Review of India’s Engagement with West Asia
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

The West Asian region is considered as India’s extended neighbourhood. India’s engagement with the region is rooted in history, cultural exchanges and vibrant diaspora. West Asia is crucial for India’s energy needs and economic pursuits. India’s policy is undergoing change as a result of the changing geopolitical dynamics within the region. India is the largest recipient of remittances globally with a major portion originating from West Asia.

India in 2021 received US$ 87 billion, an uptick from US$ 83 billion in 2020.[1] The World Bank has projected an increase up to U$$ 89.6 billion in 2022. The reasons for the steady increase in remittances were family loyalties and stimulus payments in several host states. The remittances from Gulf States contribute a major chunk in India’s total share[2]. In fact, the UAE (US$ 43 billion) and Saudi Arabia (US$ 34.5 billion) are second and third largest sources for remittance outflow globally in 2020. [3]

In 2021, India continued to make foray into West Asian states. India’s primary concerns in the region are energy security; well-being of the Indian diaspora; security and deepening foreign trade and investments. The quadrilateral alliance with the UAE, Israel and the US has offered tremendous opportunity for India to expand economic and trade in the region.

India’s Concerns in Afghanistan

India was particularly concerned about the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and its resulting security and humanitarian costs. India since mid-August engaged with all leading powers such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran about Afghanistan. India called for unified global response to affect changes on ground and prohibit Afghan territory from becoming the breeding ground of radicalisation and terrorism. Indian Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal met with Taliban Political office head, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai on 31 August at Indian Embassy in Doha. The Indian Ambassador talked about the safety and return of Indian nationals and allowing Afghan nationals especially minorities to reach India. The Taliban delegation assured India that Afghan territory would not be used to breed terrorism or allow anti-Indian activities. For India, direct engagement with Taliban is also necessary to counter Pakistan and China’s influence.[4]

Notably, India held the month long presidency of the UNSC in August contributing to outcomes of key global issues including resolution of Afghanistan; maritime security; peacekeeping; technology and countering the Islamic State (IS). India also presided over discussions about peace and security issues on the Middle East Peace Process, Syria, Yemen and Myanmar.[5] India in November invited the National Security Advisors of Iran, Russia and the five Central Asian states for a regional dialogue on Afghanistan. The participating members emphasised the need for an open and inclusive government and ensuring that the territory is not used as breeding ground of terrorist groups. National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval held separate discussion with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani to exchange views about improving relations; regional developments and situation in Afghanistan.[6]

India and the New Quad

India has wholeheartedly welcomed the decision by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. India is hopeful that the normalisation process would encourage Israel to renew dialogue with the Palestinians to establish an independent state based on mutual recognition. India is keen to benefit from its strategic alliance with Israel and the UAE to increase investments, nurture scientific research and cooperate in COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution globally.

Abraham Accords have paved the way for India to join the Quadrilateral Initiative along with the UAE, Israel and the US. In Israel, Indian External Affairs Minister along with Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken participated in the first quadrilateral meeting. The four states grouping is aimed at institutionalising cooperative mechanisms in terms of COVID-19 vaccine research; economic, energy and political cooperation; trade, climate change, maritime security; people to people ties in science & tech.[7]

The Quadrilateral Initiative premised on economic cooperation in transportation, technology, trade, water, agriculture, health has offered an opportunity for India to frame a regional policy. India’s engagement has traditionally been on bilateral lines. India should seek to maximise its economic interests in the region. There is a need for India to develop sophisticated business ethics and technological skills to compete with high-tech and developed economies such as Israel and UAE. India should also identify the areas of cooperation that could be mutually beneficial for all four states.

India’s Perspective on Regional Conflicts

In terms of regional conflicts, India is ardently in favour of a negotiated solution to achieve peace in Yemen. It has expressed support for President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi government. India sees the civil war in Yemen as an intra-Arab conflict and the tension between Hadi and Southern Movement is seen through the prism of divergent priorities between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. India’s relations are highly cordial with both states and therefore it has adopted a policy of non-interference in Yemeni affairs.[8] At the same time, India wants to broaden the scope of engagement in Yemen’s reconstruction and nourish cooperation in developing political institutions, energy, education, health and pharmaceuticals, technology, and humanitarian assistance.

