Engaging West Asia: India’s Arab diplomacy on an upswing

arab-khurshidThe Arab League chief’s visit to India telescopes burgeoning ties between New Delhi and the Arab world, home to around 7 million Indians and a vital lynchpin of the country’s energy security.

The talks between Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby and India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid December 17 culminated in the signing of two pacts to deepen diplomatic, economic and cultural relations between the two sides. The two documents envisage a structured engagement between India and the 22-member Arab States at the senior official and ministerial levels. The pacts also seek to scale up cooperation in diverse areas including trade and investment, energy, small and medium enterprises, culture and capacity building.

The pacts underlined a renewed vigour in India-Arab relations. A string of high-profile engagements in the last few weeks clearly shows a new momentum in relations between India and the Arab world. El-araby’s visit came soon after Salman Khurshid’s visit to Bahrain, and that of Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates to India, during which the two sided signed the landmark Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement (BIPA). And only a few days ago, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was in New Delhi to deepen bilateral ties amid the ongoing transition in his country.

In view of the tectonic shifts taking place in West Asia, it’s crucial for India to review and recalibrate its relations with the region, as shifts in that region have grave implications for New Delhi as well.

Blossoming Ties

arab-uaeIndia has traditionally enjoyed cordial, warm and stable ties with the Arab world, which go back centuries. Together with Egypt, India pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement and India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has been unwavering till date. With the discovery of oil, trade and commerce between India and the Gulf region burgeoned. At the same time Indian spices and Bollywood films continued to find flourishing markets across the region.

Today India’s cumulative bilateral trade with the Arab countries is over US$ 110 billion and the region is home to around 7 million Indians – the largest expatriate community in the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). India topped the list of recipient countries of foreign remittances from the GCC countries with $29.7bn in 2011. Trade and tourism is constantly on the rise with 500 flights a week from India to the UAE alone.  The region also caters to 70% of India’s energy imports.

Arab Spring and India’s response

Three years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller, set himself on fire on a Tunisian street, triggering off seismic changes across the Arab world. The Arab Spring has unleashed unimaginable forces, which are causing a huge paradigm shift in the region. These developments have immense ramifications for India. India’s response to events in the Arab world has been cautious, even predictable. In keeping with its commitment to the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, India has pursued its preferred policy of ‘non-interference’ and  ‘non-intervention’ in the region, calling for a ‘peaceful resolution’ of all conflicts through ‘dialogue’.

Given its own history of colonisation, India has a deep-rooted suspicion of external military intervention of any kind, unless sanctioned by the UN.  Thus, India opposed the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, even as it had opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  During the uprising in Egypt, India consistently called for a peaceful settlement through dialogue.

On Syria, India has consistently – along with Brazil and South Africa, with whom it forms the IBSA grouping – rooted for a ‘Syrian led process’, a calibrated position described by some as ‘strategic ambiguity’. It has usually abstained on all UN resolutions favouring sanctions or use of force against the regime. Given that the NATO intervention inside Libya has only helped to spread greater chaos and violence there, and given the bitter Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that has come to colour the conflict in Syria, which has turned into a free for all battle ground, attracting jihadis from all corners of the globe, India’s position may have been vindicated.

While India’s stand may have not been favourable to the Arab League position on Syria which has given Syria’s seat to the Syrian opposition, India has signalled its willingness to do business with which ever government is in power. Thus, it welcomed then President Mohamed Morsi to New Delhi in March this year, which heralded a new beginning in India-Egypt ties, which had been in the doldrums since Sadat’s time. And New Delhi is looking to engage the new dispensation shaping up in Cairo.

Think regionally, act bilaterally

India’s burgeoning economy, prowess in information technology, and raucous democracy, and its participation in groupings like the BRICS, have much to offer to budding democracies like Egypt. In New Delhi, Morsi, who came accompanied by a high-powered delegation, expressed hopes for Egypt’s inclusion in the BRICS, to form an ‘E-BRICS’ soon.  Seven agreements were signed between the two sides, focussing mainly on trade and technology. Though Morsi was overthrown in August, bilateral relations continue to be on an upswing as the recent visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy to New Delhi proved. Bilateral trade currently stands at $4.5 billion and India is now setting up a IT centre in Egypt’s Al Azhar University. Fahmy told journalists in Delhi that Egypt looked to Indian democracy for lessons. And the Indian embassy in Cairo, amidst all the ongoing turmoil, held an exhibition on Indo-Islamic architecture.

Simultaneously, India has pushed for greater bilateral cooperation with other Arab countries.

In June this year, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid travelled to Baghdad in what was the first high-level visit from India in 23 years. On August 22, New Delhi played host to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for four days, the first top-level contact between the two countries in 38 years. Iraq is now the second largest crude supplier to India, with oil imports standing at $20 billion.

In June, Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed paid a bilateral visit to Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. Again, this was the first high-level visit from India to Lebanon after many years, during which the two countries signed a bilateral educational exchange Programme.

India continues its development aid programme to Palestine. Very recently, India announced that it would be  issuing visas for Palestinians in Ramallah, rather than in Tel Aviv, which it had been doing till now, which marked another step forward in bilateral relations.

And the recent visit of Salman Khurshid to Bahrain and that of Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to India are part of the continuing efforts to foster even greater cooperation and ties with the GCC states. The GCC countries, too, are, as part of their ‘look east’ policy, looking for non-Western economies to invest their surplus funds and are keen on diversifying their petroleum-based economies by moving into the knowledge industry, especially now, given their recent disenchantment with the US role in the region. India, therefore, becomes a natural choice for playing a leading role, especially given its IT and technological expertise with its pool of skilled but cheap human resources. Defence ties between India and the GCC are also set to increase.

Thus, given this level of engagement, it definitely seems that India is keen to refurbish its ties with one of the most important regions in the world.

A greater role for India

India should keep up the momentum. It must take advantage of the Arab League General Secretary’s visit to make its position on the Arab Spring clear, and even while engaging in deepening bilateral relations with individual Arab states it should also explore playing a greater role in the region. India, with its second largest Muslim population, is today also the demographic centre of the Muslim world. The Muslim community of India is a shining example of Shia-Sunni harmony and peaceful coexistence. It may just be the time for India to accelerate a more pro-active policy.

syria-khurshidIn fact, with its recent offer to help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, it may seem that India has already set off on this path. Even earlier this year, Bouthaina Shaaban, the political advisor of Syrian President Basher al-Assad, was in Delhi to consult and drum up support for the regime. India, together with Brazil and South Africa, had sent a mission to Syria in 2011. India is also slated to participate in the upcoming Geneva 2 conference on Syria in January next year. Of course, there are limits to India’s role in the region, given the presence of other bigger players, like Russia and the US. But India’s advantage over these powers is that India, as a responsible regional power, is also a vibrant democracy, with a proven track record of non-proliferation and non-interference in the internal matters of other countries.

On the contrary, the Indian contingent has done a commendable job in UNIFIL (United Nations International Force for Israel and Lebanon) peace keeping operations by going beyond its mandate and administering humanitarian assistance to the local population in Southern Lebanon, when some other contingents had come under criticism for failing in their duties. Moreover, India enjoys cordial relations with all the countries of the region, including with Israel and Iran. India should leverage on this enormous reservoir of experience and goodwill to play the role of bridge builder. Maybe India should explore playing a mediatory role in a region rife with every kind of political and sectarian divide and violence, even while reaching out to nascent democracies like Tunisia and Yemen to help with institution building.

(Aditi Bhaduri tracks developments in the Arab world closely and has travelled extensively in the region)