There is a new and little noticed geostrategic alliance on the rise. India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have had surface-level, transactional relations for a long time. However, last year’s normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states — chief among them, the UAE — along with Turkey's bid to return as the leader of a Muslim order and the growing distance between the UAE and Pakistan have created an unlikely and unprecedented “Indo-Abrahamic“ transregional order. This emerging multilateral pact may fill the gap the United States is leaving in the Middle East and has the potential to transform the region's geopolitics and geoeconomics.
It used to be about history and religion
In the global order that followed World War II, India, Israel, and the UAE were each stuck in a very complicated course of relations because of history and religion — two fundamental and foundational principles for the three centers of power.
In the middle of the last century, as a result of the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan, India sought to appeal to Muslim nations. New Delhi supported the Palestinian right to self-determination and sided with the Arab nations in their conflict with Israel. India had strong relations with Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser because of the two countries’ shared struggle against British occupation, the history of their nations, and the involvement of their leaders, President Nasser and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at the forefront of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
However, in response to the pan-Arabism championed by Nasser’s Egypt and the Cairo-based League of Arab States, Saudi Arabia established the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC) to assert Saudi — and by extension, the Gulf countries’ — leadership of Muslim causes around the world, including the long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir.
For several decades, the UAE and Pakistan maintained a very close and strong partnership. The UAE hosts a sizable Pakistani diaspora that sends substantial remittances back to Pakistan, in addition to providing financial aid and loans. In return for its largesse, the UAE had strategic relations with the Muslim world’s sole nuclear power, and received critical security and military support and training from Pakistan.
For its part, Israel had limited ability to make inroads with NAM members, including India and many other African, Asian, and Latin American countries, because of the Palestinian cause, the broader conflict with the Arab states, and anti-Americanism in the developing world.
The end of the Cold War and the dawn of an era of transactional relations
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Israel succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with India in 1992 and forged informal ties with many Gulf nations in the 1990s. Over the following two decades, transactional relations between India, Israel, and the UAE slowly grew. India wanted access to the UAE labor market and oil and the UAE recognized India’s status as an emerging global power. In an era of great power competition, New Delhi was central to Abu Dhabi’s ambitions for strategic autonomy. On another front, Israel wanted to make inroads with its neighbors in the region and the UAE saw it as a key channel to Washington. Despite India’s condemnation of Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, the two countries shared mutual security and strategic concerns.
More than a normalization agreement — an alliance
The shared anxieties in Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi — from Islamist movements to Tehran’s and Ankara's expansionist foreign policy — created an incentive to push forward with an unpreceded move: an agreement to normalize relations between Israel and two Gulf states. The Trump administration sponsored the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE, building on decades of informal relations as well as a more recent geostrategic rapprochement. Saudi Arabia, the traditional Gulf hegemon, signaled its "silent" approval of the agreements.
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israeli and Emirati leaders have pledged further defense cooperation, including Israeli support for the U.S. sale of F-35 planes to the UAE. Furthermore, trade between Israel and the UAE has significantly increased and more than 200,000 Israelis have visited the UAE in this short period. One notable announcement has been the UAE’s $3 billion Abraham Fund, which focuses on investing in priority areas for cooperation like trade, technology, infrastructure, and energy. Finally, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv are working together on building a new digital regional order, one in which the two states will partner more closely than ever in developing emerging technologies and cyber capabilities.
Despite the deteriorating situation in Gaza, the eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the transition from Benjamin Netanyahu to the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid coalition, the UAE has made it very clear that the Abraham Accords are a strategic and sovereign choice that is independent from the Palestinian/Israeli situation and the nature of government in Israel itself. In fact, shortly after the formation of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, Foreign Minister Lapid paid a historic two-day visit to the UAE. Lapid opened an Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai, making the UAE the first Gulf state visited by an Israeli cabinet minister since the Accords.
The normalization agreements between Israel and Arab nations — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco — are not a cold peace like the U.S.-sponsored deals with Cairo in 1979 and Amman in 1994. They go beyond the Palestinian question and its centrality to Arab-Israel relations since the 1940s and focus more on shared security concerns about Ankara and Tehran and their encirclement of Israel and the UAE, and the Gulf states more broadly.