In Syria, India has historically maintained cordial ties with the Bashar Al Assad regime and supports Syria’s claim over the Golan Heights. India favours restoration of state order under Bashar Al Assad and largely abstained from the UN Security Council resolutions criticising the regime that has been used to justify external intervention. There is a need for addressing the genuine grievances of the political opposition groups. The UN, according to the Indian perspective, should assist the Syrian parties and oversee the democratic process. India has maintained regular diplomatic engagement with Assad regime during the civil war while expanding ties with the Persian Gulf states.[9]

India’s policy on the Libyan civil war is driven by national interest and suspicion about the use of force by western actors in internal conflicts, especially in the West Asian region. India recognised the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) government on 16 November 2011 and offered financial support and medicines to Libya and number of diplomatic exchanges were carried out.[10] India’s diplomatic outreach to Libya was affected after Khalifa Haftar took control of eastern Libya. India was therefore, forced to evacuate its embassy to D’jerba in Tunisia in August 2014 and later to Malta. [11] India supports the internationally recognised government based in Tripoli under Fayez al-Sarraj. India favours genuine international efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya. India is hopeful that Berlin Conclusions could positively contribute to stabilising the state leading to fair elections and formation of credible and democratic government.

In Sudan, India has maintained a cautious posture and public statements are focussed on the safety of Indian nationals and protecting Indian strategic investments and energy assets. India has applied wait and watch approach to developments in Sudan. India’s efforts are focussed on capacity-building projects, providing food supplies and other essential commodities to help the Sudanese people, and promoting goodwill.

Bilateral Engagement in 2021

On bilateral level, India engaged with all the key regional actors in 2021. New Delhi hosted the Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud in September. The visit occurred in the aftermath of Taliban takeover. Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to discuss about the situation in Afghanistan and promotion of bilateral ties in trade, investment, energy, defence, security, culture, consular issues, health and human resources. Indian and Saudi Foreign Affairs ministers also reviewed the implementation of the 2019 Strategic Partnership Council Agreement.[12] S. Jaishankar held telephonic conversation with Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister in November discussing about travel resumption; updating their respective positions on Afghanistan; Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific region.[13]

Indian External Affairs Minister visited Israel in October and met with the Israeli Chambers of Commerce emphasising on the innovative eco-system. He also appreciated the role of the Indian Jewish community in promoting bilateral ties. On bilateral level, Jaishankar and Lapid agreed to boost cooperation in water, agriculture and renewing negotiations on free trade area agreement.[14]

On India’s interest in Chahbahar port, the second Trilateral Working Group Meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of the port was held virtually on December 14, 2021. India Ports Global Limited (IPGL), through its wholly owned subsidiary, India Ports Global Chahbahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ), took over the operations of the Chahbahar Port on 24 December 2018. It has handled 160 vessels; 14,420 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units and 3.2 million tons of bulk and general cargo. The Shahid Behesti Terminal at Chahbahar Port has handled shipments from Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Germany, Ukraine, Oman, Romania, Bangladesh, Australia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and UAE. The participants from the three states discussed how Chahbahar Port could be effectively used during humanitarian crises and enhance regional connectivity. India is keen to tap into the increasing transit traffic between Central Asia and South Asia through the port and further expand to develop transportation corridor. [15]

Endnotes :

