Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy in West Asia

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Anil Trigunayat
    Venue: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati
    Date: March 29, 2019

Hon’ble Director of the IIT,
esteemed Faculty, dear students ,
ladies and gentlemen,

I am indeed very happy to be in Assam especially at this very prestigious institution the brand of which has made a global mark and impact. Congratulations and thank you for your hospitality and warmth. I am also thankful to the Ministry of External Affairs , Public Diplomacy Division for affording me this opportunity to share my views on India’s foreign policy with regard to our extended and most important neighbourhood in the Middle East. As the title indicates there is indeed a paradigm shift the way we approach this broad encompassing relationship since it is also one of the most volatile and sensitive regions in the world marked by historical injustices, intra-regional rivalries and competition for religious supremacy and loyalties . India treads its path very carefully and without prejudice. This has earned India the trust of almost all countries in the region and they look at India as an honest partner and friend. At the outset I can also say that given the implicit challenges this relationship can safely be termed a profound success of the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

2. "What is in a name” either nothing or something implicit or real and discernible. It is a given that West Asia is one of our most important partners in our extended neighbourhood for the obvious reasons of presence of huge Indian diaspora , energy supplies, security and trading lanes and abundant source of investments. Calling the relationship strategic and historic may be a cliché but it surely applies to the region whichever way we look at it. However, there have been periods of surge and troughs ,normalcy and nonchalance, dependence and mistrust with several constituents that is also true of any relationship . Often Pakistan factor and region’s propensity to take sides with their Islamic brother may have had an impact on India’s short term view with regard to their real intent . Likewise presence of some of the wanted terrorists , fugitives and offenders, finding refuge in some of the Gulf countries, led one to believe that it was intentional or India’s core and legitimate concerns were not being addressed by some countries in the Gulf. Often India saw a preference for or hand of Pakistan in things that mattered to it . For decades high level visits had not taken place to various important countries in the region which is barely 3 hours away from India and so very important . Relationship moved on unhindered but with not so much of intensity and focus. Although India’s engagement with the Middle East or West Asia is often termed as " Look or Link West” but in reality it is one of the most successful foreign policy achievements of Prime Minister Modi’s government in India’s extended neighbourhood that broadly includes the more important and rich sub-region of the GCC countries, Iran and Israel and other Arab countries.

3. The most significant moment was earlier this month ( March 1-2,2019) when India’s External Affairs Minister was invited to be the " Guest of Honour” at the 46th Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) hitherto known as Organisation of Islamic Countries preceded by the maiden State visit of Crown Prince Mohammad bin –Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia and exceptional fact that the Indian Foreign Minister met the Saudi counterparts three times in a fortnight even if the backdrop of Pulwama terrorist attacks.

4. Despite the cynics stating otherwise, let me try to touch upon some recent rather important developments especially those in the relationship with West Asia since the onset of Modi Government in May 2014. Generally our foreign policy outreach and salience on the global stage has become quite robust and national interest driven by requisite autonomy in decision making. This is borne by the fact that but for Pakistan, India’s relations with its neighbourhood and all major global players and countries have been on a positive trajectory. National interest or "India First” happens to be the key consideration and underlying diktat which are visible in the outcomes be they relate to political or security support or for that matter economic engagement, investments and technology collaborations.When looking at a relationship let us remember this is hardly a linear one as every sovereign country also has its core interests at heart that are unlikely to be exclusively served by any single bilateral relationship.


5. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation hitherto known as Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) has been in the news again in so far as India is concerned . India was invited to be the "Guest of Honour " at their Council of Foreign Ministers meet in Abu Dhabi from March 1-2,2019. Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs, accepted the invite. While accepting the invitation of Sheikh Abdulla bin Zayed Al Nayhan , Foreign Minister of UAE to address the Plenary of the 46th OIC meet , the Statement from MEA underscored more the bilateral relationship with UAE " We see this invitation as the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level. We see this invitation as a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE. We also see this invitation as a welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world ". India had pre-warned that OIC should refrain from commenting on India’s internal matters including on J&K and state of Muslims in India .Since 1990s at the behest of Pakistan the OIC has been issuing rabid statements and resolutions against India year after year which India has been rejecting outright as baseless and extraneous.

6. This meeting was taking place in the back drop of the Pakistan based and sponsored Jaish-e- Mohammed’s (JeM) terrorist attack killing 40 CRPF personnel at Pulwama in J&K and its global condemnation and the worst ever near war like situation between India and Pakistan. It is possible that this time round Pakistan had been prevailed upon by the hosts and GCC countries and they reportedly initially had not opposed the idea of India being invited as the "Guest of Honour” and perhaps saw it as an opening for some kind of dialogue or pull asides. But after the Indian aerial strikes at JeM terrorist training and recruiting camps at Balakot , Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi protested and told his UAE counterpart that unless the invitation to Indian External Affairs Minister was withdrawn he will not attend. But UAE and the OIC were firm and continued with the invite and gave her the full honours. Of course Pakistani Foreign Minister boycotted. This showed a paradigm shift in the way the member countries of OIC looked at India even though routinely they referred to the old issues but Abu Dhabi Declaration omitted the mention of any cantankerous issue in deference to India’s wishes.