Pakistan’s alignment with a Turkey-led Muslim order
The alignment between Israel and the UAE in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East was happening in parallel with other major changes in regional dynamics, including growing relations between the Gulf and Narendra Modi’s India and re-alignment between Pakistan and Turkey. The geostrategic competition between Turkey on one side and the UAE and Israel on the other was not confined to the Middle East, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. It expanded to the rest of the Muslim world, of which Ankara presents itself as the leader in an effort to displace Saudi Arabia. In December 2019, Malaysia's then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad invited Muslim leaders, clerics, and thinkers from 52 countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, to a summit in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the challenges facing the Muslim world. In the Gulf the Kuala Lumpur Summit was broadly viewed as a Turkey-led effort to undermine the Saudi/Gulf leadership of the Muslim world and the decades-old tradition of discussing Muslim affairs under the umbrella of the Jeddah-based OIC. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi compelled Pakistan and its prime minister, Imran Khan, not to attend the summit and to avoid a photo-op with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, both of whom are rivals of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Even though Pakistan eventually pulled out of the summit, there has been a growing rift between Islamabad and its Gulf allies, especially over the Kashmiri and Palestinian questions. Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, pushed Saudi Arabia to show leadership on the Kashmir issue in response to Riyadh's reluctance to back Pakistan's call for an OIC foreign ministers' meeting. Qureshi said, "It's right. I'm taking a position despite our good ties with Saudi Arabia." And Kashmir is not the only issue of contention between the Gulf and Pakistan. Although he did not explicitly criticize the UAE's normalization with Israel, Prime Minister Khan stressed that Pakistan would not recognize Israel. He said if Pakistan recognized Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights, "we will have to give up Kashmir as well then." The relationship between Abu Dhabi and Islamabad subsequently hit rock bottom, with the UAE imposing restrictions on Pakistani expatriates.
Islamabad has also drifted away from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi because of its broader realignment with Ankara. The most significant sign of a geostrategic alliance between Turkey and Pakistan is Ankara's negotiations with the United States and NATO over a potential Turkish role in operating and securing Kabul's international airport following the U.S. military withdrawal. The success of Ankara's ambitious mission in Kabul is tied to Islamabad's support and cooperation, given Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan, which could ease the Taliban's opposition to the plan. Although Pakistan has reassured the Gulf countries that its support of a Turkish-led Muslim order is no concern, strategic cooperation between Islamabad and Ankara in Afghanistan will likely exacerbate the UAE’s distrust. The political rift between Islamabad and Abu Dhabi may have grown large enough to surpass their past friendship.
Modi vs. Erdoğan
India and Turkey have had cold and distrustful relations since the establishment of bilateral ties in 1949. During the Cold War, New Delhi and Ankara were at odds geopolitically, as India was a leader of the NAM leaning toward the Soviet camp while Turkey guarded the Eastern gate against the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, there was a genuine effort to break the ice between New Delhi and Ankara, which resulted in a substantial increase in bilateral trade and investment and mutual high-level visits by leaders of both countries. However, growing economic ties could not bridge the gap between Indian and Turkish strategic interests or overcome the rise of their two polar opposite ideological leaders, Prime Minister Modi and President Erdoğan.
Turkish President Erdoğan's brand as a champion of a global political Islam collides with Indian Prime Minister Modi's Hindu nationalism and emboldens India’s rivals. Unsurprisingly, Turkey has intensified its support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue since Erdoğan’s rise to power. During the 2019 U.N. General Assembly, Erdoğan criticized India for revoking the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. In return, Modi canceled a scheduled trip to Turkey. Furthermore, beyond just the Kashmir issue, Pakistan also looks to Turkey as a reliable security partner and arms supplier, especially after Turkish intervention in Libya and Azerbaijan and the rise of Turkish drones. Turkey also supports Pakistan's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and previously opposed India's membership in the organization at Pakistan’s request. In response to this growing threat, New Delhi has looked to the eastern Mediterranean and Arab Gulf to counter Turkish influence through cooperation with its main opponents, Greece and the UAE. In the eastern Mediterranean, India supports Greece’s position against Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy. New Delhi and Athens have also intensified military coordination and cooperation. Earlier in July, Greece and India conducted a naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean — as a show of solidarity with Greece in its struggle with Turkey’s maritime ambitions.
