Middle East Regional Power Dynamics: India’s Policy Options – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Middle East Region as the most geopolitically and geostrategically significant region which figures prominently in the global strategic calculus is presently being churned up both by global dynamics and also regional power dynamics.

The latter dynamics are drawing more attention currently as the major regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are in the process of exploring new strategic configurations that could impart more leverages in their relationships with the major global powers and offset the unipolar dominance of the United States in the region.

The new strategic configurations in regional power dynamics as reflected in my recent Paper on the subject are the Turkey-Iran-Syria Axis and the Iran-Pakistan –Afghanistan triangular relationship mooted by Pakistan. Foreseeable in the near future one could expect the evolving of a China-Iran-Pakistan Triangle.

India’s recent diplomacy in the Middle East Region does not provide any indicators that India is alive to the emergence of such strategic configurations and that India is attempting to transform its Middle East policies from one of bilateral context configurations to that of examining that these evolving strategic configurations do not limit India’s legitimate strategic interests in the Middle East.

This Paper intends to analyze the main theme under discussion under the following heads:

  • Middle East Regional Power Dynamics: Significant Contextual Developments
  • India’s Strategic & Diplomatic Relationships with the Major Regional Powers in the Middle East
  • India’s Strategic Interests in the Middle East and Policy Options Relevant to Regional Power Dynamics

Middle East Regional Power Dynamics: Significant Contextual Developments

Middle East regional power dynamics in terms of significant contextual developments needs to be examined at two levels, the first being global and the second regional. After all the regional power dynamics currently under way are a spin-off and reactive responses of the Middle East regional powers to the power play of the global powers in this critical region.

The global power play in the Middle East Region is characterized by the continuing strategic and political dominance of the United States with the European Union countries in tow. Russia in the latter half of the past decade made major strategic forays in the Middle East under the dynamic leadership of then President Putin and more notably with Saudi Arabia which had embarked on ‘hedging strategies’ against the United States. China has muscled its way into the Region with a combination of ballistic missiles and armament supplies in exchange for energy security needs. However neither Russia nor China can be said to have the potential to serve any startling game-changers in the Middle East power play in the foreseeable future.

Next must be examined is the relationship of the regional powers of the Middle East with the global powers. Beginning with the United States what is currently under play is that Saudi Arabia was gravitating towards Russia and China in the wake of 9/11 events. Turkey in the pursuit of acquiring a greater regional profile has begun gravitating away from its longstanding American linkages. The United States –Iran confrontation continues unabated with no indicators suggesting any possibilities of any rapprochement.

Russia currently enjoys proximate relationships with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia Russia also has the advantage of geographical proximity with the Middle East major regional powers The Middle East regional powers perceive Russia in terms of countervailing power to the United States.

China is not in the same league in the Middle East as the United States and Russia. However, China has built up substantial linkages with the major regional powers. It had long standing strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Lately this has extended to Turkey where both China and Turkey have started joint Air Force exercises.

Against this backdrop the significant contextual developments underway in the Middle East are as follows: (1) Emergence of Turkey-Iran-Syria Axis which virtually encompasses the Northern Tier of the Middle East (2) Iran-Pakistan –Afghanistan Triangle which when substantially forged encompasses the Eastern Flank of the Middle East Region (3) Saudi Arabia has yet to come up with any matching strategic configuration which can counter the Iran-centric strategic configurations that have come into play.(4) With Egypt engulfed in political turbulence and the Gulf Region monarchies uncertain about the spillover effects of that Revolution on them, Saudi Arabia will be hard pressed to come up with matching configurations.

Israel perforce has to be considered as a strong factor in any regional power play. With Turkey moving away from the United States fold and also jettisoning its strong military relationship with Israel, the latter is left now alone in regional power dynamics.

The crucial analytical dilemma that emerges in such a political and security environment revolves around the following questions (1) Do these emerging strategic configurations foretell a longevity which could ultimately turn the balance against the United States in the Middle East? (2) Would American strategic resilience be in a position to dissolve the emerging strategic configurations? (3) Can the Middle East Region emerge as a unified strategic monolith to a great extent which could limit external pressures against the Region?

The answers to the above would have to await some more time until some semblance of crystallization takes place.

India’s Strategic and Diplomatic Relationships with Major Regional Powers in the Middle East

India’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East was determined for far too long by a combination of factors comprising Non-Alignment, energy needs as opposed to energy security and religious considerations necessitated by Indian vote-bank considerations.

There were no strategic determinants until Indian Prime Ministers specifically Morarji Desai, Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee made deliberate efforts to forge a strategic relationshipwith Israel.

In terms of the present Middle East emerging regional powers India can be said to have no strong strategic or political relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. In all three cases it seems that the ‘Pakistan Factor’ played heavily against India with all of them tilting in favor of Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia in recent years as part of its hedging strategies made deliberate efforts to draw closer to India and equally reciprocated by India. High level diplomacy has taken place but then the factors that overhang such relationship is the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan Islamist nexus and the perceived proximity of India to Iran.