7. India and the OIC have a chequered history since its inception in1969 at Rabat in Morocco.. It preferred Pakistan over India during its five decades of existence starting from the very beginning when the Indian leader of the delegation Fakhuddin Ali Ahmed ,who sat through in the allocated Villa ,was not allowed to participate as a member. They had to return from Rabat when India refused to accept the "Observer Status " even though India’s Ambassador had attended the Plenary. The Kings of Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan could not let their Pakistani brother-General down when the then Pakistani President General Yahya Khan pleaded that what face would he show to his people if India was admitted to OIC. The OIC meeting was taking place in the backdrop of Indo-Pak war of 1965, attack on Al Aqsa mosque and the Arab-Israeli conflagration. The OIC leaders wanted it to be the uninterruptible collective voice of the Islamic world. The " Talaq” between India and the OIC had taken place even before the marriage was consummated.

8. Since then under the garb of being an Islamic country ,Pakistan has successfully spewed venom against India in this forum, especially on Kashmir ,that represents 57 countries and has emerged as the second largest inter- governmental group after the UN and claims to represent and stand for Muslim countries. OIC’s credibility has been questionable as it continued to succumb to the irrational and vindictive approaches of some of its members including Pakistan. Initially India used to react to its unilateral and ill-founded statements but it was decided at one time to junk and ignore it as it made no sense to waste efforts . India has excellent bilateral relations with most members of the OIC and in bilateral discussions they would tell India not to pay heed to the standard statement even though it had to be issued unanimously . Some could abstain, if not overtly oppose but I guess it could be seen anti-Islamic. In the meantime to assuage India they would often invite India to apply for " Observer Status " like Russia and Thailand . King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during his India visit in 2006 said that India should become the Observer at the OIC and he even ideally hoped that Pakistan , which has all along been opposing , would propose it. Since then 12 years have passed and the Pakistani venom has been legitimised by OIC if one goes by regular statements including appointment of a "Kashmir Contact Group” and Special Envoy for Jammu & Kashmir that was junked by India rightly. Even in 2018 several statements have been issued by OIC against India on J&K and against the action of security forces. One cannot expect a change of heart or tactic overnight even if the UAE had invited the "friendly country of India as the guest of honour in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component”.

9. Bangladesh and some other countries including Turkey have been demanding changes in the OIC Charter to enable India’s inclusion which is also the fastest growing major economy in the world an emerging regional power with global aspirations, potential and outreach which could provide significant benefits to the Organisation and its members . Keeping it out and at the Critics’ end is counterproductive. Hence the invite by Foreign Minister of UAE to her Indian counterpart and the UAE Foreign Minister not only condemned the terrorist strikes against India but also ensured that the Abu Dhabi declaration after the Summit did not include any reference to J&K. He in fact at the press conference described the invitation to India as Guest of Honour as ‘historic’ and said that ‘we want to take this forward where we can embrace India as a member one day’ which probably captures the spirit of our participation.

Saudi Arabia

10. Saudi Arabia has been a close and important strategic partner for India and plays an exceedingly important role in India’s energy security and welfare dynamic of the Indian diaspora. At least since the visit of the then King Abdullah Aziz bin Al Saud in 2006 and the return visit of former Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh to Saudi Arabia in 2010 the relationship moved into a higher and definitive orbit. The Delhi and Riyadh declarations defined the future contours of the new direction the relationship was going to take. This was further highlighted with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia in 2016 when the highest honor was also conferred upon him. Visit in the context of India’s focus on West Asia, enabled the discussions on wide range of areas of mutual interest and elevated the existing strategic partnership. PM Modi had also invited Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to pay a state visit to India. On the side-lines of multilateral meetings also the Saudi and Indian leaders have continued to meet. They met on the side-lines of G20 summits and greatly appreciated and agreed to address the vital concerns of each other. In fact after their meeting in Argentina the Crown Prince had admitted that pursuant to the request of Prime Minister Modi Saudi Arabia had decided not to curtail the oil production so that Indian economy, one of its largest clients, does not suffer. This was an exceptional gesture which also entailed the Saudi offer to provide more oil to bridge the gap that might occur due to US sanctions against Iran. Although the embattled MBS, in the wake of Khashoggi murder and its aftermath, has received a lot of flak from the West and Turkey etc. India considered it an internal affair. Despite the negative optics PM Modi had detailed discussions with the Crown prince on the margins of Buenos Aires G20 summit. As such MBS has been braving and fending off the criticism through his interactions with leaders ,visits to various countries and participation at the major international events apart from hosting the first "Davos in the desert” controversial conference in the thick of the Khashoggi storm.

11. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad -bin Salman (MBS) came to India from February 19-20 on his maiden visit along with a high level delegation that included Ministers, Senior officers and leading Saudi businessmen. MBS called on President, Vice President and held bilateral talks with PM Modi on broadest possible areas of our mutual interest including developments in the West Asian region. The visit also took place in the back drop of the Pulwama and Balakot and the US and Israel sponsored ministerial meet in Poland for supposedly promoting future of peace and security in the Middle East where Prime Minster Netanyahu and Jared Kushner dwelt upon their outreach to the Arab gulf states and how to counter and contain the Iranian International role and influence which is also the desired objective of the Saudis. India has remained non partisan in these regional and extraneous disputes and brewing conflicts between Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain vs Qatar or the war in Yemen . All these issues and situation between India and Pakistan were discussed.

12. India has developed excellent bilateral strategic ties with most countries in the Arab Gulf as well with Israel and Iran. This approach is appreciated by the Middle Eastern countries and while they share that perspective they do not expect India to take sides given their realistic assessment of the tenets of Indian foreign policy which essentially argues and propagates resolution of conflicts through dialogue. Similarly we cannot work with a binary approach either of bilateralism or for that matter their closer relationship with Pakistan that is an Achilles heel for India. In fact majority of the Arab leaders would like to see India-Pakistan relationship resolved so that they do not have to be seen partisan either way. They visit India and Pakistan mostly in the same trip that used to be a little sensitive for us. But this time in view of Indian sensitivities MBS returned and came via Gulf .

13. During MBS’s visit the key areas of mutual interest including energy security, trade and investment, tourism ,infrastructure, counter terrorism, defence and security and the specific projects were discussed. A business meet and CEOs interactions provided the scope of future B2B interactions and Saudi Arabia presented its large scale opportunity for Indian investments in accordance with their Vision 2030 . On their part MBS announced an investment of about US$100 bn in diverse sectors .Saudi Arabia is the fourth largest trading partner with US$ 28 Billion and is the largest supplier of crude amounting to almost 20% of India’s requirements. Saudi Arabian investments in India are also increasing as they expand their sovereign wealth fund foot print in the country and the region. In fact the Saudi Aramco in partnership with ADNOC of UAE had entered in a joint venture with an investment of $ 44 billion in Ratnagiri Refinery and Petro Chemicals project. However, it has had some glitches due to mango farmer’s protest. Some of the new projects with announcement of fresh investment commitments could include Saudi investment in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund aimed at building of ports and highways as well as in the agriculture sector . It is for several years that the GCC countries have shown greater interest in India’s farm sector which is important for the food security of both. Hence given India’s saturation in the field due to small farm holdings it will be useful to identify tri- national projects where Saudi capital, Indian expertise in the agriculture sector and availability of land especially in Africa could create a win-win model. India has extend E-visa facility to Saudis to promote and facilitate tourism. Large number of Indians visit Saudi Arabia for Haj and Umrah through out the year but MBS is hoping to enhance Kingdom’s potential as tourism destination and will have to think of India and Indians as a major source rather than only for providing work force. India would also look for Saudi participation in creating strategic crude reserves. MBS not only pardoned and released 850 Indians in their jails but also increased the Indian Hajj quota to 200000 from 1750000. Saudis and other Gulf countries realize the importance of the fastest growing Indian economy and its role in their own growth matrix

14. Prior to his arrival in India , MBS visited Islamabad that has been the pattern of their high level visits to the region . Hopefully as a key benefactor of Pakistan MBS would have raised the Pulwama attacks with Imran Khan and impressed upon them to desist from supporting terrorist groups and cross border terrorism. Indian side surely flagged it and many more nefarious attacks and complicity of the Pakistani deep state in cross border terrorism. It had a sensitivity but the close relationship based on Islamic credentials with Pakistan is difficult to wish away. In fact Saudi Arabia announced $ 6 billion loan to shore up Pakistan’s ailing economy at the request of Prime Minister Imran Khan when he went barefoot on his first official pilgrimage after assuming office. UAE and Qatar have also provided significant funds and resources to the Pakistani Government. It was also announced that Saudi Arabia plans to invest $ 20 billion in a petro- chemical complex in Gwadar , where the Chinese have already aggressively embarked on their belt and road project. Given Pakistan’s penchant for and dalliance with terrorists and terrorism, India had embarked on a policy of exposing and isolating Pakistan through bilateral and international discourse. However, It is also true that the policy has been considerably successful despite global powers own interests . World stood with India in the aftermath of Pulwama and Balakot though urged a cooling down of further escalation.

