Indian Foreign Policy in MENA

Abstract: India’s relations with the region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which is also referred to as West Asia and North Africa (WANA), have been historic and deep-seated in nature. Given the geographical proximity of parts of India and many Middle Eastern countries, relations have long been flush with the exchange of commodities, people and ideologies. In the post-colonial era, India’s relationship with many of these nations has been focused on the procurement of oil and other energy imports, which have been necessary commodities for sustaining its economy, which has been growing especially rapidly since the 1990s.

This paper looks at India’s foreign policy in the broader Middle East and North Africa region and charts the changing dynamics of the relationship. After going through the factors that have led to the evolution of India’s foreign policy, it discusses the country’s position vis-à-vis the different actors present in the MENA region, including the GCC nations, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey and various states hit by conflict.

Specifically, it argues that India has been walking a tightrope of neutrality in the MENA region by balancing between all of its allies there, many of whom are in conflict with each other. This balancing act is in accord with a long line of pragmatic thinkers in the Indian foreign policy establishment, most recently epitomized by Prime Minister Modi, and also India’s growing clout in Asia as a benign power that respects the internal affairs of foreign countries.

India’s evolving interests in the region 

Few regions have had links with India as deep and historic as those of the MENA region. Trade routes between places in modern day India and regions such as Babylon and Sumeria (located in modern Iraq) date back to 3,000 BC. Most trade was two-way in nature, with Middle Easterners buying spices and textiles from India while also selling precious metals and jewels to India.1

With the advent of Islam in the Middle East region, Arab traders began to propagate the religion in parts of Southern India such as Kerala and Karnataka, with many of the practises taught then still prevalent in these states.

The Cold War Era 1947-1991

In the post-colonial period, India’s relationship with the MENA region was mainly focussed on Egypt, Palestine and Iraq (with a slightly lesser focus on Saudi Arabia) due to the importance of these three countries in the region. 3 Egypt, as the largest Arab country which also spearheaded Nasserism and the Pan-Arab agenda while seeking to remain neutral in the ongoing Cold War, was a natural ally for India, with whom it formed the NonAligned Movement (NAM).

Iraq was an important military and economic power due to its size and leadership and thus was chosen by India as another major country to trade with. Finally, Palestine was the central nation in the foreign policy of various Arab nations, which meant that any country wishing to gain the favor of the Arab nations had to factor this in. This, coupled with the fact that India had a large Muslim population that supported the Palestinian cause, meant that the nation occupied an integral position in India’s West Asia policy. 

A handful of issues characterized India’s relations with the MENA region in the post-colonial era. First, India took an ideological position regarding the West, calling for the decolonization of various third world nations.4 This shaped its stance on the Palestinian cause, to which it strongly aligned itself with during the Cold War.

India’s stance on Palestine was also a result of its attempts to woo other Arab states, most of which supported the cause. This was also carried out to counterbalance Pakistan’s efforts to persuade Arab nations to take a proIslamic, anti-Indian position, especially due to India’s administration of Muslimmajority Kashmir.

Second, given India’s desires to garner goodwill among the Arab nation, it mostly stayed neutral throughout the various bilateral conflicts and tensions that took place in the region. This included the Jordanian Civil War mainly referred to as Black September (1970-71), President Anwar el Sadat’s controversial visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty a year later, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the protracted Iran-Iraq war that began in September 1980, among others.

Third, India also used major trade routes located in the Middle East region such as the Bab al-Mandeb (between Yemen and Somalia) as well as the Suez Canal (located in Egypt) and the Straits of Hormuz (Iran). These channels were not just important for India to be able to trade with the MENA region, but they also served as a transit point for Indian goods going to Western Europe and the United States. India’s major trade partners at that point included countries like Egypt, Iran and Iraq due both to their production of oil and their sea routes.

Fourth, during this time and up until the end of the Cold War, the six Gulf states remained insignificant in India’s foreign policy. Five of the six Gulf nations were only formed after Britain’s withdrawal from the region in 1971. Even after the formation of the states and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), India often saw itself at odds with these nations. 

This was because the GCC nations had taken the U.S. as its security guarantor and India, although neutral during the Cold War, still had much closer relations with the USSR. Moreover, Pakistan, which was a major defence partner of countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, used its goodwill to influence the GCC nations and speak against India on the issue of Kashmir in platforms like the OIC meetings.8

In addition, India was not happy about Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Afghan Mujahideen alongside Saudi Arabia. Most of these dynamics, sans the Afghan factor, applied to Turkey as well as another country in close cooperation with the U.S. and Pakistan.

