India takes balanced approach in the Middle East

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Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Israel was the first one made by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years of diplomatic relations. Many analysts see it as a clear diplomatic tilt by New Delhi toward Tel Aviv after years of keeping its distance.

Only a select few world leaders, such as the US president and the pope, receive Israel’s grand reception at Ben Gurion International Airport

Israel also assigned a lot of importance to this state visit. Only a select few world leaders, such as the US president and the pope, receive Israel’s grand reception at Ben Gurion International Airport, so it did not go unnoticed that Modi received the same red-carpet treatment. Indian foreign policy was not at all pro-Israel in the early days. After gaining independence from the British in 1947, India formed alliances with the former Soviet Union and the Arab World while Israel, which gained independence in 1948, cultivated closer relationships with the West. It was not until 1992 that India and Israel established full diplomatic ties. India and China were hostile toward Israel during the Cold War era. They took up the Palestinian cause as part and parcel of their fight against Western dominance. But this historic visit is clearly indicative of a significant shift in India’s foreign policy orientation. But this major development does not mean that India is picking sides in the region.

The three-day trip covers the breadth of Israeli industry from agricultural and water management to tech startups and commerce. The Indo-Israel partnership, which has seen bilateral trade grow exponentially from $200 million in 1992 to $4.16 billion last year, has the potential to develop further. Moreover, about 40% of Israel’s defense exports go to India, making Israel its third-largest defense supplier. India’s present policy towards the Middle East has many layers. In one respect, it has been readjusted to suit the needs of one of the fastest growing economies in the world. New Delhi’s focus is almost exclusively on the Persian Gulf and it has only minimal interest in the Maghreb and the Levant. But its interests and capabilities have been growing slowly across the board, though it continues to feel the region is too volatile for it to pursue active geopolitical involvement in it. New Delhi has thus cultivated a number of important bilateral relationships in the region. At present, these include Israel, Iran and some of the Gulf monarchies. Because these relationships are so important, India avoids picking sides in the volatile and geopolitically important region.

Delhi is making strategic investments in Riyadh and Jerusalem rival Iran, namely in the Charbahar Port. New Delhi also is one of the few foreign governments that maintains a direct line to Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei. In recent years, India signed security and defense agreements with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar. Concurrently, with regards to Syria, Delhi (like Beijing) has provided somewhat muted support to Bashar Al Assad, positioning itself somewhere between the West and Russia. As the United States contemplates its strategic options in a rapidly changing region, India’s growing role may prove one that cannot be ignored. Taken as a region, West Asia (India calls the Middle East West Asia) is easily India’s largest trading partner, as it imports gas from Qatar and oil from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while Indian corporations use Dubai as an offshore financial hub. Led by the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf countries have begun to seek a closer strategic relationship with India, urging closer military ties, helping out on the counterterrorism front and increasing high-level political engagement. This is partly due to India’s economic trajectory, but also to a desire to hedge their position in the Indian Ocean, siding with the number two military power in that region at a time that the number one power, the United States, is showing less and less interest in being the Gulf’s policeman.

India, as a sovereign country, is designing and readjusting its foreign policy by assessing its own political and commercial benefits. India has friendly relations with all the players in the Middle East but with no strings attached. Modi’s historic Israel visit completes the circle. Indian foreign policy, though sound in theory, has often been leaden-footed in practice. India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East geography. To simultaneously maintain its various relationships, India will have to be very careful not to step over the region’s many fault lines. To be seen as a friend of all, India should resist any pressure to take sides and be wary of becoming involved in the region’s rivalries. Non-alignment as a movement may have lost its significance, but as a foreign policy doctrine which allows India to retain its strategic autonomy even in the wake of crises and pressure, it should always continue to inspire its policymakers.

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