15. During 2010 visit of former Prime Minister to Riyadh when for the first time Saudis were open to tell Pakistan to refrain from terrorist activities against India. The Pakistanis were highly anxious and worried. Likewise PM Modi’s visit to Saudi was a landmark when they also conferred the highest honour on him. PM Modi’s interactions took the strategic partnership to the next level. Then the visit of MBS was important both in the symbolic and substantive context . Saudi Arabia and India are the largest arms importers and being the giants in the respective regions be it economy or geography or for that matter religious importance for Muslims it is imperative that strategic communication and identification of priority areas of mutual importance including in Syrian and Iraqi reconstruction needs to be instituted. External Affairs Minister met the Saudi Foreign Ministers three times in a fortnight which is unprecedented and indicates the Saudi interest in not only trying to avert a major flare up between India and Pakistan but also in view of the bilateral potential of the relationship Hence a Strategic Partnership Council has been established with MBS and PM Modi heading it to monitor progress on projects .

Importance of the Gulf and Middle East for India

16. India has enjoyed exceptionally close, historic and civilizational ties with West Asia. By the end of the first millennium BC, trade between India and Arabia became the economic backbone of the Arabian peninsula. Centuries old bilateral trade benefitted both sides greatly as it enhanced their knowledge and understanding of each other and the Arabs acted as a conduit to the West taking Indian knowledge like numerals and traded Spices, foodstuffs jewellery, textiles and muslin and other goods flowed from India toward the Arab region, while pearls and dates were exported from the Gulf region. Economic ties continued during the British rule in India. No wonder Indian Rupee was a legal tender in several countries until the 1970s.

17. Most of the Gulf countries are in close vicinity and extremely important for India’s strategic and energy security. There is tremendous good will and bonhomie for India and the Indians in the region. Indians account for over 9 million and in most cases constitute as the largest expat community. They have emerged as great contributors to the wellbeing and development of their host economies and countries. Indians are the preferred workforce due to their discipline and sincerity of purpose and hardworking ethos. Indians especially in the GCC countries remit over $ 35 billion annually to India that adds to our vital foreign exchange reserves. More importantly they really act as India’s goodwill Ambassadors. Over time a qualitative change has occurred as Indian entrepreneurs have also emerged as the major trading and investment collaborators of the host countries. In fact in 2008, UAE had surpassed China to become our biggest trading partner as thousands of Indian companies established their presence in their Special Economic Zones. Since then the relations with almost all countries in the Middle east have deepened, diversified and expanded which is also marked by highest level exchanges especially under PM Narendra Modi in a more structured and focussed manner .I will dwell on the visits and their outcomes in due course.

18. There are many common political and security concerns of India and the Gulf countries, which could translate into coordinated efforts for peace, security and stability in the Gulf region, and security of the maritime routes passing through the region. The Gulf States are going through a significant change and transformation. Emerging common threat perceptions create further opportunities for West Asia -India cooperation in the future. This envisages jointly preparing to meet emerging domestic and regional challenges, foremost being the common threat from terrorism and fundamentalism. Thus, both the Gulf and the West Asian region and India need to cooperate and coordinate their efforts to combat such forces to meet their challenge. These are clearly addressed and reflected in the discussions during high level interactions and statements issued thereafter ( visit www.mea.gov.in) . For example in 2017, India and UAE signed a Comprehensive Security Partnership that encompasses areas of cooperation hitherto uncharted. In this effort the US and other external power dynamic and presence in the region will also need to be taken into account especially as several western countries have established their bases in the region and their interests , if at cross purposes, could have an adverse impact on our own security. Similarly fall out of intra- regional conflicts will also impact our choices and consequently our national interest.

19. . Relations have grown, deepened and diversified over the millennia. However as of 2012 we were still looking to find a fancy word to define our outreach to West Asia and for want of a better word " Look West or Link West ” were coined a la "Look EAST”. India’s so called policy of "Look West” has been converted to "Link and Act West” even though high level visits from India were few and far between. This hiatus was addressed from 2008 onwards when former PM Manmohan Singh visited Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. High level exchanges have become frequent with PM Modi on the horizon. India and Indians despite Muslim countries’ empathic relations with Pakistan continue to be liked and respected by the people and governments in the Middle East since they are looked at as a stable and committed work force contributing to the wellbeing of the host countries. No wonder in GCC alone we have a huge diaspora mainly from southern part of India and thousands of Indian companies and businesses are making the region as India’s major trading hub and partner. The region is also extremely important for India’s energy security as almost 65-70% of our oil and gas requirements are met from there. In addition the Indian diaspora remittances contribute greatly to India’s foreign exchange reserves . In recent times the richer countries in the region have begun to see India as a viable investment destination and opportunity. India is trying to veer the sovereign wealth funds to invest in it’s over a trillion dollar opportunity especially in infrastructure. UAE has already committed to invest US$75 billion and like wise Qatar and Saudi Arabia are assessing India’s business potential. The countries in the region also look towards India as a stabilising force and would like to see more and more Indian security presence in the region . Hitherto we have been somewhat reluctant but this has changed in recent times as we have created institutionalised defence and security mechanisms with the key partners in the region.

