India’s Policy Options in Middle-East

Winner Of CSC August 2021 Essay Competition : Phani Kondeti (Miyapur, Hyderabad)

Middle-East had been the World's most volatile region for decades, and the history of conflicts and struggles of Middle-East is as old as that of India. Middle-East is a region of contradictions, stretching from the ravaged wilderness of Yemen to the modern cities of Turkey, from the troubled waters of Gaza to the hostile mountains of Iran. It is a region dominated by religious, sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, and it presents the biggest challenge to the Non-Aligned credentials of India for the foreseeable future.

Turmoil of the Middle-East :

  • With the exception of few relatively stable Arab monarchies, every Nation in the Middle-East is going through a period of turmoil. Yemen is gripped by Civil War and humanitarian crises, Israel-Palestine conflict has no signs of softening, Saudi Arabia-Iran sectarian strife is widening. Syria continues to be a battleground for different groups, Egypt and Lebanon are witnessing unprecedented protests, Iran-Israel tensions are on the rise, and various armed extremist groups are adding new dimensions to the turmoil of the Middle-East. The global powers are increasingly being drawn into the conflicts, often forced into opposing one another, as witnessed during the prolonged struggle in Syria between various factions supported by U.S., Russia and Turkey respectively.
  • Middle-East is not only the energy powerhouse of the World, but also home to Suez Canal and the World's busiest sea routes. The global powers are motivated to interfere in the affairs of the Middle-East to prevent disruptions in supply chains, especially in oil. Thus, India, as a rising power itself, cannot turn a blind eye to the Middle-East and expect itself to be immune from the geo-political constraints emerging from the Middle-East.

India's Relations with the Middle-East :

  • Trade links between India and the Middle-East date back to the earliest civilizations of Indus and Sumer, and cultural exchanges had steadily improved over several millennia. Middle-East has the largest number of Indian expatriates, and U.A.E. is second only to U.S. in the number of Indian expatriates. Kuwait had to pass a controversial Expat Bill in 2020 limiting Indian population, as Indian population exceeded that of Kuwaiti population in Kuwait. When Civil War broke out in Yemen, India had to evacuate thousands of stranded Indian citizens. Thus, India's considerable population in the Middle-East makes it vital for India to play an active role in the affairs of the Middle-East.
  • India's relations with Middle-East extend to economic and security spheres as well. Iraq and Saudi Arabia continue to be India's largest oil suppliers, and Saudi Arabia is emerging as a major investment partner for India. India invested heavily in Chabahar Port in Iran, and friendly relations with Iran are important for India from a strategic perspective to counter Pakistan. India continues to depend on Israel for defence purchases and for cybersecurity, and India sees Israel as a vital partner for emerging technologies such as desalination. Hence, India's interests coincide with the offerings of the Middle-East Nations, and peace and stability of the Middle-East is desirable for India.

India's Policy of Middle-East :

  • 'Non-Alignment' had been the cornerstone of India's foreign policy, and its policy in Middle-East is no exception. India had traditionally abstained from interfering in the internal affairs of other Nations, and had always supported peaceful resolution of conflicts. This had been evident during 1991 Gulf War, where India opposed the use of force against Iraq; during 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, where India maintained its neutrality; and on Israel-Palestine conflict, where India had consistently reiterated its support for peaceful Two-State Solution.
  • India's policy is guided by not taking sides, and instead taking forward partnerships with all the Nations concerned. Through its balanced diplomacy, India managed to cultivate friendly relations with several opposing sides, such as Israel and Palestine; Saudi Arabia and Iran; Iraq and Kuwait. It will be no exaggeration to state that India is one of the only few countries in the World, enjoying trust and confidence of all the Nations of the Middle-East.

Is Existing Policy Sustainable ?

  • Unfortunately, the rise of non-State actors in several Nations of the Middle-East is putting great stress on the 'Non-Alignment' Policy of India. ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon are examples for the rise of such non-State actors. While it may not be appropriate to categorize all such groups as extremist organizations, it is beyond doubt that such groups are out of diplomatic reach of established mechanisms. Thus, it raises the question - Can a policy targeted at a State actor be extended to a non-State actor?
  • The question is especially relevant for India, as India's non-interference policy in a conflict between two States may not be appropriate for a conflict between a State actor and a non-State actor. For example, consider the recent clashes in Gaza strip. Should India view the clashes as a conflict between Israel and Palestine, or as a conflict between Israel and Hamas? Is there a danger of legitimizing Hamas as representative of all of Palestine, by pursuing 'Non-Alignment' as a viable policy with Hamas? If yes, can it be to extended to other groups such as Houthis or even ISIS? Where do we draw the limits of 'Non-Alignment'? These are all questions with no clear answers, and these are all questions which require deep deliberations at the highest level.

Welfare of All as a Foreign Policy :

  • There are several determinants for India's evolution of foreign policy, including but not limited to, economic, political, security, scientific and cultural spheres. Historically, India's foreign policy was guided by predominantly its domestic interests and interests of its subjects abroad. However, the uncertainty of Middle-East presents an added dimension, that of welfare of the foreign subjects as well. To illustrate, it can be argued that Indians in Palestine will be safe, when Palestinians in Palestine are safe, and Indians in Israel will be safe, when Israelites in Israel are safe. Similarly, it can be argued that the welfare of Indians in Syria and Yemen is inherently linked to welfare of Syrians in Syria, and of Yemenis in Yemen.
  • Welfare of all as the 'motive' for the foreign policy will have the added advantage of implicitly opposing violence and extremism, as violence and welfare cannot coexist. At the same time, blurring the differences between domestic subjects and foreign subjects will raise the stature of India in global geo-political arena. Thus, a 'welfare' oriented foreign policy will not only enhance India's credentials as the torch-bearer of Non-Alignment, but also provide a platform for other Nations to follow India's example in building resistance against violence. Instead of simply adhering to 'rules-based international order', India can be a leader of the 'welfare-based international order'.
  • The ethos of India is well represented by the ancient Sanskrit phrase 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam', i.e. 'The World is One Family'. Differences are inevitable, but we must not let the differences degenerate into conflicts. Reconciliation, trust and harmony can be the guiding principles for the new World. The new World needs peace, and where there is peace, there is no violence. Now is the time more than ever, to back our ethos with actions, and Middle-East can be our starting point.