10 years of India-Gulf engagement: Beyond rubrics of buyer-seller partnership
From a mere transactional relationship, India-Gulf ties have transformed into a much deeper strategic partnership in the past one decade
In recent decades, six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have emerged as pivotal in West Asia due to their huge sovereign wealth and Petro dollars, reformist policies and fast-moving diversification of their economies and interests beyond the hydrocarbons and regional heft as they continue to play a much bigger role in the global scheme of things.
With the perceived US withdrawal from the region, they have also adopted an “Act East’ policy towards Asia, focusing on their major hydrocarbons markets like China and India.
Their outreach also expanded beyond the routine buyer-seller relationships and several strategic projects and engagements have become more intrinsic to the relationship so much so that the region has also emerged as a de facto zone of competition between two major Asian powers i.e. India and China.
India-Gulf Strategic Partnership
Since the onset of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2014, one can easily venture to say with confidence that the relationship between India and West Asia, especially the GCC, has been a stellar success, shifting gears from a mere transactional relationship to a much deeper strategic partnership.
Contours of it are critical and clearly evident in various solid initiatives taken during the past decade by the Modi Government with various GCC countries including bridging the high-level visits deficit.
In fact, India’s West Asian policy has been a game changer with de-hyphenation; decimated Pak factor; advent of sub-regional and regional approaches for the first time and special focus on certain relationships reflect the shifting emphasis and direction.
When PM Modi took over, there was a certain concern among the West Asian countries that his focus would be more towards Israel but that concern was alleviated in no time as the Indian Prime Minister chose UAE for his first visit, and then several countries in GCC.
Policy of De-hyphenation Between Israel and Palestine
India adopted and de-hyphenated its policy to deal with each relationship on its own terms while maintaining principled stand support especially with regard to Israel and Palestine.
Prime Minister Modi travelled to both countries separately and became the first Prime Minister to do so. In fact, Palestine like several other Gulf countries, conferred their highest honor on PM Modi which was unusual.
By following this policy, India has been able to coast through the turbulence and intra-regional rivalries in a pragmatic manner while maintaining principles of need for peace and resolution of differences through dialogue and diplomacy which has been appreciated by all sides.
One such example is the ongoing Israel-Hamas War, when on October 7, 2023 India had condemned the terror attacks by Hamas but adhered to principled position on the Two-state solution and immediate provision of humanitarian assistance as well as full compliance with the international humanitarian law which was reflected in India’s stand during various UNGA resolutions. While sending immediate relief supplies to Gaza, New Delhi also increased financial assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
PM Modi also repeatedly spoke to regional and global leaders to work on ceasing the conflict and canvassed for a permanent solution to the Palestinian issue through direct dialogue. His External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited several countries. India also made its stand very clear at the NAM Summit, G20 follow up summit as well as at the BRICS Summit.
Importance of Security and Stability in the Gulf Region
India supports the inclusion of various major Gulf powers in the BRICS and the SCO. It actively supported Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and UAE files in this regard.
It is also natural since the security and stability in West Asia and GCC is directly connected to India’s very own critical interests be it energy security, economy or its 9 million expatriates or for that matter maritime trading lanes and connectivity which were recently threatened by the Houthis attacking commercial shipping including the Indian vessels. The Indian Navy had to deploy 10 naval ships in the region to escort the Indian and other commercial ships while providing security and relief to others as well as defeat piracy attempts.
India-Gulf Trade Relations
The UAE and Saudi Arabia happen to be India’s third and fourth largest trading partners. In fact, UAE is the first country where PM Modi has visited 6 times and might soon be going for the 7th time for the Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas and inauguration of the first Hindu Temple in Abu Dhabi for which as a special case land was provided by the UAE government.
UAE President Sheikh Zayed has been in India as Chief Guest on the Republic Day, as a special invitee for the G20 Summit and recently for the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. India has signed the first Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with UAE which has already yielded dividends and could become a template for India-GCC FTA.
The two countries are also working on an Investment Treaty. India and Oman, whose Sultan was in India recently, are also discussing FTA (Free Trade Agreement). Likewise, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman paid a highly important visit in September last year. In fact, after the G20 Summit he was on a State visit in India.
Special purpose vehicles have been created for trade and investments as well as collaboration in energy, climate, space, cyber security, nuclear, ICT and AI. High level councils have been established to steer the progress and projects.
Until recently, most of Indian initiatives have been within the bilateral context but now there is a slow and steady focus in undertaking sub-regional and regional initiatives. India welcomed the normalization of ties between Israel and Gulf and WANA countries with the onset of Abraham Accords.
It also appreciated the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and several other countries including the lifting of the Qatar blockade. It became part of an important initiative like the I2 U2 (India, Israel, UAE, and USA) under which important food security and hybrid energy projects are already underway. IUSU (India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and USA) is yet another project for coordination and key strategic project implementation.
But on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia along with USA and several European leaders signed the IMEEC (India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor) connectivity which could be a game changer even though temporarily it has come under a cloud due the polarizing Israel -Hamas War.
India-Gulf Defence Relations
Defence and security and strategic port projects have become another dimension of this important extended neighborhood of India.
First time visits of the Chief of Army Staff and other senior officials as the military and naval exercises both in bilateral and multilateral formats have become commonplace as the two sides find synergies to work on co-production and R&D.
Only last week, Saudi Arabia and India conducted joint military exercises in Rajasthan.
India and the GCC work closely for mutual benefit as both sides see tremendous opportunity to serve their national and global interests. India’s benign and non-obtrusive foreign policy implicit in civilizational linkages provides the requisite comfort.
Both sides have become more respectful to mutual sensitivities as they nurture deeper and broaden ties in an all-encompassing canvas.
Surely the challenges are going to be there but given the mutual trust and respect it should not be difficult to overcome them since both India and GCC partners wish to pursue the policy of strategic autonomy with alignment of their interests.
***The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation; he was the ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; views expressed here are his own