[1]ABP News, “India Received $87 Billion In Remittances In 2021, Up From Over $83 Billion Last Year: World Bank,” ABP News, November 18, 2021, at https://news.abplive.com/business/india-received-87-billion-in-remittances-in-2021-up-from-over-83-billion-last-year-world-bank-1494067 (Accessed January 21, 2022).
[2]The Economic Times, “India, world’s largest recipient of remittances, received USD 87 bn in 2021: World Bank,” The Economic Times, November 18, 2021, at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/india-worlds-largest-recipient-of-remittances-received-usd-87-bn-in-2021-world-bank/articleshow/87772984.cms?from=mdr (Accessed January 23, 2022).
[3]The Hindu, “India received $83 billion in remittances in 2020, says World Bank report,” The Hindu, May 13, 2021, at https://www.thehindu.com/business/india-received-83-billion-in-remittances-in-2020-says-world-bank-report/article34548166.ece (Accessed January 28, 2022).
[4]S. Haidar, “Indian envoy in Doha meets Taliban leader,” The Hindu, September 1, 2021, at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indian-envoy-in-doha-meets-taliban-leader/article61423725.ece (Accessed January 29, 2022).
[5]The Hindu, “India’s Presidency of UNSC ends with ‘substantive’ outcomes on key global issues,” The Hindu, September 1, 2021, at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-presidency-of-unsc-ends-with-substantive-outcomes-on-key-global-issues/article61423478.ece (Accessed January 28, 2022).
[6]K. Bhattacherjee, “NSA meet seeks urgent help for Afghans,” The Hindu, November 13, 2021, at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/nsa-ajit-doval-chairs-key-regional-dialogue-on-afghanistan/article37411617.ece (Accessed January 29, 2022).
[7]The Wire, “At First Foreign Minsters’ Joint Meeting, US, Israel, UAE, India Discuss Harnessing Strategic Ties,” The Wire, October 19, 2021, at https://thewire.in/diplomacy/us-israel-uae-india-foreign-ministers-joint-meeting (Accessed January 21, 2022).
[8]M. S. Roy, “Crisis in Yemen: Imperatives for Region and Beyond,” MP IDSA, May 5, 2015, at https://www.idsa.in/issuebrief/CrisisinYemen_msroy.mmrizvi.zaidi_050515 (Accessed January 25, 2022).
[9]Hindustan Times, “India abstains from voting on UN General Assembly resolution on Syria,” Hindustan Times, December 10, 2016, at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-abstains-from-voting-on-un-general-assembly-resolution-on-syria/story-HohBiZT6b379TaQRByttxJ.html (Accessed January 19, 2022).
[10]The Indian Express, “India makes efforts to re-establish ties with Libya; Union Minister KirenRijiju to visit on Tuesday,” The Indian Express, May 6, 2018, at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-makes-efforts-to-re-establish-ties-with-libya-union-minister-kiren-rijiju-visit-on-tuesday-5165791/ (Accessed January 20, 2022).
[11]Embassy of India, Tunis, “India-Libya Bilateral Relations,” Embassy of India, Tunis, September 2018, at https://www.embassyofindiatunis.gov.in/india-libya-bilateral-relations.php (Accessed January 23, 2022).
[12]Ministry of External Affairs, “External Affairs Minister’s meeting with Foreign Minister of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Ministry of External Affairs, September 19, 2021, at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34286/External+Affairs+Ministers+meeting+with+Foreign+Minister+of+Kingdom+of+Saudi+Arabia (Accessed January 19, 2022).
[13]Business Standard, “Jaishankar holds telephonic conversations with Saudi counterpart,” Business Standard, November 17, 2021, at https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/jaishankar-holds-telephonic-conversations-with-saudi-counterpart-121111701085_1.html (Accessed January 21, 2022).
[14]Ministry of External Affairs, “Visit of External Affairs Minister to Israel (October 17-21, 2021),” Ministry of External Affairs, October 16, 2021, at https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34396/Visit_of_External_Affairs_Minister_to_Israel_October_1721_2021 (Accessed January 21, 2022).
[15]Ministry of External Affairs, “Second Trilateral Working Group Meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on joint use of Chahbahar Port,” Ministry of External Affairs, December 14, 2021, at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34653/Second_Trilateral_Working_Group_Meeting_between_India_Iran_and_Uzbekistan_on_joint_use_of_Chabahar_Port#:~:text=The%20second%20Trilateral%20Working%20Group,%2C%20Government%20of%20India%3B%20Dr.(Accessed January 30, 2022).
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