Context: The article is discussing the 32nd Arab League Summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It highlights the significance of the summit, as it marked the first time in 12 years that all 22 Arab states came together, with the participation of 17 of them at the head of state or government level. It highlights the summit’s outcomes, as reflected in the “Jeddah Declaration,” focused on contemporary socio-economic challenges facing the Arab nations and the emphasized pro-Palestinian agenda. The article also mentions that the declaration did not mention Israel or specific Iran-related issues. It also called for an end to foreign interference in Arab countries’ domestic affairs and rejected support for armed groups and militias. Overall, the article suggests that amidst this geopolitical climate, India needs to reassess its strategy in response to Saudi Arabia’s growing influence as the main arbiter of the Arab world’s agenda.
A ‘Middle Kingdom’ Dawns on India’s West Background
India West Asia Relations:
India’s Look West Policy:
- India’s “Look West” policy refers to the country’s foreign policy approach towards West Asia, also known as the Greater Middle East region.
- The policy has evolved over time, from a multi-directional approach during the Cold War to a more pragmatic, national interest-oriented approach post-1991.
- India has sought to build strong economic and diplomatic ties with West Asian countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, while also maintaining traditional relationships with these countries.
- India has avoided taking sides (stuck to the principal of non-Alignment) in regional conflicts and has focused on promoting peace and stability through diplomatic initiatives.
- As its strategic interests in the region grow, India is increasingly engaging with West Asia on multiple fronts, including energy, trade, and security.
India’s “Look West” policy has several advantages for the country, including:
- Access to energy resources: The West Asian region is home to some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, and India’s closer engagement with these countries allows it to secure its energy needs and diversify its energy sources.
- Economic opportunities: India’s engagement with West Asian countries provides significant economic opportunities, including trade and investment, and access to markets for Indian goods and services.
- Regional stability: By promoting regional economic cooperation and stability, India’s Look West policy aims to reduce tensions and conflicts in the region, which could have negative spillover effects on India.
- Strategic partnerships: India’s closer engagement with West Asian countries has led to the development of strategic partnerships, which can help India advance its interests in the region and beyond.
- Improved connectivity: India’s Look West policy also aims to improve connectivity between India and the West Asian region, including through the development of transportation and communication infrastructure, which can facilitate greater people-to-people contact and cultural exchanges.
- West Asia serves as a land bridge connecting three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe, making it an important gateway between Asia and Africa, and a back-door to Europe.
- It is surrounded by three seas: the Mediterranean, Red, and Arabian Sea, and is a hub for international trade with various regions.
- West Asia is home to two significant waterways, the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles.
- In the past, Arabs acted as a bridge between India and the West, facilitating the exchange of knowledge, such as numerals, as well as the trade of spices, foodstuffs, jewellery, textiles, muslin, and other goods from India to the Arab region.
- Meanwhile, pearls and dates were exported from the Gulf region.
Significance of West Asia for India:
West Asia holds significant importance for India due to several factors:
- Energy Security: The region supplies nearly 60% of India’s total crude oil requirement, making it crucial for India’s energy security. Saudi Arabia is India’s top supplier of crude oil, followed by other Gulf countries. The region also accounts for a major fraction of India’s LNG import.
- Trade and Investment: The Gulf remains a significant trading partner for India, with trade figures consistently going up, especially with countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Attracting foreign direct investment from the cash-rich Gulf region is also a priority for India.
- Palestine Issue: India has maintained its stand on the “two-state” solution between Israel and Palestine, and has reiterated its support for all efforts for a resolution, including on the contentious issue of Jerusalem, which Israel has claimed in its entirety since 1967.
- Forging Strategic Ties: The support of Gulf countries is important for India’s bid for a Permanent Seat at the United Nations Security Council. India and UAE have elevated their relationship to a Strategic Partnership.
- Protecting Interests of Diaspora: Protecting the interests of the 9 million strong Indian diaspora in the Gulf is an important element of India’s policy priorities in the region. The Indian diaspora in the Gulf is a major source of remittances.