Situation in the Middle East:

20. Since the Arab Spring of 2010, the Middle East is in a downward flux and the present day conundrum has the potential to destabilise the region which can have devastating impact on India which is the close strategic neighbour. While this situation may have been externally induced and exacerbated with the 2003 misadventure by the US in Iraq or for that matter in the backdrop of the so called Arab Spring, the NATO bombing of Libya and extended conflict in Syria , the Arab countries have also given wind to their deep seated intra- Arab and Shia- Sunni conflicts and religious leadership and race for one-upmanship and superiority in varying regional landscapes leading to further destabilisation and unpredictability which could have disastrous ramifications for the countries themselves in this " Mutually Assured Destruction” syndrome . While the Arab Spring in the past 8-9 years has witnessed qualitative change broadly through overthrow of the well-entrenched regimes the Gulf Monarchies despite the rifts and inherent contradictions installed the younger leaders in decisive leadership positions be it Saudi Arabia , Qatar or UAE.- three major economies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in West Asia that are currently in an internecine blockade and turmoil since June 2016 . This was further compounded by the new US Administration under President Trump which directly or indirectly nudged the Saudis away by reversing the Obama outreach to Iran and casting doubts on the viability and veracity of the famous agreement JCPOA reached by P5+1. Peace is under threat. Saudi- Iran-US-Israel vitriolic has been further accentuated and their direct and proxy wars in Yemen and Syria could conflagrate further .The GCC and Iran are also heavily armed as the major suppliers and vacillating benefactors like the US made the hay while the petro- dollars bursted the seams. This was yet again reiterated when Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia met US President Trump who in order to partake and garner in the wealth of Saudis offered the latest weapons yet again to the Gulf state which is as such heavily armed and perched in a delicate balance with Yemen war on its hands. According to SIPRI over 33 % of global arms exports were destined to the West Asian region.

21. The regional institutions are under stress . Qatar walked out of OPEC. GCC itself is on the verge of irrelevance and disintegration due to the almost yearlong simmering conflict between Qatar and Saudi/UAE led combine with Bahrain and Egypt in concert that has defied any resolution. In the process Turkey and Iran have expanded their influence. Kuwaiti and Omani efforts to patch up have been in vain. In addition, Saudi Arabia and UAE have entered into an unprecedented strategic partnership agreement which can have its own graph that could be inimical to the overall stability of the region with the on-going Yemen and Syrian wars in their flank with Iran as their main target. The conflicts have the potential to further expand the footprints of diverse extremist and terrorist groups which is ironic as almost all nations are vouching hoarse their credentials for the fight against terrorism . With the low oil prices and renewables taking ascendance chances of irritants acquiring salience are high unless the regimes in the region become more tolerant to reform oriented domestic policies as well as mutual respect and understanding in their intra-regional relations. On top of it through their forces and bases the US, UK, France and Russia continue to pursue their geo strategic objectives like fight against ISIS or counter piracy operations or keeping their oil supply and trading routes open arguably for ensuring some stability in the region. The Trump Administration’s somewhat ad hoc and unconventional style of conducting foreign policy through tweets and junking of the multilateral agreements, arrived at after great difficulty and prolonged negotiations, especially relating to Iran be it in the Shia-Sunni context or Saudi led tiff and blockade of Qatar or for that matter declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or only this week announcing Golan Heights to be part of Israel have indeed created a dynamic uncertainty, unease and sense of instability among the countries in the Middle East. Recent proposals by the Saudi and UAE leadership to make Qatar into an island by creating tourism canals and nuclear waste dumping grounds along their borders may have serious and irreparable consequences. Qatar also opted out of the OPEC as it did not seem to have any leverage in the Saudi dominated organisation which is yet another indication of falling apart of the Gulf regional institutions .Big power rivalry in the region adds fuel to fire and has been well lamented in the wake of most recent US,UK and France Air strikes in Syria when Antonio Gutteres stated " The Situation in the Middle East is in such chaos that it has become a threat to international peace and security .New Equations and alliances are emerging with Turkey and Iran becoming bigger players in the Gulf spat and Shia Sunni divide. And today Syria represents most serious dimension of that threat”. Combined with other arenas of distrust between the major powers,the Cold War 2.0 is threatening to heat up.