Simply put, the more Ankara and Islamabad expand their strategic partnership, the more Turkey becomes India’s geopolitical rival rather than an economic partner
India between Israel and the Gulf
At the close of the Cold War, New Delhi pursued bilateral relations with Tel Aviv, yet remained careful not to sabotage its ties with the Arab states. More recently, the personal affection between Modi and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu transformed the Israel-India relationship into an alliance. Modi and Netanyahu held common interests and similar worldviews, including a mutual desire to create respective ethnonationalist states and counter Islamist movements and powers. Israel is the second largest arms supplier to India and provides cybersecurity solutions to secure its critical infrastructure. Israel also trains Indian special forces on counter-terrorism. In Kashmir, Israel trains Indian police officers and equips security forces with surveillance technology and foliage-penetrating radar. India's consul general in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, summed up the bilateral security relationship when he called for the replication of the "Israel model" in Kashmir. Today, despite the departure of Netanyahu, the New Delhi-Tel Aviv relationship has become institutional enough to weather the storm of political change in either country.
India and Israel’s alliance coincided with a stronger relationship between India and the Gulf. New Delhi and Abu Dhabi began to align more on geopolitical affairs beyond the conventional three pillars of their relationship: oil, remittances, and the diaspora. The UAE courted India into its camp as Pakistan drew closer to Turkey. The new strategic alignment between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi centers around countering Islamist extremism, defending state sovereignty, and pushing back against the growing influence of the Turkey-led Muslim order. The Gulf countries’ economic leverage over Pakistan make them especially appealing to India, as the UAE has used it to contain Islamabad and even mediate between India and Pakistan to reduce political tensions. In February 2021, the UAE succeeded in facilitating a joint agreement between India and Pakistan to uphold the 2003 cease-fire agreement across the Line of Control — an unprecedented diplomatic success for Abu Dhabi that aims at solidifying relations with India without antagonizing Pakistan.
From diplomacy to military affairs, New Delhi and Abu Dhabi have cultivated a deep and strategic alignment — the UAE even invited India to the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting in Abu Dhabi for the first time in 2019. That same year the UAE also granted Modi the “Order of Zayed,” the highest civilian award in the Emirates, despite the international outcry over his government’s crackdown in Kashmir. Last December, for the first time ever, India’s army chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The visit underscored efforts to transform the trilateral relationship into security arrangements that include joint military exercises and security and intelligence partnerships. Building on Naravane’s visit to the Gulf, in March 2021, India participated in a UAE-hosted air exercise alongside the air forces of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United States, France, and South Korea, while Greece, Jordan, Kuwait, and Egypt observed. And given the unprecedented cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, Israel is not far from joining this annual multinational military exercise.
What’s next for the Indo-Abrahamic alliance?
The size, power, and influence of the Indo-Abrahamic states — India, Israel, and the UAE — have the potential to transform the region's geopolitics and geoeconomics. The multilateral dynamics have been taking shape over the past few years, but accelerated rapidly in 2020 with the Abraham Accords normalization agreements, Turkey’s pursuit of a more aggressive foreign policy, and the growing distance between Pakistan and the UAE. Although the three powers still have not embraced the grouping as a formal geopolitical bloc, an Indo-Abrahamic strategic dialogue is a close possibility. For instance, Greece has called for establishing a trilateral dialogue with India and the UAE, and it seems likely that this could be expanded to include Israel in the future given its integral role in Greece’s posture in the eastern Mediterranean. While geopolitics may be the primary reason for such an unprecedented transregional pact, the geoeconomic aspect should not be underestimated either.
Another critical challenge for the Indo-Abrahamic alliance is where Saudi Arabia — the heartland of Islam and the biggest Arab economy — stands in relation to the emerging geopolitical bloc. Riyadh has nurtured good relations with Tel Aviv and New Delhi and may look to this grouping as a strategic opportunity in the long run.
The rise of the Indo-Abrahamic bloc in West Asia could provide Washington with a geostrategic solution to the pressing challenge of the U.S. presence in the region and how to do more with less, while connecting the bloc with the new U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and shoring up an Asian order.
Mohammed Soliman is a non-resident scholar at MEI. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in the MENA region. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images