- Military Cooperation: The growing threats of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have become concerns for both India and the Gulf countries. India has been deepening defence cooperation with countries like the United Arab Emirates and Oman, conducting regular bilateral exercises between their forces.
- Fighting Piracy: Piracy activities off the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean have affected both India and the Gulf countries. Cooperation with the Gulf countries in fighting piracy would strengthen India’s presence in the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean.
- Strengthening Soft Power: In West Asia, India’s most distinct soft power asset is the diaspora and its role in buttressing a positive image of the country. India’s policy of non-interference and neutrality are other dimensions of soft power.
Decoding the Editorial
The article discusses India’s needs to reassess its strategy in response to Saudi Arabia’s growing influence as the main arbiter of the Arab world’s agenda.
- Saudi Arabia’s Growing Prominence:
- It is noted that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is gaining prominence as a significant influencer and decision-maker in shaping the agenda of the Arab world.
- He has been taking on a more prominent role and is becoming the primary authority or mediator in determining the direction and priorities of the Arab world with a simple yet streamline Saudi Arabia’s regional agenda.
- This is expected to be focused on clarifying or prioritizing key issues and engagements.
- Saudi Arabia is also strengthening its ties and engagement with other global powers.
- Saudi’s Ties with Iran:
- There have been significant developments in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- The two countries have normalized their relations, by taking steps to improve their diplomatic ties and end a period of approximately 45 years characterized by hostility and geo-religious rivalry.
- This normalization of relations is believed to have reduced tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s respective proxies in various conflicts, including Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
- The article states the impact on the civil war in Yemen, describing it as the Kingdom’s “Vietnam” since 2015. This implies that the conflict in Yemen has been a major drain on Saudi resources and a protracted and challenging engagement for the country.
- Additionally, the ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been stabilized. This indicates that the relationship between the two countries has become more balanced and predictable, possibly after a period of strain or uncertainty.
- New Leader of the Arab World:
- The Crown Prince has strategically positioned himself to take on a leadership role in the Arab world, which currently lacks a clear leader.
- The usual contender for Arab leadership, Egypt, is facing economic challenges, partly due to reduced financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, which has demanded greater financial accountability.
- The Crown Prince has taken a middle path by reconciling with Iran through Chinese mediation, asserting Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic autonomy without seeking approval or coordination from the United States.
- This move undermines Washington’s attempts to demonize Iran and question the rationale behind its economic sanctions regime.
- By establishing direct ties with Iran, the importance of intermediaries such as Qatar, Iraq, Oman, and Pakistan has diminished.
- Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has re-engaged with Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, with the aim of replacing Qatar and Iran as the primary benefactor.
- This shift in support is seen as an effort to deradicalize the Palestinians.
- The Crown Prince’s stance towards Israel has become more ambiguous, replacing the instinctive animosity with a lack of urgency to join the Abraham Accords, which are peace agreements between Israel and several Arab countries.
- Additionally, Jeddah has hosted peace talks among warring factions in Sudan, positioning Saudi Arabia as a venue for resolving conflicts.
- Significance for Saudi Arabia:
- Saudi Arabia holds a significant advantage in its pursuit of Arab supremacy due to its strong economic position.
- The country’s GDP experienced robust growth, reaching $1,108 billion in 2022, making it more than twice the size of the second-ranked United Arab Emirates (UAE).
- Saudi Arabia is already the world’s largest oil exporter, and its oil income reached a record $228 billion, giving it considerable influence over the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and OPEC+.
- Saudi Arabia’s economic advantage is further emphasized by the fact that it possesses the largest spare capacity in the global oil market through its state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco.
- This positions the Kingdom as an attractive destination for post-crisis regional reconstruction efforts, as the global economic turmoil increases the costs of such endeavours.
- Challenges: There are several challenges to Saudi Arabia’s rapid rise to Arab leadership.