22. At the same time Israel seemingly has advanced engagement with the GCC countries especially with Oman ,Saudi Arabia and UAE in pursuance to US initiative or lack of it with regard to Middle East Peace Process that has been hibernating. They are also trying to forge another coalition with the US against Iran as was evidenced during the recently held conference in Poland. While in the UNGA all ME countries made noises and voted against US declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel they have begun to ruminate over the possibility of "one state solution” as was mentioned by UAE Minister Anwar Gargash in New Delhi and are even ready to persuade the Palestinians . Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman acknowledged the right of Israel to exist that was in departure to their policies until now and since it appeared rather radical King Salman did try to tamper it somewhat and further reiterated at the recent Arab Summit at Riyadh to appease the popular sentiment. But it is a fact of changing ground dynamic and it will not be easy for the Palestinian leadership to ward it off for too long given the current state of affairs and thaw between major Arab countries and the Jewish state. Of course popular discontent among the Palestinians and Intifada will be hard to manage. But for countries like India who wish to maintain the symmetry of benign cooperation with almost all countries some potential challenges are inherent should things go out of hand. Equanimity for us in the regional and bilateral context will be confronted by hard choices especially as India also has defence agreements with some of the conflicting parties in the region. This would include playing a much bigger role in the intra-regional affairs as an honest interlocutor which interestingly is also sought by the countries in the region. Meanwhile India continues to enjoy the affection of the region due to its huge economic potential and benign foreign policy outreach and interests.

India’s Recent Outreach to West Asia :

23. Palestine issue has been a very sensitive one and treated as a yard stick of India’s sincerity for the Arab world. India has unstintingly supported the Palestinian cause which was also very dear to the ME countries. Arab -Israeli relations have their own negative dynamic in the international and domestic public perception and outreach. But this dynamic in the region has also changed and the hostility towards Israel to a great extent appears to be diminishing. India’s relationship with Israel provided some fodder to the critics who accused India of diluting its support and cooperation with the Arab world but India had kept Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the loop while establishing diplomatic relations in 1992. India continued to maintain good relations with all the countries in the region to sub-serve her own national interest. Our stand and support has been clear and articulated in all the fora while giving huge assistance to the Palestinians both as grant and in capacity building. Hence the balanced equation was maintained. As late as the last UNGA , Mrs Sushma swaraj the External affairs Minister reiterated India's historical support for Palestine stating that that it will be a central point of our foreign policy. "For independent India support for the Palestinian cause has been a reference point of its foreign policy," she told the Nonaligned Movement's Ministerial Committee on Palestine on the side-lines of the high-level General Assembly meeting. "I strongly believe that India's expanding relations in the region with all nations will only strengthen the Palestinian cause, that can never be undermined" she said. This cleared the deck for any doubt.

24. After PM Modi took over, the Arab governments were somewhat concerned and apprehensive that India might adopt a more pro-Israeli policy under the new government at the expense of traditional relations with them and the Palestinian cause itself will suffer. Besides the longstanding personal friendship and bonhomie between PM Modi and PM Netanyahu made them wary. This was soon dispelled. PM Modi understood the exceptional importance of relations with the Middle East that included Israel too. Hence a rounded and balanced relationship was to follow. PM Modi converted the "Look west” policy to " Link and ACT West " through his very first visit to the UAE followed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as to Iran (August 2015 to June 2016) in the first two years and to Israel in 2017 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Several leaders from the region visited India. In an unusual gesture Crown Prince of UAE was the Chief guest on our Republic Day. Exceptional collaboration in security & intelligence matters with an unusual emphasis on counter terrorism cooperation was the hallmark of the declarations post the visit that clearly targeted the cross border and havens of terrorism especially in Pakistan that was a warning to them since hitherto under the Islamic cloak Pakistan was able to garner the Arab support as benefactors. This was no longer available or at least was qualified which is a stellar achievement. The Joint Statement with UAE was an exceptional document as it forbade Pakistan to use UAE territory for anti-India activities which has hitherto been the case as the fugitive terrorist Dawood and his D Company and several others had been taking refuge in UAE and shuttling between Pakistan and the UAE while carrying out anti-India activities. In fact several accused Indian origin terrorists were extradited to India. Most recent case was that of the close aide of Dawood – the notorious FarouqTakla which is clearly an indication of the respect and resolve to genuinely address mutual concerns. Moreover, billions of dollars of strategic investments in India have been agreed to by these countries. While Iran is the Gateway of India to Central Asia and Afghanistan through the strategic Chabahar port, the GCC countries are integral to India’s energy security, over all security and counter terrorism efforts as well as safety and welfare of the huge Indian diaspora as. No wonder PM Modi visited UAE the second time this year after Palestine as the Indo UAE Relations have acquired a special strategic character. Several MoUs were signed in railways, energy sector , financial services and manpower. But for the first time an MoU between an Indian consortium (OVL, BPRL& IOCL) and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) was signed that allows the acquisition of 10% participating interest amounting to $600 million in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakum concession for 40 years .A highly significant development that was not conceivable until recently as hitherto we only had a buyer seller relationship with UAE. Similarly strategic storage of oil has been in the pipeline.

25. Our close friendship and concerted engagement has begun to yield tangible results in several areas of our strategic interest in a rather short time as enunciated in the Joint Statement of August 2015 during PM Modi’s visit to UAE first by an Indian PM in a quarter century " — Recognising that India is emerging as the new frontier of investment opportunities, especially with the new initiatives by the Government to facilitate trade and investment, encourage the investment institutions of UAE to raise their investments in India, including through the establishment of UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, with the aim of reaching a target of USD 75 billion to support investment in India's plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks.

