Context: The weekend meeting in Riyadh between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the national security advisers of the US, UAE, and India underlines the growing strategic convergence between Delhi and Washington in the Gulf. It also highlights India’s new possibilities in the Arabian Peninsula.
New Development in the Middle East
The new India-US warmth on the Gulf is a major departure from the traditional approaches to the Middle East in both India and the US.
- In India, one of the entrenched principles of the Nehruvian foreign policy was the proposition that Delhi must either oppose Washington or keep its distance from it in the Middle East. This self-imposed ideological taboo was broken with the formation of a four-nation grouping unveiled in October 2021 called I2U2 that brought the US, India, Israel, and the UAE together.
- It is too understand that joining hands with the US was not the only taboo that current foreign policy dispensation discarded. It also rejected the notion that India can’t be visibly friendly to Israel.
- The move has also transformed India’s uneasy relations with the two Arabian kingdoms, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, into solid strategic partnerships. As India is now doubling down with a new quadrilateral with the US, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
- Emerging Arabia opens enormous new possibilities for India’s economic growth and Delhi’s productive involvement in promoting connectivity and security within Arabia and between it and the abutting regions including Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and the Subcontinent.
- The engagement would also help India overcome the dangerous forces of violent religious extremism within the Subcontinent. The new opportunities in Arabia and the emerging possibilities for partnership with the US and the West position India to rapidly elevate its own standing in the region.
- Further the US is not the only Western power that India is beginning to work with in the Gulf. France has emerged as an important partner in the Gulf and the Western Indian Ocean. India now has a trilateral dialogue with Abu Dhabi and Paris
- It is also to understand that it is not only India that is shedding its “anti-Western” lens in the Middle East, the US is leading the West to discard its pro-Pakistan bias in thinking about the relationship between the Subcontinent and the Gulf. Under Nehruvian foreign policy India withdrew from its historic geopolitical role in the Middle East, Pakistan became the lynchpin of the Anglo-American strategy to secure the “wells of (oil) power” in the Gulf.
- However Pakistan’s continuing strategic decline makes it a lot less relevant to the changing geopolitics of the Gulf. Once viewed as a moderate Muslim nation with prospects for economic growth, it has now locked itself into a self-made trap of violent religious extremism and its political elite is utterly unprepared to lift the nation economically.
- Pakistan has drifted too close to China. As the US-China confrontation sharpens, Islamabad is tempted to align with China and Russia in the region and the scholars believe that the current government might prefer to boost its “all-weather partnership” with Beijing.
Understanding the Changing Regional Dynamics
- The US is not about to abandon the Middle East. But it certainly is recalibrating its regional strategy.
- US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan highlighted several elements of the new US approach. Viewed from Delhi, two of them stand out.
- One was about building new partnerships, including with Delhi
- Second was about the integration of the Arabian Peninsula into India and the world.
- It is also about the rising power of the Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Gulf kingdoms have accumulated massive financial capital and embarked on an ambitious economic transformation that will reduce their dependence on oil over the long term.
- They have also begun to diversify their strategic partnerships, develop nationalism rather than religion as the political foundation for their states, promote religious tolerance at home, and initiate social reform.
The momentous change in intra-regional and international relations of the Arabian Peninsula, India has inevitably become part of the new regional calculus. Seizing the new strategic opportunities for India in the Gulf would, however, involve the long overdue modernisation of Delhi’s strategic discourse on the Gulf and a conscious effort to change the outdated popular narratives on the Arabian Peninsula.