As Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved into his second tenure as the leader of the country, emphatically winning the 2019 general elections, his government’s outreach over the last five years towards West Asia, specifically the Gulf, is widely regarded as the government’s biggest diplomatic success story.
The region, is volatile, and India has large economic, political and demographic stakes. The Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) grouping, as a region, is India’s largest trading partner. More than 7.5 million Indians work in the larger region, sending back over $55 billion in remittances annually, having New Delhi to micro-manage a diaspora bigger than the population of Finland. India’s former Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, attending the 9th ministerial meeting of the GCC in 2015 in New York, pushing for a GCC – India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) said that the Gulf was an “extended part of our (India) neighborhood”. Some people, in fact, even wittily call Dubai India’s fifth largest (and cleanest) city.
In midst of this almost usual regional kerfuffle, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2016, ending a long and unnecessary impasse between the two countries that setup official relations with each other in 1991. During this tenure, he visited UAE twice, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Jordan and Ramallah as well. These visits cemented a renewed and revitalized outreach for India towards West Asia, and perhaps more importantly for Modi himself, who still carries the baggage of the Godhra communal riots of 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he was the Chief Minister at that time. This, however, has diluted significantly over the past 17 years as the BJP, under his auspice, has now won two major national victories, giving a sense of where the Indian voter is looking towards today as far as what they see as India’s position in the world. In January this year, just before polls, India attempted to host 22 foreign ministers from the Arab League, which did not materialize due to internal Gulf politics but could have been a significant moment of not just regional but global diplomacy.
Despite his questioned stint as Gujarat chief during Godhra riots, most accounts suggest that while much criticism existed, Modi was still not a significant figure in the international arena at the time. The ambassadors of Gulf nations in New Delhi during that period did not get, nor demand, a briefing from the Ministry of External Affairs on the riots. While Modi’s public image took a beating in the region and amongst the Islamic world in general, the region’s statecraft and ‘realpolitik’ thinking saw India as being prone to communal discord, ranging from the Meerut riots in 1986 to the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 which had caused much more uproar in the region, specifically within the migrant Indian Muslim community. While Pakistan raised the issue within the OIC, little materialized of it as far as reactions from the forum or its members was concerned. Modi’s travel visa ban implemented by the US post-Godhra was a bigger debate in the region than anything else.
However, after his first victory in 2014, when the BJP defeated the government of the Congress party led by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the reactions by the Gulf nations were initially subdued, not showing eagerness or a sense of urgency to welcome the change of power in New Delhi, but taking a step back and letting the complexities of this change act out. The GCC started to build rapidly upon the ecosystem left behind by the previous two governments of Singh’s UPA and the general direction of Indian diplomacy since the Non-Aligned Movement led bridge-building by Nehru, India’s pro-Saddam Hussein stance during the first Gulf War, Vajpayee pushing back against pressure from his own aides on sending troops to Iraq in 2003 to join the US-led ‘war on terror’ and so on. History is littered with strong ties between India and West Asia, capitalized efficiently, and effectively, by Modi since 2014.
Upon his victory this year, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Modi over a telephone call. The UAE also conferred Modi with their state’s highest civilian honor, the Zayed Medal, just before the elections took place for his work in bringing ties between the two regions to an all new level. In 2016, during Modi’s visit to Riyadh, the Saudis had also conferred Modi with their highest civilian honor, the King Abdulaziz Sash. This was quite the departure from the approach the Gulf took in 2014, where Modi’s history and the BJP’s general perception of nationalist-Hindu politics were approached with caution.