- Firstly, the Kingdom’s foreign policy has undergone shifts and inconsistencies since the Jamal Khashoggi episode in 2018, and greater maturity and consistency are needed to enhance its effectiveness.
- Secondly, the initiatives taken towards regional reconciliation have not yet become irreversible and could potentially unravel.
- Thirdly, Saudi Arabia’s relations with the UAE and Qatar are prone to friction, which could exacerbate existing tensions.
- Lastly, while Saudi Arabia maintains internal stability, the potential ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the next Saudi king could introduce disruptions and distractions.
Significance for India:
India’s stakes in the Arab world, particularly in the neighbouring West Asian region, are significant.
- India needs to recognize the importance of the emerging geopolitical shift in the region and align its strategy accordingly to vigorously pursue its national interests.
- While India enjoys friendly and substantive ties with Saudi Arabia, there is still untapped potential and periodic upgrading of the bilateral relationship is necessary.
- India’s stakes in the region can be addressed through several bilateral initiatives. These include:
- Re-inviting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his postponed visit to India and leveraging his likely presence at the forthcoming G-20 Summit in New Delhi for bilateral engagement.
- Enhancing the bilateral Strategic Partnership Council at various levels, exploring opportunities for energy cooperation, collaborating more effectively to ensure regional security, and
- Pursuing a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement
- Also, India should propose a partnership with Saudi Arabia for building socio-economic infrastructure, both bilaterally and regionally.
- Additionally, increasing participation in various projects under Saudi Arabia’s ambitious “Vision 2030” development plan is mentioned as a way to enhance India’s engagement in the Kingdom’s long-term growth agenda.
Beyond the Editorial
Challenges in India-West Asia Relations:
- Political Instability: The security situation in West Asia has been continuously deteriorating ever since the onset of the Arab Spring in December 2010.
- The internal security situation in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has gone from bad to worse. The regional powers continue to fight proxy wars on sectarian lines, pumping huge amounts of money and weapons to bolster their favoured groups.
- The involvement of extra-regional players such as the USA and Russia in the internal conflicts in West Asia (Syria) has further aggravated the situation.
- Terrorism: Terrorism has emerged as the biggest security threat in the region. The rise of the Islamic State and other terror groups has created a threat to the Indian diaspora residing in West Asia.
- Also, the radicalization of Indian youth and their joining the Islamic State has been another major problem.
- Saudi–Iran–Israel rivalry: The rivalry has been destabilizing West Asia and influencing West Asian geopolitics.
- The recent withdrawal of the US from JCPOA can be seen through the prism of this rivalry. It will be a difficult task for India to continue to balance its relations with all three countries without antagonizing any of them.
- India–Israel close ties: India’s deepening defence and strategic relations with Israel have not gone down well with Iran, which has started to play its China and Pakistan card to extract more from India.
- China factor: China has made rapid inroads in the Gulf by having acquired equity stakes in the region’s upstream oil and gas sector and having successfully penetrated Arab markets.
- China is continuously making inroads to West Asia through the OBOR initiative.
- India’s incapacity to manage its own periphery, South Asia, has made Gulf Arabs more inclined to seek China as a better security partner, rather than India.
- Pakistan factor: India’s “trust deficit” with Pakistan has incapacitated India from advancing its commercial interests in West Asia, including the bringing to fruition of the Iran-India-Pakistan (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline projects.
- Arab slowdown & Nationalization: The decline of oil and gas prices, along with the rising cost of “war conditions,” has led to the slowing of Arab Gulf economies, resulting in salary cuts, layoffs, contracting employment opportunities, and nationalization of workforces at the cost of the Indian expatriate community.
- US Sanctions on Iran: The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and its threatened imposition of economic sanctions on Iran may weaken the dialogue mechanisms, embolden conservatives, and threaten regional stability even more. India also has significant oil trade with Iran and stakes in connectivity through Chabahar port and other projects.