Event ReportsPublished on Mar 06, 2020
Need for a full-fledged West Asia policy, says analyst

“It is important to understand and keep track of the developments in West Asia because they affect not only India’s bilateral relations with the region but also India’s larger foreign policy vis-à-vis the great powers,” remarked Srinivasan Ramani, Deputy National Editor of The Hindu, while initiating a discussion titled ‘West Asia Politics and India Relations’, at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai on 22 February 2020.

Ramani pointed out that the usage of the term West Asia was both deliberate and political. In the West, especially the US and EU nations, the region is more commonly referred to as the Middle-East. This term is deliberately avoided in India because it presumes a Euro-centric perspective.

According to Ramani, there are certain important developments that have impacted on West Asian geo-politics in recent times. The petering out of the Arab Spring, the lowered reliance of the US on West Asian Oil, the moving away of Qatar from the GCC countries and continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine were amongst the most significant of these developments pointed out Ramani.

Petering out of ‘Arab Spring’

“The Arab Spring reflected a definite yearning for change across the Arab World, it began with Tunisia, then Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and even Saudi Arabia,” said Ramani. “Over the last decade, it has petered out, and in most countries, it descended into civil war, the only success has been in Tunisia,” he explained.

Ramani drew contrasts between Tunisia and Egypt. The protests in both countries were directed at the inability of the existing regimes at achieving economic growth, addressing the rise in inflation and food prices, along with strong desire for greater democratisation, he said. “However, in Egypt the previous regime has returned while in Tunisia it succeeded in establishing a liberal democracy with institutions in place” he explained.

Ramani believed the success in Tunisia was due to the fact that it was in essence a trade union movement. “In Tunisia, 40 per cent were workforce, this coalition succeeded in the transition to democracy. In contrast, in Egypt the protests were widespread, not organised and amorphous,” he said.

“The vacuum created by the fall of Hosni Mubarak was filled by the Muslim brotherhood. But it turned out to have a more religious interpretation of governance which led to more protests and eventually the Army having to step in. Now with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ,former Minister of Defence, former General and former Director of Military Intelligence, the former regime is back,” Ramani pointed out. 

Chaos, anarchy

Ramani described the current situation in Libya, as “utter chaos and anarchy.” He felt there was still a persisting power vacuum.  “The Libyan state as we know it does not exist. There is no Pan African Pan Arab Libya. The country remains deeply divided and this is problematic,” he said. In Bahrain, he said, the protests were ruthlessly crushed even before they began.

Syria continues to be a playground for not only sectarian battles but also geo-political struggles between the super powers, mainly Russia and the US. “We still don’t know what the end game is in Syria and the humanitarian costs have been severe. It will take years for Syria to recover,” he regretted.

American role

Fracking has led to a substantial increase in the US domestic oil and gas production, and thereby to a reduction of US dependence on oil import. Energy independence has impacted on the nation’s ‘Iran Policy’, which under the Trump Administration began with the US withdrawal of the nuclear deal. “It is unclear what the reasoning behind the US backing out was, other than that it appeared to be personal,” reflected Ramani.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran nuclear deal, signed in Vienna in July 2015, was one of the signature achievements of the predecessor Obama Administration. Many analysts have commented on President Trump’s moves to dismantle several policies and laws of the Obama era, withdrawal from the JCPOA was considered to be one such move.

Ramani criticised this move for being unilateral and abrupt. He argued that it had “heightened tensions in Iran and strengthened hardliners”. If Iran choose to be belligerent then its response is likely to include attempts to disrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz is particularly vulnerable, felt Ramani. 

Growing instability

With specific reference to India, Ramani said, West Asia was significant for two reasons -- oil and the presence of a large diaspora, with 6.7 million Indians living across this region. India understood the role of its diaspora in its foreign policy. However, Ramani argued that India’s foreign policy needed to go beyond maintaining simple bilateral relations with each of these countries.  Instead, India needed to develop a clearer West Asia policy at the regional level.

Growing instability in West Asia is entirely unsustainable for India in the long term. “West Asia is a crucial region for India, not just in terms of the remittances but to secure Indian interests in the long term. India needs to concerned with the worsening of US-Iran relations. A détente between the US and Iran is in our benefit.”

Summing up Ramani said, “Parts of West Asia are burning. Syria might see the end of the Civil War but it will take years for it to recover, Yemen is unresolved. Tensions between Israel and Iran will continue and we are likely to see new forms of instability extend to West Bank as a result of US role.”

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Independent Researcher, Chennai

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