India's interests and capabilities extend well beyond the sub-continent. This essay is the first in a series that will explore 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 future. More ...
This essay, which launches the MAP series on India’s relations with the Middle East (West Asia), delineates the extraordinary transformation of India’s deeply fraught relations with the region into, arguably, India’s most satisfying set of external relationships.
India’s Engagement with West Asia in the Cold War Era
Until the end of the Cold War India’s relations with West Asia were primarily shaped by India’s policy responses to evolving geopolitical ground realities internationally and in the region. When India became independent, the West exercised almost unchallengable influence and control over West Asia. All independent West Asian countries then had strongly anti-Communist, pro-West regimes and had become a part of the American-led bloc in the context of the newly emerged Cold War. However, to the West’s great disappointment, even anger, India adopted a unique approach — not being aligned with either camp.
On September 7, 1946, five days after joining the Governor General’s Executive Council as Vice Chairman and Member in charge of External Affairs, Nehru declared “We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups aligned against one another … far too long have we of Asia been petitioners in Western courts and chancelleries .... We do not intend to be the playthings of others.” India consciously decided to use the expression “West Asia” to refer to the “Middle East,” the latter being a term which originated in Western colonialist perspectives.
India’s high-decibel support for the Palestinian cause and pan-Arab nationalism with strong denunciations of Israeli and Western policies further angered Western powers. India had consistently provided a welcoming haven to Jewish people going back 2000 years. But having strongly denounced the Balfour Declaration (1917) during India’s freedom struggle, it was inevitable for India to oppose the creation of Israel and its admission to the United Nations as a matter of principle.
Britain had deliberately created Pakistan as an independent Muslim State. Pakistan’s belligerent hostility to India from day one was also manifested in its malevolent use of the Islamic card against India. There was automatic Western and Arab/Iranian/Turkish support for the emergence of Pakistan and in the many disputes that Pakistan created with India and in the wars that it initiated against India starting from its brazen invasion of Kashmir on October 22, 1947. Anti-Indian attitudes were clearly manifested in the discussions in the U.N. Security Council on the issue of Hyderabad from September 1948 to May 1949 and on Kashmir.
Britain sponsored the Baghdad Pact (1955), a military alliance with the region’s heavyweights — the Shah’s Iran and Iraq (until 1958 a pro-Western monarchy) as well as Pakistan and Turkey — in order to ensure its continued strategic control over the region and particularly to prevent the ingress of any Soviet influence. However, Pakistan’s sole motivation to join the alliance was the “India factor.” Unsurprisingly, India strongly denounced the formation of this military alliance.
India had viewed the advent of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt very positively and had great empathy with the Nasserite ideology of pan-Arab nationalism, socialism, secular and republican governance. India supported Egypt strongly during the Suez crisis and against the consequent Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt and later in the 1967 war with Israel. Nehru established a strong personal relationship with Nasser and together with President Tito of Yugoslavia the three leaders were the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement. All this exacerbated India’s rift with the West.
Nasserite ideology was the inspiration for the formation of the United Arab Republic (U.A.R.), a union with Syria in February 1958; for the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq in July 1958; for the overthrow of the Imamate in Yemen and establishment of a Republican state after a civil war from 1962-1970 in which the Imamate was backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt had 85,000 troops at its peak. Therefore, all monarchies in West Asia viewed Nasserite ideology as a very serious existential threat. Nasser’s closeness to the Soviet Union made matters worse. For these reasons India’s closeness to Nasser had long lasting negative fallout as it raised serious questions about India's intentions in the region.
India's relationship with Iraq under Saddam Hussein was close, multidimensional and fruitful. Indeed, it was probably India’s most valuable and productive bilateral relationship in West Asia during the Cold War period. India implemented dozens of projects in Iraq and provided military training, particularly for the Iraqi air force. Iraq was India’s leading oil supplier. And Saddam Hussein extended explicit political support in the context of India’s problems with Pakistan. Both countries were close to the Soviet Union. However, this was viewed negatively by almost all West Asian countries.
In 1969 India was gratuitously humiliated. After the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco invited India to the summit of Muslim countries in Rabat, which led to the formation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (O.I.C.), India was not allowed to participate after the inaugural session due to Pakistan’s threat to walk out. To India’s great annoyance, the O.I.C. and its Contact Group (established at the O.I.C. summit in Tehran in 1994) adopted, at Pakistani instigation, strongly worded anti-India recommendations, resolutions and statements regularly on Kashmir and on the supposed plight of Indian Muslims. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been proactively involved throughout.
