Ahlan Modi: Gulf states role out red carpet for India PM as economic priorities align

India’s engagement with the Middle East is part of New Delhi’s wider strategy of adopting what it terms “multi-alignment”

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gesturing to attendees at an event in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on 13 February 2024.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gesturing to attendees at an event in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on 13 February 2024.

Ahlan Modi: Gulf states role out red carpet for India PM as economic priorities align

India’s engagement with the Middle East is part of New Delhi’s wider strategy of adopting what it terms “multi-alignment”.

Unlike the US position towards India, Arab countries do not see engagement with India as an effort to counter China. The relationship between India and the Middle East reflects mutual pragmatism based on economic and security cooperation rather than political alignment.

Global south limitations

Some analysts use the term global south to refer to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with connections and positions that stand out from or oppose countries in the north (or the West) — namely the United States and European countries.

India can be grouped under this label, especially because of its active membership in BRICS and Quad multilateral organisations.

Last year, India held the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) and used this position to present itself as a champion of the global south. One of India’s actions in this regard was the admission of the African Union to the G20 during India’s G20 presidency.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and African Union Chairman Azali Assoumani shake hands during a bilateral meeting after the closing session of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023.

Read more: India pushes G20 agenda that caters to developing countries' interests

But this labelling carries unrealistic expectations about India’s position in global politics. The term 'global south' can be problematic because it implies a semblance of coherence among countries which, in reality, have divergent political stances and priorities.

To assume India will be the voice of this group shows little understanding of its goals and behaviour.

Case in point is India's abstention on a UN General Assembly vote that took place on 27 October which condemned Israel's assault on Gaza, although it supported an amendment that condemned Hamas’s attacks.

Some analysts said India's choice to condemn Hamas but not Israel was because of its close cooperation with Israel in the fields of defence, security and technology, while others said it was because of the ideological commonalities of Zionism and Hindu nationalism.

To assume India will be the voice of the global south shows little understanding of its goals and behaviour.

But a closer look reveals that India's political behaviour is not about alignment with any particular political camp.

This is why the term 'global south' does not reflect India's true policy priorities, which aim to connect the West with other regions in the world while also working to counter its key rivals, China and Pakistan.

This defines India's regional and global diplomacy, as evidenced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the region. Economics and defence are at the heart of India's relationships with Arab states.

Balancing act

As part of its multi-alignment strategy, India strives to maintain economic and defence relationships with diverse —and even rival — actors in the Middle East.

Israel's recent barring of 80,000 Palestinians from working in the country has opened up a new opportunity for cooperation with India. Israel wants to bring in 10,000 workers from India to fill in the gap, which adds to existing trade and defence ties between the two countries.

India's strongest economic and defence relationships in the Middle East are with Israel and Gulf countries, but it is also strengthening its engagement with Iran.

In January, it signed a cooperation agreement with Tehran to develop the latter's Chabahar port. The port is of strategic importance to both countries. It is Iran's only port on the Indian Ocean and can play an important role in evading Western sanctions.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (R) meeting with India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Tehran on January 15, 2024.

As Pakistan does not allow the land transit of goods from Afghanistan and Central Asia into India, having full access to the port allows India to circumvent Pakistan.

In November 2023, as Israel's war on Gaza intensified, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra discussed the possibility of increasing connectivity through the port with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Chabahar.

The Chabahar agreement also bolsters India and Iran's trade ties as the port is part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which is a project for moving goods across India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe.

Meanwhile, India has deepened its economic and security relationships with Arab countries.

In 2022, the I2U2—which stands for Israel, India, United Arab Emirates and the United States—was created. Its inaugural statement said the group aims to cooperate on "joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security".

India is also part of the IMEEC, the India-Middle East-Europe-Corridor, a planned economic corridor announced in late September, of which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are signatories.

Both the I2U2 and IMEEC rival China's own international engagement through the Belt and Road Initiative to an extent.

But while the US may see India as a potential counterweight to China, Arab Gulf relationships with India — and China, for that matter — are part of a plan to diversify their global partnerships.

Economics and defence are at the heart of India's relationships with Arab states.

Defence cooperation

Defence cooperation between India and Gulf countries is also growing. India and Saudi Arabia conducted a joint naval exercise in 2021, and Riyadh recently hosted the World Defence Show 2024, showcasing its military capabilities and underscoring its wide-ranging diplomatic relationships.

India was a key participant in the expo. The expo dates coincided with the first Joint Military Exercise between India and Saudi Arabia, Sada Tanseeq, which took place in Rajasthan, near the border with Pakistan.

At the same time, Pakistan remains a military ally of Saudi Arabia. The two countries conducted joint military training between the Pakistan Army and the Royal Saudi Land Forces on January 21 of this year in Okara. The Pakistan Air Force also participated in the Saudi-hosted international military exercise Spears of Victory 2024.

However, this has not stopped Saudi Arabia from boosting its military engagement with India, underscoring Riyadh's desire to maintain its relationships with the two rival countries.

Defence cooperation between India, the UAE, and Bahrain has also increased. On 23 January, the Indian Air Force and the UAE Air Force jointly conducted Exercise Desert Knight (together with the French Air and Space Force).

Meanwhile, Israel recently announced that it wants to transport goods from India through the UAE instead of through the Red Sea following the Houthi attacks there.

But although on 25 January, India became a full member of the Bahrain-based multilateral Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) initiative, which aims to secure the Red Sea, it has declined to join the US-led task force to protect shipping in the area from Houthi attacks. This is likely because India wants to protect its relationship with Iran.

The above overview illustrates that India's strategy of multi-alignment works both for India and the Middle Eastern countries engaging with it, allowing them to cooperate on issues of shared interest while pursuing their own national objectives.

This also means that in the context of the Middle East — and the global south — India is unlikely to take a political position that would threaten its multi-alignment strategy.

font change

Related Articles