Only recently in a first Saudi Arabia permitted Air India to use its air space to fly to Israel which was unthinkable. Or for that matter UAE helping build a Temple in Abu Dhabi which will further enrich cultural and people to people ties. UAE also extradited fugitive economic offenders like Michel and several others to India wanted in Augusta helicopter and other scams. First time joint military and naval exercises are being undertaken and defence and intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation is acquiring greater salience which also targets and stunts the state sponsored policy of our western neighbour that has become a haven and breeding ground of terrorists and anti-India terrorism.

Palestine Jordan and Israel

26. Indo- Israeli relations were catapulted to a new orbit during PM Modi’s July 2017 visit to Tel Aviv -the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister followed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India from January 14-19,2018 to celebrate 25 years of establishment of diplomatic relations . Israel has emerged as a major and reliable security , intelligence and Counter -terrorism partner for India. In defence it is the third largest supplier after USA and Russia with over $ 1bn turnover and many more deals in the pipeline. Reputed for its arid agricultural technologies it has become a close partner in India’s food security. S&T and Cyber Space as well as intelligence cooperation and innovation and start-ups have become new frontiers of cooperation. Israel now commands the friendship of the oldest democracy (USA) and the largest democracy (India). There is a close friendship and bonhomie between the two leaders .Elated Netanyahu welcomed PM Modi " We waited 70 years for you” which says it all. PM Modi reciprocated with exceptional hospitality to Mr & Mrs Netanyahu on their first visit to India. Indo-Israel relations have reached a great level of comfort and maturity. PM Netanyahu, despite his domestic troubles and pending elections in both countries , was keen to visit India again to sign some other defence agreements . They also extended assistance and intelligence during the Balakot precision strikes against terror camps of Jaishe Mohammad by the Indian Air Force in response to terrorist attacks in Pulwama .

27. On the issue of Palestine, India has maintained its principled stand but has de-hyphenated the interactive and collaborative paradigm. PM Modi visited Israel without visiting Palestine but had invited President Mahmoud Abbas to India and assured him of India’s consistent political and economic support . Palestinians trusted India and value Indian assistance. This was clearly visible in the wake of President Trump declaring Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and shifting of their Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem thereby creating a big setback to the resolution of this festering problem and the struggling Middle East Peace Process in violation of the agreed redlines, when India stuck to its position and voted against the US proposal at the UNGA which was highly appreciated by the Arab world. Earlier India took an independent view on issues raised by either side during various UN votes.

28. Although it may have irked Israel and the US, on India’s vote in the UNGA on Jerusalem , PM Netanyahu dismissed it as "One Vote does not decide the bilateral relationship” which is on a sound and trusted footing. In fact, the Joint Statement during PM Netanyahu’s visit articulated the way forward: ‘The two Prime Ministers discussed the developments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. They reaffirmed their support for an early resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for arriving at a comprehensive negotiated solution on all outstanding issues, based on mutual recognition and effective security arrangements, for establishing a just and durable peace in the region.’ A profound relationship calls for maturely managing the differences. And that was done while exchanging views and positions on matters of bilateral, regional and global importance within the ambit of strategic partnership. It is a win-win partnership that is bound to take a higher trajectory over the years to come.

29. On the other hand PM Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Palestine -Ramallah on February 9,2018 discarding any doubts that any Arab watchers have had. This was the clearest reiteration of India’s position. President Abbas conferred the Grand Collar- on PM Modi which the highest Palestinian award given only to a very few . Palestinian leadership which has discarded US as an honest broker of Peace and hopes that India perhaps could play a more proactive role in the middle east. Even Syrians and other have been looking to India for an enhanced political role. PM Modi went to Ramallah via Amman where he had extensive discussions on counter terrorism , de-radicalization and economic and security collaboration as well as on issue of Jerusalem and Palestine. King Abdullah II who was on a visit to Pakistan and UAE cut short and returned earlier to Amman to meet PM Modi . Both the leaders have developed a fond relationship. Within Weeks King Abdullah II was on a highly significant State visit to India , after a gap of 12 years when over a dozen agreements and MoUs were signed including the one on defence cooperation that has hitherto been elusive due to Jordan’s closer relations with Pakistan. Even 10 B2 B MoUs were signed especially in the phosphates and potash sector .Newer areas of cooperation including ICT and renewable energy were identified and road map was charted. Jordan has emerged as a key collaborator in India’s food security and being rich in Shale deposits could become a reliable partner in our futuristic energy security.


