By S. Samuel C. Rajiv
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech at the Raisina Dialogue on January 17, 2017 affirmed that in interactions with the countries of the Gulf and West Asia, his government has ‘not just focused on changing the perception. We have also changed the reality of our ties … despite uncertainty and conflict’. This is most pertinently evident across three key areas — enhanced high-level political interactions, the increasing salience of defence/security cooperation, and the greater thrust to involve the resources of the countries of the region in realizing the government’s ambitious transformative domestic economic agenda.
High-level political interactions between India and West Asia have seen a dramatic increase since Prime Minister Modi took office in June 2014. Mr. Modi visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE, August 2015), Saudi Arabia (May 2016), Iran (May 2016) and Qatar (June 2016). These visits constitute just four of the Prime Minister’s 54 foreign visits so far (till February 2017). They are however significant given the long-running anomaly of limited high-level political interactions with the region, despite India’s oft-flagged high stakes vis-à-vis the region – which has been called its ‘proximate neighbourhood’ among many other evocative phrases. These include the security and well-being of the eight million diaspora, the huge remittances they send, and the critical role the countries of the region play in India’s energy security calculus.
External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj on her part has visited Bahrain (September 2014), the UAE (November 2014), Turkey (January 2015), Oman (February 2015), Egypt (August 2015), Israel, Palestine, Bahrain (January 2016), and Iran (April 2016). In comparison to the above visits, which occurred within two years of the NDA assuming office, UPA Foreign Ministers Salman Khurshid and S.M. Krishna made a combined total of eight trips to the region during the entire second five-year term of the Congress-led coalition from 2009-14. The only Prime Ministerial visits by Dr. Manmohan Singh during that time period were to Riyadh in February 2010 (after a gap of 28 years) and to Iran for the NAM Summit in August 2012.
President Pranab Mukherjee has also made productive State visits to Jordan, Palestine and Israel (October 2015), MEA Minister of State M.J. Akbar visited the UAE (October 2016) and Palestine (November 2016). While Israel is keenly awaiting the first-ever visit of an Indian Prime Minister to that country, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin reciprocated the hugely successful visit of President Mukherjee in November 2016. India-Israel relations meanwhile continue to be on their upward trajectory. January 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Apart from President Rivlin, some of the dignitaries from the broader region who have visited India since Modi came to power have included the Foreign Minister of Oman (June 2014), Foreign Minister of Bahrain (February 2015), the Emir of Qatar (March 2015), the Iranian Foreign Minister (August 2015), the UAE Foreign Minister (September 2015), Syrian Foreign Minister (January 2016), Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (February 2016), Saudi Foreign Minister (March 2016), Egyptian president (August 2016), Turkish Foreign Minister (August 2016), and the Qatari prime minister (December 2016).
By inviting Crown Prince Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations in January 2017, India sent out a strong message of solidarity with an important Arab country that has lately been consistent in its appreciation of India’s security concerns — specifically those emanating from Pakistan. The terrorist strike on a UAE diplomatic delegation on January 10, 2017 in Kandahar starkly reinforced the dangers of the common threat posed by state-sponsored terrorism. The previous time a dignitary from the region graced the occasion was in 2006 when the Saudi King was the chief guest. January 26, 2017 was also the first time in recent memory when the chief guest was not a head of state. The Crown Prince gracing the occasion therefore was a natural corollary of the conscious policy decisions being pursued by the two governments in recent times to take steps that aid in the better understanding of each other’s strategic priorities.
When Prime Minister Modi visited the UAE in August 2015 for instance — the first such visit in 34 years, the decision to elevate the bilateral relationship to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ was taken, and an agreement to this effect was signed in January 2017. The first ever Strategic Dialogue was held on January 20, 2017 (with MOS Akbar leading the Indian delegation), while Manohar Parrikar became the first defence minister to visit the UAE in May 2016. Joint exercises between the air forces of the two countries, was held after a gap of eight years, in May-June 2016. Both countries have pledged to further strengthen defence cooperation, including ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. The MEA, in a briefing ahead of the visit of the Crown Prince, indicated that the UAE was even looking at the possibility of joint production of aircrafts since the UAE and India are inducting similar aircraft (Rafale), among other areas of potential cooperation.
While the India-UAE strategic partnership has witnessed strong growth, India’s defence and security cooperation with other key countries of the region is also growing apace. The Modi government has continued to build on the institutional mechanisms already in place to further strengthen such cooperation. India and Saudi Arabia for instance have a Joint Committee on defence cooperation since September 2012 and a MoU on defence cooperation signed in February 2014. During Modi’s April 2016 visit to the Kingdom, both sides agreed to further intensify their defence cooperation, including pertaining to the ‘supply of arms and ammunition and their joint development’. A MoU on combating money laundering and terrorism financing was also signed while the Joint Statement called for dismantling of terrorism infrastructures and cutting off of support for terrorist activities.
Some of the pertinent bilateral defence-related institutional interactions since mid-2014 have included the eighth meeting of the India-Oman Joint Military Cooperation Committee held in February 2016, the Chief of Air Staff visiting Oman and UAE in August 2015, the fourth meeting of the India-Qatar Joint Defence Committee (JDC) meeting in January 2015, the Egyptian and Palestinian security personnel undergoing Special Forces training at Agra in Dec 2014-Jan 2015 and January 2015 respectively, among others. Security cooperation was an important arena of focus during the interactions with the dignitaries from the region, including relating to the fight against terrorism, sharing of information on intelligence matters, combating cyber crime, training for security forces, among others. When Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Qatar in December 2016, the offer of training Qatari police personnel by India was accepted by his hosts.
Economic Component – Investments and Energy Security
The Modi government is actively engaging with the countries of the region to seek their participation in realizing the government’s transformative domestic economic agenda. Efforts being finalised to obtain $75 billion of UAE sovereign wealth fund for the India Infrastructure Investment Fund are a pertinent example in this regard. Reports noted that India received close to a billion dollars of foreign direct investment from the UAE during the past year. The agreement between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves (ISPR) that would allow the UAE firm to store its crude at the Mangalore facility in indeed significant.
As regards a key energy and connectivity partner Iran, the coming to power of President Donald Trump has the potential to alter regional stability. Most analysts note that the administration may not back out of the UNSC-recognised (and approved by the US Congress and the Iranian Majlis) Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — negotiated in 2015 by the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany with Iran, despite threatening to do so throughout his campaign. He has however taken punitive actions against Iran’s ballistic missile activities and resolutions are being considered in the US Congress to make Iran more accountable for its alleged destabilizing activities in the wider region in places like Syria and Yemen.
The Modi government has demonstrated a pro-active approach to secure the interests’ and well-being of its citizens. The evacuation of Indian nationals from the region in times of distress — 7000 from Iraq (2014), 3750 from Libya (2014), and 6700 from Yemen (2015) — with active role of MOS Gen. (Retd.) V.K. Singh, was noteworthy, as indeed EAM Swaraj’s active responses (particularly on social media platforms) to pleas from help from Indians in distress. The decision to open additional Indian Worker Resource Centres (IWRC) in Sharjah, Riyadh and Jeddah, apart from the one functioning in Dubai, is a welcome step. The further strengthening of the three key elements of Modi’s ‘Act West’ policy as delineated above would indeed enhance India’s developmental and national security goals as well as contribute to regional security and stability.
(The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own)