Modi’s West Asian odyssey

As > Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew out from Doha on June 5, he brought to an end an unprecedented Indian engagement with the countries of the Gulf. In just ten months, he has visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, and has hosted the Abu Dhabi crown prince in Delhi. In every capital he has been received with a lot of warmth. Every country has applauded its historic and civilisational links with India, and every interaction has yielded substantial agreements which will take bilateral relations into new areas and reshape ties to make them relevant to contemporary times.

Economic and cultural ties

Besides paying tribute to the resident Indian community, the visits attached central importance to boosting energy and economic ties: here the difference is the commitment on both sides to upgrade the existing buyer-seller relations to long-term partnerships based on investments and joint ventures. The two sides also agreed to pursue cooperation in new frontier areas, such as space, telecommunications, renewable energy, food security, sustainable development, desert ecology, and advanced healthcare.

Every country visited expressed its admiration for India’s economic achievements and pledged to become a partner in India’s development efforts, with the UAE even setting aside a fund of $75 billion to invest in India’s infrastructure needs. All of them emphasised the value of cultural ties that have shaped our ethos over several centuries, and committed themselves to enhancing people-to-people links through new platforms for interaction, embodying the shared values of moderation and accommodation. The joint statement with Iran, titled ‘Civilisational Connect, Contemporary Context’, particularly focussed on sustaining historic cultural ties through interactions among scholars, authors, artists, filmmakers, the media, and sportspersons.

Every Gulf country expressed anxiety about the threat from terrorism and pledged to work closely with India to combat it, not only through strong armed action but also by countering radicalisation through promotion of a moderate religious discourse espousing peace, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

Most of the countries have spoken of India as their “strategic partner”, a status that represents a high degree of shared values, perceptions and approaches to matters of security concern. Thus, the joint statement with the UAE speaks of “shared threats to peace, stability and security”, and agrees to a “shared endeavour” to address these concerns, which is founded on “common ideals and convergent interests”. Similarly, the joint statement with Saudi Arabia talks of the two countries’ responsibility to promote peace, security and stability in the region. The Iran statement speaks of the strategic importance of regional connectivity linked with the development of Chabahar port.

Not surprisingly, enhancement of defence ties has been given central importance by all the countries the Prime Minister has visited. This includes frequent dialogue between senior officers, training, joint exercises by the three arms of the military of both countries, joint marine operations, and supply and joint development of arms and ammunition.

Defence cooperation is complemented by the countries agreeing to intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism operations, capacity-building and adoption of best practices and technologies by the security agencies on both sides. Cooperation in defence and intelligence affirms that India is seen as a worthy partner in these sensitive areas by countries that face serious domestic and external threats from extremists.

Promoting regional stability

While the bulk of the joint statements is devoted to > bilateral relations, every one of these documents contains a subtext that poses a challenge for India and imposes a new responsibility on it: how to shape an Indian role to promote security in the Gulf.

The UAE statement speaks of the need for the two countries to establish a “close strategic partnership” for “these uncertain times”, and calls upon them to “work together to promote peace, reconciliation, stability… in the wider South Asia, Gulf and West Asia region”. The Saudi joint statement notes “the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian subcontinent and the need for maintaining a secure and peaceful environment for the development of the countries of the region”.

The joint statement with Iran speaks at length about the threat from terrorism for the peace, security, stability and development of the region. It specifically refers to the peace and stability of the region being served by “a strong, united, and prosperous and independent Afghanistan” and their agreement to strengthen trilateral consultations and coordination.

West Asia today is in the throes of the gravest crisis in its modern history. Besides two ongoing wars, there is the scourge of jihad, represented by the transnational al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The two Islamic giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are locked in a competition in which each country sees the other as threatening its nationhood, regime, political order, and doctrinal standing in Islam. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran supports terror, interferes in the domestic politics of the neighbouring Arab states, and is a destabilising force that has regional hegemonic aspirations. Iran denies these allegations, arguing that the Saudi monarchy faces serious domestic economic and political challenges, particularly from its restless youth who chaff against an order that is on the wrong side of every issue in world affairs — the Kingdom is unfairly making a scapegoat of the Islamic Republic that has no regional territorial ambitions.

With the deep doctrinal and political divide between them, the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and the attendant proliferation of jihad, the stage is set for their differences to escalate into direct conflict.

India has every reason to be concerned: its energy security and its economic interests are linked with regional security, as is the welfare of its eight million-strong community. India’s abiding interests require that it get off the fence and contribute actively to regional stability by promoting engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and by working with regional and extra-regional partners with a similar interest in regional security, to structure platforms for dialogue and confidence-building measures.

This is a daunting challenge, but India is fully equipped to handle it. The ground was prepared by Foreign Sectratary S. Jaishankar when, speaking of West Asia at a conference in Delhi in March this year, he said: “We are no longer content to be passive recipients of outcomes… Our growing capabilities and stronger national branding, in fact, makes us a credible partner. We ourselves have a more nuanced view of developments in the region. The interplay among these nations actually offers us new avenues of cooperation.”

The time has come to live up to this commitment.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 4:59:30 PM |

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