30. I would also like to refer to two other important visits one is PM Modi’s first visit to Oman on February 11-12,2018 and Iranian President Rouhani’s recent visit to India from February 15-18. PM Modi had visited Tehran in May 2016. Oman is one country in the region which has maintained good relations with Israel, Iran and other GCC countries and can act as a reliable interlocutor in the intra-regional affairs and conflicts. India and Oman relations have been very close and historic . Apart from deeper trade and economic engagement Oman has been a significant defence and anti-piracy partner for India. Indian naval ships keep visiting Salalah and Duqm ports regularly .During the visit eight agreements were signed in military, health, tourism .judicial cooperation , tourism add space sectors . India will be able to use the Duqm port for its military logistical requirements that fits well in its SAGARMALA initiative and maritime security . This was further supplemented by the Agreement India has signed with the French during President Macron visit which will allow India to use their naval bases and facilities in the region.

31. As for Iran the visit was significant and clearly indicated that India carries on its bilateral relationships in an independent manner and in pursuance to her national interests. Iran is our major energy security partner and with the development of strategic Chabahar port or the North South Corridor connectivity India’s outreach to Central Asia and Afghanistan will be unencumbered and assured. Although US and western sanctions did have an impact India continued to maintain the momentum in bilateral relations. During the visit of President Rouhani nine MoUs across a wide spectrum were signed . One of the most important aspect was to create a mechanism for Rupee-Rial trade through Asian Clearing mechanism that would obviate going through the vagaries of sanction imposing western banking outfits in order to resolve the contentious issues in the hydrocarbons sector. The Joint Statement underlined "Noting the complementarity of interests and natural partnership in the energy sector, it was agreed to move beyond traditional buyer-seller relationship and develop it into a long term strategic partnership, both sides agreed to continue and increase the pace of negotiation for reaching appropriate results on energy cooperation, including Farzad B gas field. President Rouhani and Prime Minister Modi agreed to further intensify and diversify the existing high-level engagement through frequent and wider range of bilateral exchanges at all levels. In this context, it was decided to convene within this year the meeting of the India-Iran Joint Commission and all its Working Groups, Foreign Office Consultations, dialogue between defence and National Security Council structures of the two countries, Policy Planning dialogue, and to promote Parliamentary exchanges.” India continues to buy Oil from Iran and made US understand the logic and reason behind serving its own national interest and strategic autonomy. US eventually granted the requisite waiver while maintaining pressure though prescribed time lines but has also been eyeing the Indian appetite for oil and gas . It has already begun to supply.

As we move on…

30. Region has been facing profound turbulence and instability in which India could definitely be asked to play a greater role be it in the Middle East Peace Process and Palestine or Syria due to its increasing credibility . But India has to wade through carefully in these fissures as new equations and competition among the erstwhile regional and external powers like Turkey- a NATO member country, US-Russia, China and Iran as well as Saudi-UAE combine could stoke the Shia -Sunni divide further that would debilitate the GCC and would be disruptive for the region with adverse impact on our vital interests. In departure from the past and following real politik PM Modi does not seem to hesitate collaborating with US and other powers in the region since despite perceived withdrawal US still continues to be an arbiter given its might, military bases and long standing ties and strategic interests in the region. As for the recent crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt India rightly refused to take sides because India does maintain excellent relations with all the countries bilaterally and has strong stakes in each of them and in their safety and security. Hence it expects the resolution of the issues through dialogue in keeping with her policy. In the wake of the gulf crisis, visiting foreign ministers of Qatar and UAE briefed the Indian government but publicly articulated that while India understood their view point they did not expect India to take sides. India has followed a policy of nurturing bilateral ties with all the countries in the region without getting entangled into their ideological or sectarian fault lines. This is the key success of the foreign policy as India can not afford to be drawn into their ongoing conflicts but in this turbulent era of shifting alliances in the region and Cold War 2.0 on the horizon situations may arise when we will have to exercise choices much to our dismay and dislike. Meanwhile India continues to nurture the ties through bilateral exchanges and multilateral engagement. However, we need to continue to work on finding the right balance that will serve our national and strategic interests better. As India grows in stature and ambition and follows a policy of clearly articulated objective assessment it will be able to achieve the requisite credibility to be an honest arbiter of peace and productive engagement.

31. Allow me to close with a quote by PM Modi. Speaking at the Westminster, UK on April 18 last year, it was perhaps the first time that India’s recent independent foreign policy driven by a robust India and her national interest was expounded in no uncertain terms by Prime Minster Narendra Modi in his " Bharat ki Baat Sabke Saath” . Apart from speaking about the decisive surgical strikes against the terrorists across the western border , PM said "What prevented Indian Prime Ministers from going to Israel. Yes, I will go to Israel and I will even go to Palestine. I will further cooperate with Saudi Arabia and for the energy needs of India I will also engage with Iran.” The fact that he specifically chose to refer to West Asia clearly underlines the importance India attaches to our relations with the region but with a fine tuned de-hyphenation and strategic autonomy.

Thank you.