Security and Foreign Policy

India Attempts To Rekindle Ties With Middle East Under Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in recent months, has taken steps to revive India’s ties with the Middle East. Swati Torsekar assesses India’s renewed foreign policy towards the Middle East in an attempt to expand its regional influence and power.

BY: SWATI TORSEKAR

Recently, the Indian media reported substantially on Modi’s visits to the four Middle Eastern countries- Oman, UAE, Jordan and Palestine, leaving the impression that the media has offered some easy answers to the genuine questions people have about these visits. The media came close to concluding that Modi visited the Middle East with a bag of money and so – yes – ensured his grand welcome in these countries with the deals India promised them. That money is not the main fulcrum of Modi’s foreign policy, which has been enunciated by his government on many occasions. It is, therefore, apparent that the driving factors behind the success of Modi’s foreign policy have not been truly fathomed by the established media. Any visit to a foreign country by the country’s head of state is always described as historic – and their friendship is described as strengthened with the visit. The media reports the signing of new agreements and analysts stress the importance of the deals and the friendship with superficial phrases. In Modi’s case, the shift in India’s policy towards the Middle East and its actual basis would determine the extent of the benefits the new agreements could bring to all sides, a fact that has not been adequately explored.

Indian readers identify the Middle East with the Shia-Sunni conflicts and terrorism. The Middle East is also identified with the ever compliant kings of regimes serving either the US or the Russian interests with unanimous support for Palestine, unanimous opposition to Israel, affluence brought over by petrodollars, the politics of oil and the occasional uprising against the kingdoms and the Arab spring. This is the vocabulary the present Indian analysis captures with respect to the Middle East. Added as garnishes are the themes of Arab psychology and philosophy of radical Islam. Indian readers, therefore, wonder if India can be in sync with the Middle East in foreign policy. Obviously, much is lost in the sensationalist manner of media reporting.

The grand welcome Modi receives in these countries bewilders analysts as they can offer no trustworthy basis and explanation to the response Modi commands there. Why has India’s foreign policy become a sudden success in the Middle East? Indians of my generation would hardly remember an occasion when any Middle Eastern country in the last few decades has shown strategic understanding, interest or sympathy towards India’s predicament in global affairs including its relations with Pakistan – a Muslim country alleging loyalty and converging its own interests with those of the Muslim regimes of the region. Why is it that Modi has turned around this erstwhile situation? Why has he succeeded in flooding the once dried up Middle Eastern “wadis” with Indian interests? Modi’s outreach to the region traces India’s long journey from history and the roots of his success can be found in the glory of the mutual history. The revival of these historical ties is the driving theme behind bringing India and the Middle East back onto a path of mutual prosperity.

Let us bear in mind that India can never be a power to be reckoned with in Asia if she does not command the waters of the Indian Ocean. The Middle East can be safe if the Indian ocean is safe, especially since the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz are a part of the Indian Ocean. Modi mentioned the age old wooden boats that were used in the commerce between Oman and India for hundreds of years in his speeches. Indian merchants supplied goods to Istanbul and Indian goods were respected for their high quality. After independence, the Nehruvians never revived these threads to promote good relations between India and the Middle East. Now Modi is making efforts to revive these buried ties.

Leaving aside the ancient ties – do we at least remember the British days and the mutual history of India with the region? The British ruled India as well as the Middle East because they commanded authority over the Indian ocean. At the beginning of the 20th century, the London Times published an article stating that “Britain’s supremacy in India is unquestionably bound up with British supremacy in the Persian Gulf. If we lose control of the gulf, we shall not rule long in India.” Such was the importance of supremacy over the Indian ocean because it was vital to control the Persian Gulf through which 70 percent of the goods between the Middle East and other Asian countries were shipped. The British exerted this control over the Middle East from Indian land. Just like the agreements the British made with the Indian princely states, they also entered into agreements with Middle Eastern states giving some of them the status of protected states and some as protectorates. Through these agreements, the British ruled over the Defense and Foreign Affairs of the states of Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE (then known as Trucial States), Qatar, Oman with Zanzibar and Muscat, and British Somaliland. Eden and the surrounding area were attached to the Indian state. The entire Middle East was ruled by a British Political Resident from the city of Bushehr that reported to the Viceroy of India. The British did not indulge in military intervention here. Nevertheless, the Indian army was stationed at Eden, Muscat and Bahrain. The Indian navy patrolled the Arabian Sea. When the Indian army declared victory over Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) in the first World War, the task of establishing Indian rule became a priority. The Indian Viceroy and Arabia’s Political Resident estimated that around 23 million Indians can be shifted to Mesopotamia. The powers in London did not approve the Indianization of Mesopotamia.

India’s trade with the Middle East flourished as merchants from Mumbai traded pearls and other commodities. The Indian rupee was the currency of the Middle East – as late as 1960s in some places. Much later, came the invention of oil drilling machines and the opening of the oil industry, which reversed the position of strength between India and the Middle East. The Middle East became a stronger financial empire than that of India. Until this happened, India ruled the markets. This change lasted until now partly because the Indian rulers after Independence did not grasp India’s importance in the region nor did they try to restore the coveted position of leading the Middle East’s defense requirements and governing its foreign relations.

The decades of Nehruvian foreign policy that pursued the Non-Alignment Movement wrongly applied principles of Panchasheel. India’s virtual entry into the sphere of Soviet influence over time landed the country into this pitiable and humiliating position of isolation from Middle Eastern states and prevented an emergence of common vision between the two for decades. This vacuum was regrettably filled by, in Indian comparison by Pakistan presenting itself as another Muslim state with cultural and religious affiliation and calling India a secular state with Hindu majority and thus marginalizing it from important domains of foreign policy. Middle Eastern states respected Pakistan even more after it became a nuclear power. Pakistan, as well as many Middle Eastern regimes, were under the American influence cementing their strategic relations in many domains. This placed India in a difficult position with government after government struggling and making compromises to somehow maintain a balance between these states as the state could not leave its oil dependence aside. Even after the Soviet empire collapsed, India did not try to make amends. Now, Narendra Modi is attempting to reassert India’s influence in the Middle East through a series of tactical foreign policy decisions.


Swati Torsekar is the author of two books, articles in dailies, weeklies and other periodicals. She publishes her blog swatidurbin.blogspot.in in Marathi language on issues pertaining to India’s Foreign Affairs. She can be reached at erpswati@gmail.com

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: CNBC

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