Turkey and India which should have significant political and strategic convergences and a natural strategic partnership as examined in a Paper of mine a couple of years back, stand heavily overweighed by the Pakistan Factor and the new zeal in the present Turkish regime to forge stronger ties with the Islamic world.

Iran and India have enjoyed spasmodic proximity in their relations in the last six decades. Both nations have had common civilizational ties. India and Iran also signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement sometime in the last decade. Regrettably, India buckling under pressures from the United States to vote against Iran on the nuclear issue has soured ties.

India’s Strategic Interests in the Middle East & Policy Options Relevant to Relevant Power Dynamics

The Middle East Region is a significant strategic region of the world and India’s policy options should overwhelmingly be determined by strategic determinants and not be weighed down by political determinants of long lost idealistic ideologies. As a regional power in South Asia and a global power in the making India’s foreign policy thrusts should primarily be driven by strategic determinants.

In terms of strategic interests, energy security must be the foremost determinant followed by the fact that India has a major strategic interest in the Arabian Sea and India should therefore have a legitimate strategic interest in the countries that form the littoral of the Arabian Sea and more specifically the Northern Segment of the Arabian Sea.

In light of the above India’s policy options essentially boil down to two regional powers of the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran. Here India runs into the complexities of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both are divided not only by their regional power ambitions but also by the sectarian divide of Sunni-Shia beliefs.

The divide is further complicated by both Saudi Arabia and Iran lying in different political camps. Saudi Arabia despite its present misgivings is in the United States camp and Iran in the anti-US camp.

Turkey while geographically distant from India also presently seems to be shaping into strategically distant from India going solely by its current diplomatic initiatives dominated by the Pakistan Factor. It would be regrettable if this Pakistan Factor swings away Turkey from strategic partnership of two regional powers in contiguous regions. If Turkey aspires for a greater global role then it becomes incumbent on it to dispense its Pakistan baggage. A progressive Turkey seems to be in an unnatural relationship with a regressive Pakistan with medieval mindsets.

A strong India-Israel Strategic Partnership is in India’s vital interests, more in terms of maritime cooperation in the Arabian Sea and India’s aspirations to play a larger global role. Of all the Middle East regional powers it is Israel that stands out as a steadfast strategic friend of India and in the military sense too.

India while striving for strategic equations with leading Middle East regional powers cannot overlook that t has to make overtures to other Middle East nations like Egypt, UAE, and Syria.

Overall therefore India’s policy options in a Middle East enveloped by regional power play dynamics essentially boil down to the following:

  • India’s policy options should be determined in the Middle East Region primarily by strategic determinants. The political and economic determinants should only be viewed as add-ons.
  • India needs to seriously retrieve its strategic partnership with Iran because whether one likes it or not Iran is the fulcrum of Middle East strategic power play and determinant of Middle East balance of power and balance of interests when it comes to India.
  • In relation to striking a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, India needs to learn from China both in terms of acquiring additional energy security sources and also projecting India as an attractive destination for Saudi Arabian FDI specially in the petro-chemical sector.
  • Turkey and India need to indulge in more serious diplomacy to build more strategic bridges in their relationship. To begin with let the economic determinant pave the way for meaningful strategic ties.
  • Israel-India Strategic Partnership and further reinforcing it should be an unchangeable constant of India’s Middle East policies.

Some inherent contradictions may seem visible in the above recommendations but that should be a challenge for the Indian policy establishment to iron out those wrinkles to derive India’s larger strategic interests. If China can successfully walk the tight rope in deriving strategic and economic benefits from the contending regional powers of the Middle East Region, there is no reason why India cannot do likewise.

India’s rising global stature ,its geographical proximity to the Middle East specially in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran and its vibrant economy free of governmental controls now coupled with its image as a responsible stakeholder in regional and global affairs places it in a unique position when compared with China.

The above factor also needs to be exploited by India when devising policy options to deal with the new strategic configurations emerging in the Middle East, While the configurations are strategic in nature and intent but what cannot be missed in their composition is that their composition is totally of Islamic nations and India cannot ever hope to be an integral part of them.

India only has to embark on more proactive diplomatic surge in the Middle East. India as a rising global power has to not only proactively “Look East” but also commence proactively “Look West”.

Concluding Observations

The Indian policy establishment stands long used to pursuit of Middle East policies in the political and cultural context. The strategic determinants were virtually absent from Indian policy determinants in the Middle East. The flavor was always weighed down heavily by idealistic ideologies like Non-Alignment and that India was the world’s third largest Muslim nation in the world as if it ever mattered or brought gains to India.

India as an emerging global power needs to craft its foreign policies solely based on strategic determinants and especially in the Middle East as nowhere else in the world do strategic considerations weigh so heavily as in the Middle East.

While India needs to adopt a wider diplomatic profile in the Middle East but in the pursuance of India’s strategic interests and strategic influence, India perforce has to base its policy options on relationships with the Middle East’s regional powers. It is these regional powers who would influence regional strategic dynamics but also have a bearing on how the global powers figure in Middle East dynamics.

