By Ranjit Gupta*
Over the past four decades, the GCC countries have become India’s preeminent oil suppliers, and leading trade partners, with 8 million Indians living and working there who send annual remittances worth $40 billion back home. Indians have been the largest expatriate group in each of the six GCC countries. Even though West Asia has increasingly been in turmoil, over the past four years, the numbers have continued to increase steadily. Being predominantly Muslim countries where internal security is a major concern, now more so than ever, these facts are an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India.
No major power has the kind of people-to-people socio-cultural compatibility and socio-economic interdependence with the GCC countries that India does. Anti-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing has been very satisfactory. There are no bilaterally contentious issues. Both the GCC countries and Iran have consciously de-hyphenated their relationship with India from the Pakistan and Israeli factors.
Thus, though hardly recognised, India’s most meaningful and best external relationship is with the GCC countries despite India having invested the least time, effort, energy and time to it as compared to Pakistan, China, the US or the immediate neighbourhood.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally invested immense energy in strengthening India’s international relationships; but the Gulf region of West Asia, so critical to India’s national interest, security and wellbeing, was inexplicably left out for a long time. His hugely successful landmark visit to the UAE has finally begun addressing this glaring lacuna. The high regard for India was on full display by various gestures, specific elements of the programme, and the contents of the particularly significant joint statement; the Indian prime minister reciprocated with his usual aplomb in word and action. The UAE is actively involved in the war against the Houthis in Yemen and, to a lesser extent, in supporting anti-Assad groups in Syria; India is against such foreign interventions; both sides put forth their respective stands and it is noteworthy that this considerable divergence of opinion did not stand in the way of the visit’s extremely satisfying outcome. In contrast, ‘special friend’ Pakistan is in the doghouse for not supporting UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
India’s relationships with the GCC countries, Iran and Israel began growing simultaneously in the early 1990s and really took off in the first decade of the current millennium. Based on mutual benefit and advantage, they developed in parallel without impinging on each other. Modi, in his 15 August interview with the Dubai-based Khaleej Times, very rightly pointed out that “India is uniquely blessed to have good relations with all countries in the region. I have always believed that regional or bilateral problems are best solved by the countries involved. We have often seen the consequences of outside interference. India has always abided by the principle of non-interference in other countries and has consistently supported dialogue as a means to resolve all issues.”
Modi should visit Saudi Arabia and Iran before becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to pay an official visit to Israel. This is a welcome and long overdue step; India needs to be open and self-confident about this vitally important relationship.
Many in India’s strategic community advocate India displaying greater activism including exercising a ‘leadership role’ without suggesting any specific actions to be taken. The indisputable reality is that anything that India says or does will not even marginally influence the actions of any individual player or outcomes on the ground in the context of the highly complicated political and security situation in West Asia. India does not have the institutional capacity, is not structurally equipped, and lacks national political consensus for the huge strategic leap required for such a role yet. Policy should always be consciously tempered by a mature recognition of the limits of one’s capabilities and influence at any given point of time. Reticence or so called policy passivity in a particularly unpredictably changing and volatile environment does not reflect an absence of decision making, an abdication of ‘leadership’, or of being a ‘freeloader’. It is simply being sensibly prudent. India’s non-intrusive, low-profile, pragmatic approach has yielded very satisfying results and there is absolutely no need to change the broad contours of this policy.
Prime Minister Modi has exhibited a unique ability to establish particularly close personal relationships with the heads of state/government of countries he has visited or has otherwise met. Nowhere in the world does this particular attribute have greater potential for India to realise hugely beneficial dividends and more quickly than with the GCC countries where the rulers personally formulate policies. But India needs to dramatically improve its implementation mechanisms to take meaningful advantage of the GCC countries’ initiatives and investments. Interacting with them at heads of government/ministerial levels much more frequently on a consistent basis should become standard policy. In doing so, advantage should be taken of their proximate locations, formality and protocol; and the quest for deliverables should be replaced by the desirability of forging close personal relationships by simply dropping in for a day or so for informal conversations; this approach will pay rich dividends.
India needs very strong relationships with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia/ the GCC countries simultaneously and it is absolutely imperative that they are seen to be balanced; and hence, the singular importance of coherent messaging to them. The only way to maintain this is by continuing the focus on mutual advantage and benefit, remaining non-intrusive and non-judgmental, and strictly abjuring taking sides in regional disputes or exhibiting conspicuous partiality amongst them.
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India