India’s Act West policy: New Frontiers


Amid changes and turmoil in West Asia, India’s enhanced engagement with the energy-rich region has emerged as one of the most successful foreign policy achievements of PM Modi’s government, says Amb. (retd.) Anil Trigunayat

India has enjoyed close, historic and civilisational ties with West Asia. By the end of the first millennium BC, trade between India and Arabia became the economic backbone of the Arabian Peninsula. Centuries-old trade benefitted both sides as it enhanced their knowledge and mutual understanding. The Arabs also acted as a conduit to the West for India. While knowledge systems (numerals) and commodities such as spices, food, jewellery, textiles and muslin flowed from India towards the Arab region, pearls and dates were exported from the Gulf region.

Why the Gulf matters

The economic ties between the two regions continued during the British rule in India. No wonder then that the Indian rupee was a legal tender in several countries until the 1970s. Most of the Gulf countries are in close vicinity and important for India’s strategic and energy security. There is tremendous goodwill for India and the Indians in the region. The region is home to over nine million Indians and in most countries, they constitute the largest expat community. Indians have emerged as great contributors to the wellbeing and development of their host economies and countries and are the preferred workforce due to their discipline, sincerity of purpose and hardworking ethos.

Indians, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, remit over $35 billion annually to their home country, adding to the nation’s foreign exchange reserves. More importantly, they act as India’s goodwill ambassadors in the region. Over time, a qualitative change has occurred as Indian entrepreneurs have also emerged as major trading and investment collaborators of the host countries.

In 2008, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) surpassed China to become our biggest trading partner as thousands of Indian companies established their presence in the Special Economic Zones. Since then India’s relations with almost all countries in West Asia have deepened, diversified and expanded. This growth has been marked by high-level exchanges in a more structured and focused manner under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Energy Security

The Gulf region has historical, political, economic, strategic and cultural significance for India. It is a part of our extended neighbourhood since the region is separated from India only by the Arabian Sea. This region is an area of special focus in India’s foreign policy and its importance will increase manifold in the coming decades. The region’s substantial oil and gas reserves are of vital importance for India’s energy security. It supplies over 70% of India’s oil and gas requirements. Given that the Gulf countries offer tremendous potential for cooperation in trade, investment, energy and manpower, India, therefore, has a stake in peace, stability, security and economic wellbeing of the Gulf in particular, and West Asia in general.

Link and Act West

India’s relations with the Gulf countries have grown, deepened and diversified over the millennia. However, till 2012, we were still looking to find a fancy word to define the country’s outreach to West Asia and for want of a better word, “Look West or Link West” was chosen. India’s so-called policy of “Look West” has been converted to “Link and Act West,” even though high-level political visits from India were few and far between.

This hiatus was addressed from 2008 onwards when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, high-level exchanges with all leaders acquired a new impetus under Prime Minister Modi. He also became the first Indian PM to visit both Palestine and Israel, thereby clearly de-hyphenating the relationship while maintaining India’s continued support for the Palestinian cause. This was clear from India’s stance on the issue of Jerusalem.

Enhanced security partnership

The countries in the region also look towards India as a stabilising force and would like to see greater Indian security presence in the region. Earlier, India had been somewhat reluctant but this has changed in recent times as New Delhi has created institutionalised defence and security mechanisms with the key partners in the region including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Iran, Jordan and Oman. It is the sincerity of India’s foreign policy intent and its profound execution that the nation maintains excellent bilateral relations with the countries that are on the opposing ends of the regional spectrum.

There are many common political and security concerns of India and the Gulf countries (terrorism and fundamentalism), which could translate into coordinated efforts for peace, security and stability in the region, and security of the maritime routes passing through the region.

This was clearly addressed and reflected in the discussions during high-level interactions and statements issued thereafter. For example, in 2017, India and the UAE signed a Comprehensive Security Partnership that encompasses areas of cooperation hitherto uncharted. In this effort the United State and other external power dynamic and their presence in the region will also need to be taken into account because they could adversely impact India’s security. Similarly, the fallout of intra-regional conflicts will also impact India’s choices, and consequently its national interest.

India has always maintained that it will not take sides in the affairs of West Asia, but will encourage them to resolve the issues bilaterally or through the GCC mechanism. Consistent with this policy, even during the Arab Spring phase, India was against the external intervention in Libya or Syria and continued to extend the support in their nation-building efforts.

This close friendship has begun to yield tangible results in several areas of India’s strategic interest in a rather short time as enunciated in the Joint Statement of August 2015 during PM Modi’s visit to the UAE, the first by an Indian PM in a quarter century. “Recognising that India is emerging as the new frontier of investment opportunities, especially with the new initiatives by the Government to facilitate trade and investment, encourage the investment institutions of UAE to raise their investments in India, including through the establishment of UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, with the aim of reaching a target of USD 75 billion to support investment in India’s plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks,” said the joint statement. Likewise, the maiden State visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (February 19-20, 2019) yielded the commitments of over $100bn in India’s flagship initiatives and energy security projects.