The 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the consequent mounting of the modern jihad by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to evict Soviet forces became a particularly strong cementing factor between them while becoming yet another source of severe dissonance between India on the one hand, and West Asian countries and the West on the other.
All this led to a de facto politico-military-strategic partnership between the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Pakistan and six West Asian monarchies (including Jordan but excluding Oman) throughout the Cold War period. This also led to the emergence of a special relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia inter alia, including the stationing of Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia and the funding of Pakistani arms acquisitions and its emerging nuclear weapons program. As the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan intensified, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) also became a particularly strong Pakistan supporter. These same two Arab countries became the staunchest supporters of the Taliban regime.
Iran was also conspicuously pro-Pakistan during both the Shah and Khomenei eras — in the former as part of the alliance with the West, and in the latter due to Iran’s ambition to become the leader of the Islamic world and hence its strong support to all ‘Muslim’ causes.
When the Cold War ended, India’s only friends in West Asia were Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) Chairman Yasir ‘Arafat, who was gravely compromised due to his support for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait; a greatly weakened and strategically besieged Saddam; and Oman and Syria. India’s lone pillar of strategic support in the world, the Soviet Union, disintegrated. So dire was the state of the economy that India’s gold reserves were physically airlifted to Europe in 1990 in order to enable an International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) loan.
Dramatic Policy Reorientations
India drew game-changing conclusions from this bitter denouement. India’s first post-Cold War Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who assumed office in June 1991, swiftly wrought dramatic economic and foreign policy changes to adjust to the new global geopolitical realities. Ideology, a protectionist economy, and advocacy of Third World concerns were junked; national interest-oriented pragmatism became the overriding guiding principle. Dramatic economic reform and liberalization were initiated to enable India to join the global economic mainstream to achieve high economic growth rates on a sustained basis; this was made the highest priority objective of Indian foreign policy.
India ceased viewing West Asia through the prism of its issues with Pakistan, discontinued the use of strong rhetoric denouncing other countries’ policies, and abandoned defensive, reactive policy approaches. India also started consciously courting the United States, now the lone global superpower. Importantly, India began to reach out to all West Asian countries without picking and choosing between them, and on the basis of mutual benefit.
In particularly audacious moves in December 1991, India reversed its earlier vote in the United Nations that had equated Zionism with racism. After personally obtaining P.L.O. Chairman Arafat’s full concurrence, Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, disregarding extremely strong domestic criticism. The relationship has flourished since then.
In December 1992, Rao, courageously risking a potential rebuff, reached out to Iran; his visit the next year turned out to be exceedingly satisfying. A great rapport was established between him and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A growing convergence of Indian and Iranian strategic interests in Afghanistan during the 1990s laid the foundation for a broad-based and mutually advantageous bilateral relationship in the future.
The Indian economy began to grow impressively, even as Pakistan became increasingly enmeshed in Afghanistan and mired in internal political instability. The spreading Islamist extremist militancy and terrorism in Pakistan and West Asia — while the world’s third largest Muslim community in India remained immune to this virus — presented a particularly strong and impressive contrast internationally.
Reversing decades of enormous pressure on India on nuclear-related issues, the signing of the framework agreement for the Indo-United States nuclear deal on July 18, 2005 capped by President George W. Bush’s repeated declarations that the U.S. intended to help India become a great power, dramatically put the long estranged Indo-U.S. relationship on a hugely positive trajectory. Except for China, the other four permanent members endorsed India’s quest for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Taken together, these developments constituted public recognition that the world welcomed India’s rise, in contrast with growing anxieties about China’s rise. These same circumstances also persuaded Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to look at India very differently. In response to Pakistan’s adventurism in Kargil in 1999, West Asian countries and the West declined to support Pakistan — the first time such response in the long history of the India-Pakistan conflict.
A New Era Dawns
With the advent of the new millennium, there has been an extraordinary turnaround in the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) countries and India.
Collectively, the G.C.C. countries have become India’s preeminent oil and gas supplier and leading trade partner. Indians are the largest expatriate group in each of the six G.C.C. countries. 3,050,000 Indians live and work in Saudi Arabia constituting the largest number of Indian passport holders abroad, followed by 2,800,000 in the U.A.E. The processes propelling this movement took place because of the high comfort level with Indians due to the millennia old people to people interaction and their reputation for being law abiding and hard-working. There was no Indian government role in sending them to the region. Significantly, the number of Indians in G.C.C. countries has continued to rise notwithstanding the tightening of domestic policies to curtail the influx of expatriate manpower and despite the ongoing wars in West Asia from early 2011 onward. These facts represent an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India by G.C.C. countries in which internal security is now an even greater concern than it had been earlier.
