facilitation towards this end, following are some thoughts about how India-Gulf strategic engagement in the security realm could play out.

First, if there is no Saudi-Iran or G.C.C.-Iran rapprochement in the near future, India could consider taking that big strategic call about offering its services as an interlocutor, provided both sides are interested.

Second, India should begin diplomatic talks with principal Asian players about charting a course for Gulf security.

Third, India should also begin back channel talks with countries like Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, which are more amenable to a thaw in G.C.C.-Iran tension than others.[18] Fourth, similar and simultaneous talks should be initiated with Iran so that diplomatic initiatives on either side of the Gulf are synchronised.

While these initiatives are underway, India should either continue or initiate a few other ‘smart’ initiatives. One possibility would be to look beyond anti-piracy and anti-terror cooperation, by diversifying defense cooperation, including investment in defense manufacturing, facilitating interaction between armed forces; organizing visits to Indian defense colleges, and laying groundwork for joint exercises. Another might be for both sides to contemplate more defense pacts of the India-Qatar kind.[19] Yet another might be for India to begin conducting naval exercises of the kind involving Oman with other G.C.C. countries. This would help showcase India’s naval strength.

These measures would boost the idea of a collective security architecture that includes an Indian role, which even American experts have recently begun to propagate.[20]

Conclusion

The dynamics of oil, trade, and expatriates have sustained historic ties between India and the Gulf. The way forward rests on developing a paradigm that hinges on ‘strategic’ political, economic, and security dimensions. With several factors contributing to the ‘rediscovery’ of the India-Gulf relationship, it is time to convert the ‘opportunity’ into a ‘strategy’.

 


[1] Ranjit Gupta, Abubaker Bagader, Talmiz Ahmad, and N. Janardhan et al., Eds., India and the Gulf: What Next? (Cambridge, UK: Gulf Research Center, 2013).

[2] David Malone, C. Raja Mohan and Srinath Raghavan, Eds., The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[3] N. Janardhan, “Multilateralism in Bilateralism,” The Gulf Today, April 13, 2016.

[4] “Riyadh Declaration: A New Era of Strategic Partnership,” Media Centre, Ministry of External Affairs, India, March 1, 2010; “UAE, India Issue Joint Statement at the End of Indian PM’s Visit to UAE,” Emirates News Agency, August 17, 2015.

[5] Neeraj Chauhan, “Saudi Arabia Helped India Nab 26/11 Handler Abu Jundal,” The Times of India, June 26, 2012; “3 Indians, Suspected ISIS Supporters, Deported from UAE,” The New Indian Express, January 29, 2016.

[6] Sandeep Dikshit, “India Signs Defence Pact with Qatar,” The Hindu, November 12, 2008.

[7] Sandeep Dikshit, “India, Oman to Step up Defence Ties,” The Hindu, November 10, 2008.

[8] “After ‘Act East’, Time for ‘Think West’: Jaishankar,” The Times of India, April 9, 2016. Also see, speech by the Indian Foreign Secretary at Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, March 1, 2016, accessed December 20, 2016, http://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/26432.

[9] (Former) Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s statement at the United Nations, 2007; and Nawaf Obaid, “Saudi Arabia Gets Tough on Foreign Policy,” Washington Post, October 25, 2013. More recent developments in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen — where Saudi Arabia worked on its own, contradicting the United States — prove that such statements are not mere rhetoric.

[10] Christian Koch, “Gulf Region Makes Strategic Shift in New Global System,” Arab News, October 22, 2006; “Gulf Needs More, Not Less, External Involvement,” January 27, 2006, at www.gulfinthemedia.com.

[11] Concept propounded by Steven David, Johns Hopkins University.

[12] Ranjit Gupta, Abubaker Bagader, Talmiz Ahmad and N. Janardhan, Eds., A New Gulf Security Architecture: Prospects and Challenges for an Asian Role (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2014).

[13] Thomas Friedman, “Superbroke, Superfrugal, Superpower?” The New York Times, September 4, 2010.

[14] These issues are being discussed and analyzed in Track 2 and 1.5 engagements initiated by the Ministry of External Affairs (India), Gulf Research Center (Dubai-Geneva), Institute for Diplomatic Studies (Saudi Arabia) and Gulf Research Meeting (Cambridge) since 2007. Apart from Indians, G.C.C. citizens and Iranian scholars and officials, there has also been representation of Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, Pakistani and Turkish scholars. Some of the outcomes of these deliberations are documented in Ranjit Gupta, “Exploring the Possibility of a Pan-Asian Cooperative Security Paradigm for the Gulf Region,” in Ranjit Gupta et al., Eds., A New Gulf Security Architecture: Prospects and Challenges for an Asian Role, 259-272.

[15] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, Washington, April 2016.

[16] “Iran leader Offers GCC Heads Security Pact,” December 3, 2007, accessed December 20, 2016, https://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2007/12/03/42443.html.

[17] “Iran leader offers GCC heads security pact,” Al Arabiya, December 3, 2007, accessed December 21, 2016, https://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2007/12/03/42443.html.

[18] “Oman Ready to Mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Bin Alawi,” Iran News Agency, November 13, 2015; and “Qatar Offers to Host Arab Dialogue with Iran,” Al Jazeera, September 29, 2015.

[19] Ibid. See also Sujata Ashwarya Cheema, “India’s Relations with Iran: Looking beyond Oil,” in Ranjit Gupta et al., Eds., A New Gulf Security Architecture: Prospects and Challenges for an Asian Role, 115-140.

[20] Frederic Wehrey and Richard Sokolsky, “Imagining a New Security Order in the Gulf,” Carnegie Endowment, October 2015, accessed December 20, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP256_WehreySokolsky_Gulf_brief.pdf. 

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