Thus, India’s relations in the MENA during the 1947–1990 phase was a result of its ideological affiliations, trade partnerships, the Cold War and its rivalry with Pakistan. However, towards the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the decreasing importance of the Palestinian cause, the deterioration of Iraq, the rising prominence of the Gulf nations, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union forced India to drastically rethink its positions in the region.

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Post-Cold War: 2001–1991

In this period, India moved closer to the Gulf nations and began to reduce its footprint in the rest of the MENA region. This situation came about for a few reasons. Firstly, Iraq, which was a major seller of oil to India, was devastated by the two Gulf Wars, leading to a drop in the oil trade with India.

Secondly and in a similar vein, India’s major trade partner and oil supplier the Soviet Union collapsed at the same time, leading to a drop in oil imports and trade revenue and impelling India to seek other sources of both trade and oil.11 Thirdly, this drop in oil imports was compounded by India’s new economic direction, whereby it liberalized its economy leading to massive increases in energy demand. 

Given India’s newly opening economy, it became a natural trade partner for the Gulf nations to turn to. This shift towards the Gulf nations was further assisted by India’s larger shift closer to the United States, witnessed in its support for Kuwait during the Gulf crisis. 13

This relationship, however, was limited by Pakistan’s role and India’s indignation at the use of the Gulf nations as launching pads and networking venues for various antiIndian Pakistani militants.14 Allegedly, intelligence agencies held the UAE and Saudi Arabia responsible for knowingly harbouring some major terrorists such as Dawood Ibrahim (who had been responsible for many terrorist attacks in India) and terror groups such as Lashkar e–Taiba. 

The Indo–U.S. warming of ties also ushered in a new era in Indo-Israeli relations, with India opening an official embassy in Israel and sending forth many of its political leaders for visits.16 In particular the Vajpayee government (2004-1999) witnessed an outburst of exchanges in the fields of defence, internal security and counter-terrorism. That India was facing lots of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan via tunnels and other illegal pathways gave it some impetus to formulate a border protection plan inspired partly by Israel. 

At the same time India was slowly increasing the strength of its bilateral ties with Iran as well. This was borne out of converging interests in various different ways. Chief among these was energy, where India turned to Iran as well as the Gulf to fulfil its energy requirements.18

Moreover, Iran and India’s mutual interest in the central Asian region for energy and connectivity became another crucial factor bringing them together.19 This was in addition to their shared aversion to Sunni Jihadist groups, best demonstrated in their support for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan.20 All of these set the stage for good relations, especially in the post2001- era. 

Current Day Relations 

The post-9/11 era is an appropriate place to consider the next phase of Indo-MENA relations as beginning due to the deep impact that the bombing of the World Trade Center had on the region. Four broad events shaped India’s foreign policy in the region after 2001.

The first was the actual event of 11/9 and its aftermath. This brought about drastic changes in the MENA region stemming from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the consequent birth of countless new terrorist movements across the region. Ever since, national security and the containment of the spill-over from regional conflicts became an important driver of foreign policy for many nations in the MENA region.

Second was the Arab Spring, which was in many ways a long-term effect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, giving rise to massive instability in the Middle East. What began as a minor protest in Tunisia at the tail end of 2010 sparked a revolution that began various conflicts across the whole of the MENA region, including in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria (where it is still active) among others.

The very real effects of this public discontent and its role in bringing down governments particularly perturbed the Gulf nations, who adopted many reforms internally and in their foreign policy to prevent any unexpected regime change attempts. Most obviously, the Gulf nations were more supportive of autocratic governments in the region such as Egypt as a way to repress any rebellious movements. 

Third, the U.S. intervention in the Middle East began to reach its limits, with Obama expressing the U.S.’s exhaustion, particularly during his second term as president (2016–2012).23 This was also coupled with oil prices falling from 112$ a barrel to about 40$ a barrel, leading the U.S. to depend less on the stability of the MENA.24

While in the past the U.S. has tried to maintain stability in the region in order to secure the flows of hydrocarbons, it has since became a bit slack as its dependency on the MENA has lessened. This is something of an ongoing process, but has opened up space for other countries to enter the region, and India, due to its geographic proximity, has chosen to assume a larger role as a power broker. 