It is imperative to also remember that the internet was not a major source of informational exchange in the early 2000s. Migrants, and the perceptions they had were an important population to sell ones case to. Modi’s outreach and visits to the region, embracing leaders such as Zayed and King Abdullah, gave a signal to the Muslim populations back home of Modi’s acceptance in the international Muslim community, including the guardians of the Holy Mosques. In the world of fast information, public relations and social media, all these visits by Modi would have had a fairly positive impact at home. Meanwhile, this was not the case during the time of the Gujarat riots, where offline disinformation was also trying to play its part. It is known that at that time, there were instances where printouts and online images of doctored Indian constitution with false anti-Muslim texts were being circulated. This had become such a problem that the Indian government ordered 1,000 copies of the Indian constitution to be distributed across the Arab world’s media landscape in order to dispel these rumors.
So why did the Islamic powers in the Gulf embrace Modi over the past five years despite presumptions suggesting otherwise? The answer lies more within the interests of the Gulf nations itself than Modi government’s outreach, which however successfully lassoed in the interest of these cash-rich states looking towards the Indian economy to secure their own future financial interests, as regional behemoths such as Saudi Arabia start their attempts to shake-off a decades long addiction to the petro-dollar. In such quests, Modi’s majority win in the elections giving India a rare non-coalition government backed by the hypothesis that it would be able to conduct business without political fallouts was also seen as a driving factor. Not to mention, that the general ‘strong-man’ approach found takers in a region used to precisely that, centralized power and cult personalities. For both the Gulf leaders and Modi, the relations are first and foremost transactional.
The Modi government latched on to these optics, not just for the Gulf, but beyond in the region as well. While relations with the likes of Iran have been running on their natural progression, the UAE – India partnership has come across as the most significant uptick on both security and economic fronts. Sometimes called as Saudi Arabia’s ‘research lab’, home to metropolis’ such as Dubai and pushing a progressive and globalist approach, all the things Saudi perhaps aims to replicate, Abu Dhabi and Delhi’s alliance has been one of Modi’s success stories. In Modi, the UAE seemingly sees more robust Indian economic growth, and perhaps even political stability, banking on his previously fractured image being the harbinger of change on how he wants to present himself now in the international arena, an important optic for the Indian prime minister. Despite all this, economic growth and stability remains the forefront argument, as US becomes mostly self-sufficient on oil, the Asian economies, led by India and China, are expected to lead purchases of crude. This, along with return-intensive economies and untapped market capacity makes for ideal destination for the Gulf’s rich wealth funds and petro-dollars.
This change of perception for India, which was starkly different in the 1990s, arguably started to take place after 9/11 and the American ‘war on terror’ that started to force the likes of UAE and the Saudi to hedge their bets instead of putting all eggs in the American basket. The 2006 visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to New Delhi during Singh’s administration was a watershed moment, and laid a quiet but strong foundation on expediting ties with New Delhi. His visit was previously strengthened by former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam’s visit to the UAE in 2003, where the visiting Indian delegation was appraised of UAE’s intentions to invest heavily in the country’s economy, which was gathering pace at that time, but also was plagued with significant hurdles and limitations.
Other regional factors also played their part, the convergence of Israel and the Arab world’s backdoor diplomacy gave New Delhi a lot of breathing space. The launch of direct flight operated by Air India to Tel Aviv using Saudi Arabian airspace in 2018, becoming the first such route, was a monument more for the growing Arab – Israel thaw than the India – Israel dynamic. Growing tensions between Iran and the GCC have given the Arab world and Israel a common threat to bond over. How long this will last is debatable, but for now it is working for the parties involved.
Ultimately, the success of Modi’s West Asia outreach had a good setup thanks to Indian diplomacy over the past decade, but perhaps more so to the changing headwinds of global economic, and by association political power structures forcing new geo-political realities to be highlighted in the Gulf capitals. The recognition of these changes in perception and intentions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and making timely use of high-level diplomatic visits to quickly develop these optics in the world’s most volatile region is expected to pay significant economic dividends in the years to come. While it will take time to see how many of these optics translate into successful long-term trade and strategic partnerships, West Asia remains Modi government’s most successful area of foreign policy, and perhaps the most promising one as well with a pacey approach replacing the usual lethargic one that we have grown so accustomed to.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +