When the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, arrives in Delhi as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations this week, he will only be the third leader in 70 years from the Middle East to grace the occasion. Delhi had hosted only two other leaders — the president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami (2003), and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (2006). This indeed is surprising, given the multiple factors binding India and the region and Delhi’s persistent post-independence claims on political solidarity with the Middle East. Delhi has had reasons to serenade even Pakistani leaders (1955 and 1965) and a Chinese PLA General (1958) as honoured Republic Day guests. Since the end of the Cold War and the proclamation of the Look East Policy, Delhi has hosted many Asian leaders, but so few from the Middle East.
Thereby hangs the sad tale of India’s engagement with the Middle East. No other region outside of the subcontinent is so critical for India’s security and prosperity than the Middle East. Yet, the region never gets sustained high-level political attention in Delhi. The visit of Sheikh Mohammed and the signing of a strategic partnership agreement will hopefully mark a big change in Delhi’s mindset and help consolidate a more productive third phase in India’s engagement with the Middle East.
In the first phase, India’s emphasis was on anti-Western and anti-Israel solidarity with the Middle East. This was driven in part by the presumed need to prevent Pakistan from scoring a march over India by playing up its religious affinity with the region. But it also prevented India from coming to terms with the many other contradictions of the region — between republics and monarchies, conservative regimes and radical Islamists, Shia and Sunni, to name a few. Despite expansive goodwill for India in the region, Delhi seemed to have little to offer beyond rhetorical support.
Delhi’s emphasis on self-reliance saw the dismantlement of the strong economic links that emerged between the undivided subcontinent and the Middle East through the 19th century. The oil boom in the Gulf saw the dramatic expansion of India’s interdependence region — through labour exports and energy imports. Delhi, however, was ill-equipped in building on this interdependence in the first phase. As it emphasised non-alignment and opposed military alliances, independent India discarded the Raj legacy of providing security to many regimes in the Gulf and the greater Middle East. The second phase, which began at the turn of the 1990s, saw a more pragmatic Indian approach to the region. Delhi normalised diplomatic relations with Israel without having to sacrifice its expansive interests in the rest of the Middle East.
As the scale of India’s economic interdependence on the Gulf grew rapidly in the reform era, Delhi began to move away from mercantilism to deepening trade and investment links with the region. The second phase also saw the renewal of military exchanges and security cooperation with the countries of the region. But the profound convulsions affecting the region seemed to prevent bolder Indian military partnerships in the Gulf.
That the region does not figure high on Delhi’s political radar was marked by the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to the region only four times during his decade-long tenure — two of those trips were to attend the non-aligned summits. To make matters worse, the first months of the NDA government seemed to suggest Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be more interested in Israel than the rest of the region.
There was a solid corrective in the last two years. Even as he brought the Israel partnership into the open, Modi has devoted much energy to engaging the Gulf states. As he pointed out in his recent remarks at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, “we have redefined, in a short span of time, and despite uncertainty and conflict, our partnerships with Gulf and West Asia, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Iran”. The prime minister added that Delhi’s intensive engagement has helped “protect and promote our security interests, nurture strong economic and energy ties and advance the material and social welfare of around eight million Indians”.
India’s current intensive engagement with the UAE is a test case for India’s credibility in the region. Amidst the shifting external and internal balance of power in the Middle East, the region is eager to see India return to its traditional role as a major economic and security partner. On its part, the UAE has laid out a bold agenda for bilateral cooperation in areas ranging from investments in civilian infrastructure to defence production. It is ready for deeper collaboration on counter-terrorism and regional security.
That a small military contingent from the UAE will join the military march on Republic Day is a powerful reminder of India’s historic role as a security provider in the region and the opportunity today for reclaiming that role. What stands in the way is Delhi’s bureaucratic inertia that has so consistently limited the nation’s international prospects and repeatedly frustrated India’s putative partners. The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’