Fourthly, the election of Modi in 2014 and his vigorous foreign policy efforts, including visiting the Arab nations many times over during his five-year tenure, have deepened bilateral relations with many Arab countries as well as opening up further to nations like Israel.25 Simultaneously, Modi has largely continued India’s position of neutrality with almost no problems, giving India a stronger role in the region. 
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Each of these four issues separately or jointly shaped relations with India. Firstly, with the Gulf countries, India’s position vis-à-vis terrorist groups was reflected by the Gulf nations as well. This was a result of U.S. pressure on Gulf nations to choke off all support for terrorist groups as well as bombings carried out by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a result of the group focusing on what it termed the “near enemy” (Arab Muslim states) over the “far enemy” (America), leading to major antagonism towards these groups and, therefore, better counterterrorism co-operation.30

For instance, many Gulf countries began to deport Indian terrorist sympathisers and agreed to share intelligence in many operations. 

Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East region also led to India being hailed as one of the countries that could provide security guarantees in the region. Consequently, Indian relations with the Gulf nations improved both bilaterally and multilaterally, with the seven nations signing various Memoranda of Understanding on defence agreements, maritime issues, technological advancements and knowledge sharing in the aspects of medicine and construction.32

Much of this was also underpinned by the huge non-resident Indian (NRI) population present in the Gulf region. However, in terms of being a security provider, India has still not placed many of its troops in the region or begun training Gulf militaries, nor has it installed any major air bases, indicating that it has no plans to build up a large military presence in the region. 

Additionally, India has also become a more important customer for the GCC nations in buying oil. In the case of Qatar, India has also begun to increase its imports of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in its bid to buy a cleaner source of energy.33 All of these have placed India in a stronger position vis-à-vis the Gulf nations, one that India did not hold a decade or two ago. The Modi government also signed substantial agreements and upgraded relationships with these countries demonstrating his diplomatic deftness even while manoeuvring around the intra-GCC conflict as the next section will explain. 

Furthermore, India’s relations with Iran have also been upgraded significantly in light of the Tehran Declaration (2001) and Delhi Declaration (2003), whereby the two countries stressed the need to engage strategically with each other.34 Ever since this time, India has also began to share with Iran an aversion towards Sunni terrorism emanating from Iraq and Afghanistan; multiple such attacks were carried out in Iran in the late 2000s.35

Indo-Iranian relations during this time also witnessed an uptick in relations with the country cooperating on issues of defence and maritime issues. This was best seen in joint naval operations carried out by the two nations in 2003 and 2006. 36 Moreover, as will be explained in the next section, the Modi administration managed to also negotiate with the United States regarding Iranian sanctions without compromising on its own interests. 

Lastly, Indo-Israeli relations have also begun to intensify since the 2000s. This was partly due to the initial thrust provided by the BJP government (2004–1998) but was carried on by the subsequent Congress government. Indeed, the Israeli government has consistently ranked within the top five suppliers of arms to India, with about 9$ billion in bilateral military deals.37 Moreover, the two governments share a common vision on terrorism, giving them even better incentives to get closer in terms of counter-terrorism cooperation among other issues. 

Currently, under the Modi administration, India has witnessed many high-profile foreign visits. This has resulted in new developments regarding border security and intelligence cooperation at a time when both the Middle East and South Asia are warily keeping an eye out for jihadist actors such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Bilateral trade has shot up to about 5$ billion, with arms purchases from Israel alone accounting for one fifth of this trade.39

Moreover, India also took part in aerial operations alongside the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and Poland for the 2017 Blue Flag exercise, the largest aerial training exercise to ever take place in Israel.

Yet India did not take part in many other major military operations. Most conspicuous was its absence in the international coalition against the Islamic State. This stemmed from short term concerns – the IS held more than 40 Indian captives and India feared that its presence in the coalition would lead the IS to kill these captives in retribution. Arguably, India probably also deferred its presence to prevent any retaliatory attacks being carried out on its own soil.

It is important here to note that IndoIsraeli ties have also intensified due to issues like the Arab spring which shifted the focus of the world from the Palestinian conflict to the toppling of various regimes in the MENA region. The Arab spring was the last nail in the coffin of the Arab world’s protectionist sentiment towards the Palestinian cause, which was what allowed India to shift from its ideological position to a more pragmatic stance.

Given the focus on these three blocs (i.e. Israel, Iran and the GCC nations) in the MENA region, it is important also to notice how India stands vis-à-vis other countries in the region, as seen in the next section.