Concrete Outcomes

Several concrete outcomes can be cited: For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are expeditiously apprehending and extraditing criminals and terrorists such as Farooq Takla, a close aide of Dawood. Second, ensuring energy security through long-term procurement arrangements and stocking sufficient reserves; and third, country projects and investments in Indian infrastructure have found greater traction. Fourth, in a first, Saudi Arabia permitted Air India to use its air space to fly to Israel. Or for that matter, the UAE has helped build a temple in Abu Dhabi. This will further enrich cultural and people-to-people ties between the two nations. The UAE also extradited fugitive economic offenders wanted in the AugustaWestland helicopter case and other scams to India. Fifth, joint military and naval exercises are being undertaken for the first time. Sixth, defence and intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation is acquiring greater salience, which also targets and stunts the State sponsored policy of our western neighbour, which has become a breeding ground of terrorists and anti-India terrorism.

Guest of Honour at OIC

The most significant moment was in March when India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was invited to be the “Guest of Honour” at the 46th Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) preceded by the maiden State visit of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to India. This was exceptional as the Indian Foreign Minister met the Saudi counterpart three times in a fortnight. The UAE invited the “friendly country of India as the guest of honour in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component”.

Ironically, the OIC ministerial took place in the backdrop of Pakistan-based and sponsored Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist attack at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir, which killed 42 paramilitary personnel and the subsequent global condemnation and almost war-like situation between India and Pakistan. It is possible that Pakistan was prevailed upon by the hosts and GCC countries and they reportedly initially had not opposed the idea of India being invited as the “Guest of Honour”.

But after the Indian aerial strikes at JeM terrorist training and recruiting camps at Balakot, Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi protested to the hosts and told his UAE counterpart that unless the invitation to India’s External Foreign Minister was withdrawn, he will not attend.

But the UAE and the OIC were firm, and received Mrs Swaraj with full honours. In the end, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister boycotted the OIC ministerial. This development showed a paradigm shift in the way the member countries of the OIC looked at India even though they did refer to the old issues. The Abu Dhabi Declaration, however, omitted the mention of any difficult issues in deference to India’s wishes. This was a sweet revenge for India after 50 years of humiliation in 1969 when India had to return from Rabat unceremoniously.

Outreach to Diaspora

The diaspora engagement and dividend acquired an unprecedented salience with the Indian government’s high-profile mega interactive events with the non-resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin. Mrs Swaraj’s personal assistance to Indians in trouble was unique and converted Indian embassies into “a home away from home”. As a result of building relationships, India was able to evacuate over 2,00,000 Indians and people from the war zones in Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

A greater role for India

West Asia is facing turbulence and instability, and India could be asked to play a greater role in the West Asia peace process and in Palestine or Syria due to its growing global stature and credibility. But New Delhi has to wade carefully through these fissures as new equations and competition among the erstwhile regional and external powers such Turkey (a NATO member country), the US, Russia, China and Iran as well as Saudi-UAE combine and their spat with Qatar could stoke the Shia-Sunni divide further. This could destabilise the GCC, which would not only be disruptive for the region but it would have an adverse impact on India’s interest.

In yet another departure from the past, PM Modi does not seem to hesitate collaborating with the US and other powers in the region since Washington still has a huge say in the region.

As for the recent crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and India rightly refused to take sides because New Delhi has excellent relations with all the countries and also has stakes in their safety and security. Hence it expects the resolution of the issues through dialogue.

In the wake of the Gulf crisis, visiting foreign ministers of Qatar and UAE not only briefed the Indian government but also publicly articulated that New Delhi understood their view point and that they did not expect India to take sides.

India has followed a policy of nurturing bilateral ties with all the countries in the region without getting entangled into their ideological or sectarian fault lines. This is the key success of India’s foreign policy as the country can’t afford to be drawn into their ongoing conflicts. Meanwhile India must continue to nurture bilateral exchanges and multilateral engagements. However, we need to continue to work on finding the right balance that will serve our national and strategic interests better.

As India grows in stature and ambition and follows a policy of clearly articulated objective assessment, it will be able to achieve the requisite credibility to be an honest arbiter of peace and productive engagement.

Speaking at the Westminster, United Kingdom, on April 18, 2018, PM Modi unveiled his vision of  India’s robust independent foreign policy in his “Bharat ki Baat Sabke Saath” speech. Apart from speaking about the decisive surgical strikes against the terrorists across the western border, PM Modi said: “What prevented Indian Prime Ministers from going to Israel. Yes, I will go to Israel and I will even go to Palestine. I will further cooperate with Saudi Arabia and for the energy needs of India I will also engage with Iran.”

The fact that he specifically chose to refer to West Asia underlines the importance India attaches to its relations with the region. By any reckoning, India’s enhanced engagement with West Asia is one of the most successful foreign policy achievements of Prime Minister Modi’s government in India’s extended neighbourhood.