The challenge before India’s foreign policy establishment is as to how it can weld Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to contribute to furtherance of India’s national security interest, recognize India’s legitimate strategic interests in the Middle East and seek common strategic convergences. Stability and security in the Arabian Sea context should be a common strategic interest of India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India as the most powerful power in the Arabian Sea region should draw Saudi Arabia and Iran despite their regional contentions to India.

The other challenge for India is to make the United States recognize that in view of contextual power dynamics in the Middle East, India may able to bridge divides that currently have forced contending regional powers of the Middle East adopt hedging strategies against the United States.

While the United States repeatedly emphasizes that India should “Look East” the time may have come for the United States to encourage India to “Look West” also.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “Middle East Regional Power Dynamics: India’s Policy Options – Analysis

  • August 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I have been studying India-West Asia relations for a while now as a PhD student and there are some major inaccuracies in this paper.

    India GCC ties should be the paramount factor in any West Asia policy. This is because the GCC of which Saudi Arabia and UAE are a part is our biggest trading block with $100Billion of non-oil trade, 8 million Indian expats sending $30Billion of remittances and increasing energy security as well.

    No other relationship including the Israeli relationship provides such overwhelming advantages for India. The problem with the author is that it keeps bringing in the “Islam” and “Pakistan” factor but this is shortsightedness on the author’s part because a rational reading of GCC foreign policy is quite clear that they have put national and not ideological interests firsts. That is why US-Saudi relations continue to be stronger than people think.

    To counter the upcoming Iran-Pakistan-China axis. India should be forming a India-GCC-US alignment. Israel can’t play a role in the wider middle east as it is busy defending itself. IF it could not help the US in the Gulf war I and II and was considered a liability by even the US, then what strategic use can it provide to India?

    Ino-Israeli relations may remain at the defence and tot level but with US ready to provide the same with much better tech the importance of Israel reduces further.

  • August 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    By the public India is viewed in a similar fashion to Iran, PRC and Russia after their stance on Syria. So while it is fine if Assad stays, if he falls then it will be very hard for India to secure a role in Syria and the same goes for Iran when it falls. It has more importantly affected peoples opinion of India in the region.

    That means it is left to India to influence the Kingdom of Saud in relation to Syria and Israel in relation to the Kurds and the GCC in general in relation to their populations. Now India thinks the populations of the Kingdoms are not important.

    That was a mistake as that is where the funding to Islamic radicals in Pakistan comes from and if Muslims see India as a problem Pakistan will get more support against a Jihad on India, money, recruits, etc.

    Remember the people being slaughtered are going to make up the new Parliament.

    Now that creates a problem as India stance on Iran and nuclear weapons is different to both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

    Israel is very important to the balance of the Middle East, two regimes can help or hinder Syria that is Saudi Arabia and Israel, hence Assad offer in relation to the hostage Gilad Shalit for removal of sanctions, the Israeli’s have influence.

    The fact that senior Israeli officials called for Assad to go was a blow for Assad and his belief of his importance to stability. What the King basically said to Assad is we do longer consider you as a fellow Muslim.

    In relation to Libya, Gulf War 1, 2 and 3 it would only inflame the situation for Jews to operate on Muslims lands.

    India is a country that operates via two sides or two faces, one it says to the west we are like you a democracy we share your values and then on the other we have a policy of no interference (we do not support human rights), we are like the PRC or Russia, which means you are not like the west at all.

    So India position is more problematic than the PRC because the west knows what stance to take with the PRC. India they need to hedge that position in my humble opinion. That hedge is why Russia and the west will never have a more stable relationship. Just periods of cooperation.

    Because at some stage India will have to choose a path and the west could bolster India only to see it fundamentally work against its own interests in a hostile fashion. So comments like that of the Australia Defense Minister on India and the Indian Ocean, they should be more cautious.

    India should be looked at for cooperation and peace but should not fundamental become a component that shape strategy, specifically in relation to the PRC.

    On arms sales US vs Israel the end result is the same US control of key components. Either way the US has control, just as the affect on the PRC/Israel relationship. That is the price you pay for advanced military equipment.

    On the UNSC, for India to gain a seat, the EU which is one entity should only have one seat, which would mean both the UK and France would have to give up their seats for a solely EU seat, at present the EU has two seats.

    Once again you are looking in the wrong direction.

    As the major military powers the PRC, India, US and perhaps Russia will fight for influence in Antarctica now as South America countries have claims and what to keep those claims it will be hard for countries to establish a base to use the 120mm decision maker from there.

    The lines of logistics from India, and the PRC to Antarctica are long and opened to disruption. That leaves you all to fight over South Africa and bases further away like Hugo Chavez.

    The US already has its base in Tasmania Australia to base its yet to be built ice breaker fleet. Now the US has not made a public position, Russia has once the first drill goes in all bets are off, code for we will use nukes. The US shuns violence.

    As you can see with Argentina and the Falklands and the US position it is highly possible and likely that the US will support the Argentinian and Chilean claims. It cannot be discounted.

    The US is capitalist so long term energy contracts and not total control is what the US may seek, similar to the Middle East.


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