By R.S. Kalha*
There is a popular saying that seeing once is better than reading a hundred reports. Being a hands-on prime minister no doubt Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in UAE at a most important juncture in the politics of West Asia; when every issue seems to be in a state of flux with wide-ranging changes expected. Most alignments of state parties that existed in the past are rapidly changing. Who could have imagined that US Air Force jets would be flying in support of the Iranian-backed militias fighting the ISIS near Ramadi and Fallujah on behalf of the Iraqi government? These strange twists in the politics of West Asia need to be studied carefully and absorbed as the stakes for Indian interests in the region are not inconsiderable.
The most fundamental change that has taken place is the fact that following the nuclear deal negotiated between the P-5+1 and Iran; the latter is no longer considered as an outcast but has been brought back into the International community to play its rightful role as one of the more important players in the politics of West Asia. No future settlement of issues bedeviling the region can henceforth be settled without Iranian participation. The Iranians have not been inactive, and an Iranian delegation recently visited Oman to further seal cooperation between the two countries. Oman situated as it is at the head of the Gulf of Hormuz has a very strategic location. The Iranians have also supported the call given by the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for a reorganization of the Iraqi government with the elimination of the posts of vice-president and deputy prime minister; thus concentrating all power in the hands of the Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The US has gone along with this and did nothing to stop the strengthening of the hands of Prime Minister Abadi and his Shiite-led state structure at the cost of its Sunni component.
As far as the Syrian imbroglio is concerned, there is movement there also. There is recognition amongst the major powers that the events of Libya should not be repeated, for just as the Libyan state now lies decimated with horrific consequences for its inhabitants, a similar fate for the Syrian population needs to be avoided. Therefore, what was unthinkable a few years ago is beginning to happen in this case also. A Russian delegation recently flew into Saudi Arabia to meet the Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman. It was widely reported that along with the Russians came the Syrian spy chief Ali Mamlouk; an event not denied by Riyadh. Similarly, the Saudis have been to Moscow for discussions. The Russian position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also seems to be evolving, for recently the Russians supported the setting up of a UN Tribunal to determine the origins of the chemical attack near Damascus years ago that was thought to be engineered by the Assad regime. A UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian situation finally passed muster with rare unanimity except for the Venezuelan dissension. There is growing convergence of views amongst the major powers on Syria, but on the crucial question of the future of President Assad there is no unanimity and no conclusions.
One of the more troubled states at present is Turkey. Not only did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fail to win a parliamentary majority in the last elections but his compact with the Kurds has completely broken down; leading to violence in most Kurdish populated cities and also to Turkish war planes attacking Kurdish positions in northern Iraq. The irony of all this was not lost for it was the US Air Force that had so assiduously protected the Kurds when they were under attack by the ISIS. No one can forget the heroic Kurdish stand against the ISIS at Kobani that was finally defeated with the help of USAF.
Although Shiite-Sunni sectarian struggle continues unabated; there is growing convergence that the ISIS scourge has to be contained and finally eliminated. Even Turkey seems to be coming around to this view, given that they have permitted the USAF to start using the vital Incirlik air base for their operations against the ISIS. It remains to be seen as to what attitude the Gulf Arabs take on this new convergence that seems to be taking place.
For India the Gulf is our near abroad and of dynamic and strategic importance. It is not a policy to have good relations with the Arab Gulf countries but a vital necessity; a requirement. Dubai is nearer to Mumbai than it is to Cairo or even Amman. Muscat is only 974 miles away from Mumbai. Access to and the ability to import oil unhindered from the Gulf region is a facet of state security. It goes without saying that the Indian economy is entirely dependent on energy, and any disruption or volatility in oil prices causes considerable stress to the Indian economy. As a former commerce minister of India remarked in 2006, ‘the Gulf region is a part and parcel of India’s economic neighbourhood’.
About six million Indians live and work in the Gulf region. About 30% of UAE’s population is of Indian origin. Indians remit about US$12-15 billion annually to India. The Gulf region is the second largest destination for Indian exports behind only North America and the EU and account for nearly 13.4% of India’s total exports. India has substantial economic investments and strong cultural links with these countries. Any disruption therefore, particularly for political reasons, would inevitably result in the displacement of Indians living there as it happened in the case of Iraq and Kuwait earlier and more recently in the case of Libya and Yemen. Thus India stands to lose not only its main source of supply of the vital commodity – oil, but any economic disruption might even send the Indian economy into a downward tailspin.
On the other hand, should Indians have to evacuate from the Gulf region for any reason, the countries concerned too would be very badly hit. As UAE minister for labour remarked in August 2007, ‘God forbid anything happens between India and us….our airports would shut down, our streets, our constructions..’ Thus the visit of Prime Minister Modi was a vital necessity, coming as it did after 34 years when the last Indian prime miniser visited the UAE.
*R.S. Kalha is a former Indian diplomat and author of book “India-China boundary issues; Quest for settlement”. He can be contacted at [email protected]