Raja-Mandala: Re-imagining the Middle East

Persisting with its traditional political timidity in the region will cost India dearly

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: January 19, 2016 6:32 pm
sushma swaraj, middle east, sushma swaraj in israel, sushma swaraj in palestine, sushma swaraj visits israel and palestine, palestine, israel, narendra modi Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right shakes hands with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during their meeting at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s two-day visit to Tel Aviv and Ramallah might end New Delhi’s discomfort with itself in dealing with Israel and Palestine. But India’s past problems in the Middle East pale into insignificance in comparison to the challenges staring at Delhi today.

After Independence, India’s mental map of the Middle East had two axes. One was the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis. The other was anti-imperial solidarity. India’s simple political image of the Middle East, of course, never fully reflected the messy ground realities.

But the Indian political class would not let facts come in the way. For the Congress, sounding pro-Arab and anti-West became a matter of political expediency. The Jana Sangh and others on the right saw India’s Middle East policy as a prisoner of minority appeasement at home.

The establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel after the Cold War did not help move Delhi decisively towards
an interest-driven regional policy. The UPA government deepened India’s engagement with Israel in private but was not willing to be seen with its leaders in public.

The immediate instinct of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in contrast, was to flaunt India’s special relationship with Israel and his own personal bonhomie with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Since then, though, the Modi government has begun to recognise that India’s interests demand an open and transparent engagement with all sides in the Middle East.

If Delhi has struggled all these years to find the balance in coping with the Arab-Israeli dispute, it must now deal with far more pressing challenges arising from the intra-Arab conflicts, the deepening sectarian faultlines and the mounting rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

India’s traditional anti-Western prism too looks outdated in understanding the region. After failed Western interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, President Barack Obama is refusing to drag America into a new regional quagmire in the Middle East.

After four decades of marginalisation in the Middle East, Russia is actively intervening in the region. America may still be the most important power in the Middle East. But its hegemony is being chipped away on both the supply and demand side.

There are other trends as well. Extended hostility between the US and Iran has begun to ease after the resolution of the nuclear dispute between Tehran and the international community. This has sent a chill down the spine of many Arab regimes that have long relied
on American power as the guarantor of regional security.

The normally cautious Saudi Arabia has struck out on its own. It has assembled a coalition of more than 30 countries to support its new regional activism. The contestation between Riyadh and Tehran is now the dominant reality in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

The new regional dynamic is illustrated by two other visits to the Middle East this week. One is by President Xi Jinping, who is travelling this week to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, and the other is a surprising dash to Riyadh and Tehran by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accompanied by the army chief, General Raheel Sharif.

China, which has largely kept itself away from the politics of the region, is moving gingerly on a pivot to the Greater Middle East. For the region itself, China now looms large as a long-term economic and political partner. China is now the largest importer of oil from the region. Xi wants to complement it by promoting Beijing’s “one belt, one road” initiative.

China has put itself in the middle of the Afghan peace process, and stepped up its political engagement with both Iran and the Arabs. The Chinese navy has operated in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and has begun to build a military base in Djibouti. Beijing is also likely to expand its arms sales and military assistance to the region.

If Xi’s visit comes after a steady rise in China’s profile in the region, the rare joint foreign visit by the Pakistan PM and the army chief underlines the impact of Gulf geopolitics on the subcontinent. Although Islamabad is presenting the foray as an effort to “mediate” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is more a tightrope walk between a neighbour and a longstanding benefactor. It is also about relieving the tension between Saudi pressure to join the war against Iran and the widespread internal opposition to it. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh, too, is under intense pressure to pay back the Saudis.

The emerging Middle East has little in common with India’s outdated perceptions of the region. Persisting with the traditional political timidity and posturing will cost India dearly. To secure India’s vast and vital interests in the Middle East and to prevent the fires there enveloping the subcontinent, Delhi needs to liberate its policy from narrow domestic political considerations, look beyond oil and diaspora, and embark on a substantive strategic engagement with the region.

 

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. U
    Umong Sethi
    Jan 19, 2016 at 6:24 am
    A pragmatic analysis by Raja Mohan.
    Reply
    1. K
      K SHESHU
      Jan 19, 2016 at 7:48 am
      Strenghtening relations with any country is welcome. But, at the same time, the policies followed by that country must be taken note of. Israel policy of zionism must be opposed while its relations may be considered favourably.
      Reply
    2. M
      Mavala
      Jan 18, 2016 at 8:16 pm
      Feels like part 1 of the article, author leaves us wndering what strategic engagement might look like.
      Reply
      1. A
        Ash Hundal
        Jan 19, 2016 at 7:11 am
        The write up represents dithering and inconsistent foreign policy of our leaders. On Western side USA,China, Afgan and stan are deciding the future of Afganisatan, on Eastern side China has built strong in roads in Arabian Sea and countries bordering it dia is left pretense of posturing. Our leaders have failed to keep amicable relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, BDesh, Myanamar. Jumping to Israel may be the need but certain things if carried out shrewdly are better. Wish Modi Govt establishes Foreign relations through ambadors and foreign ministers , and Modi need to stop his monkey trips.
        Reply
      2. O
        Observer
        Jan 19, 2016 at 1:00 pm
        Truly the dumbest comment one has heard! Without their oil and 50 billion in remittances, we will be in the sh*thouse for sure. Besides, Modi has not added a single job, and 50 lakh returnees will be a nightmare.Making relationships is based on national interests, and arms can be bought from anywhere. cheers for your ic illiterate comments.
        Reply
        1. O
          Observer
          Jan 19, 2016 at 10:13 am
          these Sh*t countries employ 50 lakh indians, who send home 60 billion in remittances. Israel has a few thousand Indians and no oil, nor any remittances. Ha ha!
          Reply
          1. A
            Arun
            Jan 19, 2016 at 12:03 pm
            We are made to think in our mind that we are important for the gulf countries including Israel, but that is not true. Palestinians know that India is ruled by RSS and hence India would never trust Modi/Sushma. Israel never trusts India, however hard it tries. They also know that this RSS govt would be gone by 2019.
            Reply
            1. R
              Rajesh
              Jan 19, 2016 at 10:39 am
              Also, for the record, just like India, Muslims citizens of Israel enjoy far more freedom that the pigs living in Saudi or jihadi country (especially if that pig is Shia).
              Reply
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