Sustained India-Gulf engagement builds habits of cooperation and sheds light on each other’s strategic concerns and capabilities.
India and China are working through their worst border crisis in four decades. The episode has fundamentally altered New Delhi’s perceptions on Beijing’s rules of engagement. A strategic imperative now is to ramp up engagement with its closest partners like the United States (US), Japan, Australia and France who have all voiced support. Conspicuous by their silence are India’s friends in the Middle East — the Arab Gulf states. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — India’s closest regional partner — has refrained from doing so despite demonstrating solidarity during moments of crisis with Pakistan.
Three factors feed this silence: China’s allure as an economic investor, the Gulf’s greater preoccupation with US-China competition and a tempered reading of India’s strategic contributions to the region. As India and China began negotiating de-escalation, Saudi Arabia announced that it would host an Arab-Chinese summit to further political ties. The UAE hosted its UAE-China Culture Week, which a junior minister branded “a manifestation of our bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership growing from strength to strength.”
Both these developments capture the essence of China’s present engagement in the Gulf: accelerated state-driven economic partnerships with a nascent focus on people-to-people ties. China’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman — stands at $170 billion today registering tremendous growth from $10 billion twenty years ago and is working toward a free-trade agreement. So is India, which currently trades about $20 billion (2018-19) with the GCC — its largest trading bloc.
China, like India, practices the art of strategic partnerships. It has signed the highest category – the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” — with Saudi Arabia (2016) and the UAE (2018). These two states form Beijing’s strongest pillars of Gulf engagement, as is also the case with India. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and a close second in the UAE, where India enjoys the top spot.
These developments are in keeping with China’s first “Arab Policy Paper” (2016),” which helped coordinate its interests through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the region’s development strategies. Taking cue, the UAE set up a strategic investment fund with China and signed deals worth $3.4 billion in 2019 that leverage Dubai’s expertise in logistics. The BRI meets the Indian Ocean region in the Gulf at Oman’s port of Duqm through investments worth $10 billion. This raised Indian anxieties but data suggests caution in overstating Beijing’s hold here. Investments from other Arab Gulf states as well as the US and Europe still dominate.
For Indian policymakers, there are three critical sectors to watch in China-Gulf cooperation: defence technology, nuclear cooperation and public health security. The Saudis and Emiratis look to China for armed drones, which the US is hesitant to share owing to export controls. The Chinese are building the region’s first drone production facility in Saudi Arabia. In more recent news, American intelligence agencies claim Saudi Arabia is using China’s help to expand its nuclear programme. Even if aimed at civilian purposes, this puts the ambitious kingdom on a potential path to nuclear weapons.
The third arena of cooperation — public health security — came about during the pandemic through a $265 million Saudi-China deal to expand testing capacities and a much-publicised UAE-China collaboration on a new vaccine trial. Interestingly, the US snubbed the UAE’s offer to its citizens to participate in the trial citing security concerns. This episode reflects growing dissonance between the US and its Gulf allies on China. US-China competition and its spillover effects preoccupy Gulf leadership today. The monarchies perceive China as a non-revisionist power pursuing an interest-based agenda in their region. Beijing, in short, presents opportunities in a strategic environment that is not yet zero-sum and encourages diversification.
Is the prospect of engaging the Gulf on India’s concerns vis-a-vis China, therefore, bleak? No. If anything, India’s regional partners have shown the will to listen, even lobby in its interest (for example, in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). Some have voiced support against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and appreciate that neither side comment on the other’s domestic issues. New Delhi, in return, “actively supports” the ambitions of the Gulf states in the IOR through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The UAE — a very active player in the Indo-Pacific — currently chairs IORA.
The trajectory of China-Gulf relations has been state-driven economic and strategic transactions now translating over to people-to-people and cultural understanding. This is unlike India-Gulf ties: an eight million-strong diaspora today leans on over a half a century of trade, labour and cultural conversations that lobbied the Indian and Gulf governments to pursue a strategic agenda. Though long overdue, the Modi government further institutionalised these partnerships through strategic dialogues that bring together political, military and economic stakeholders with greater frequency.
Sustained India-Gulf engagement builds habits of cooperation and sheds light on each other’s strategic concerns and capabilities. Familiarity, however, breeds expectation and the India-Gulf relationship is falling short, particularly in its commercial commitments. The pandemic has only worsened economic outlook, exacerbated India’s problem of reverse migration and impacted Gulf sovereign wealth funds. In this climate, what India can do is focus on fast-tracking existing projects such as the much delayed mega-refinery in Maharashtra and re-engage with purpose in strategic sectors like healthcare, nuclear and space cooperation. The intent here is to not play catch-up with China but focus on India’s strengths and deliver on what is already promised.
The Arab Gulf states cannot be expected to take sides on the current crisis with China but they sure are willing to engage with India’s concerns. That is a good start.
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Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Singapore where she tracks Indias foreign and security ...Read More +