No major power has the kind of people-to-people socio-cultural compatibility and socio-economic interdependence with countries of the Gulf region, in particular with G.C.C .countries that India has. Except for continuing O.I.C. activism relating to Kashmir in particular, there are no bilaterally contentious political issues between India and the G.C.C. countries. India is very proud of being the world's largest democracy but India believes strongly that it is not the business of foreign countries to impose forms of government on other countries; in fact, India believes that monarchies in G.C.C. countries are a factor of stability, fully in keeping with the customs, ethos and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula.
The deadly terrorist attacks in November 2008 in Mumbai was a watershed — the G.C.C. countries finally recognized the potential dangers to the region of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism against India. These attacks were strongly and unequivocally condemned though without explicitly naming Pakistan. However, since then in particular Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have provided excellent and expanding anti-terrorism cooperation by repatriating those India wanted for terrorist activity within India despite intensive efforts by Pakistan to prevent such repatriations even going to the extent of often claiming that those persons were Pakistani nationals. The cooperation extended is much more than what is in the public domain.
Already excellent relations with the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have developed even further since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in May 2014. There is a strong and growing multifaceted strategic partnership between India and these countries, as sketched out in the many agreements they have forged in a wide variety of fields, ranging from energy, trade, and investment to counterterrorism and defense cooperation.
India’s relations with Iraq and Iran are on the upswing as well. It merits mention that though India did not even have an Ambassador in Baghdad from 2004 to 2011 due to security considerations, Iraq’s economic relationship with India has been among Iraq’s top three global economic partnerships in recent years and is growing rapidly. It is now the second largest oil supplier to India.
The Indo-Iranian economic relationship is also poised for a dramatic upsurge. On May 24, 2016, Prime Minister Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a historic deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar and thereby open transport-and-trade corridor to and through Afghanistan to Central Asia and Europe. India is also hoping to be awarded rights to develop the coveted Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf.
It is telling, and in some ways remarkable, that the positive momentum in the development of India’s relations with its West Asian counterparts has been sustained despite the political turmoil and violence that has convulsed the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar between August 2015 and June 2016 took place at a time when the wars in Syria and Yemen were at their peak and in which these countries were deeply involved. Though there are sharply different perceptions regarding the current conflicts in West Asia between India and these countries, the leaders consciously did not allow this to adversely affect their bilateral relations.
It is noteworthy that India’s relationships with the G.C.C. countries, Iran and Israel started growing simultaneously from the early 1990s and really took off, also simultaneously, in the new millennium. Based on mutual benefit and advantage, they developed in parallel without impinging on each other even as each of these countries was fully aware of India’s developing relations with the others. Underlining his special fondness for Israel, Prime Minister Modi’s first meeting with a West Asian leader was with Prime Minister Netanyahu during the annual U.N. Modi is likely to visit Israel, which has become India’s third-largest supplier of military equipment, later this year. India’s flourishing relationship with Israel has not damaged its relations with other West Asian countries; on the contrary, the scale and scope of these relationships have been expanding.
That India has managed to keep all of these diverse relationships on a positive track in spite of the political obstacles has not been easy. Neither has it been a matter of sheer luck. Since the turmoil in West Asia gathered force in 2011, India has hewed to a “hands-off” policy based on the principle that regime change through foreign intervention constitutes a violation of international norms and law. India has assiduously avoided taking sides in any of the region’s rivalries or conflicts. At the same time, India has supported all efforts to defeat the barbarous Islamic State as well as U.N. diplomatic initiatives aimed at the negotiated settlement of conflicts.
Finally, there has not been a single Islamic State-related terrorist attack in India, as, tragically, there have been in much of the Arab and Muslim world, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even in Europe. Indeed, the Islamic State’s ideological impact in India has been negligible. This very significant fact deserves attention; it is a matter of the greatest pride for India, and particularly for India’s Muslim community of 180 million.
 Jawaharlal Nehru, Independence and After: A Collection of Speeches (New York: The John Day Company, 1950) 340.
 Government of India, “Population of Overseas Indians,” December 2016, accessed February 7, 2017, http://mea.gov.in/images/attach/NRIs-and-PIOs_1.pdf.
 “India, Iran set to sign deal on Farzad-B natural gas field in early 2017,” Platts, October 26, 2016, accessed February 7, 2017, http://www.platts.com/latest-news/natural-gas/newdelhi/india-iran-set-t….