Context: Recently, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visited Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
What is the significance of West Asia to India?
- Socio economic significance: Gulf is a source of oil and a destination for labour exports. The UAE alone hosts nearly three million Indian expatriates and the Gulf as a whole hosts large labour force close to eight million.
- New opportunities in the Gulf: The Gulf states have embarked on massive economic diversification and are investing in a variety of new projects including renewable energy, higher education, technological innovation, smart cities, and space commerce.
- Khaleeji Capitalism: Gulf has become the source of capital that has been built on the massive accumulation of oil revenues over the last few decades. For example, sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf dominate several regional sectors from banking and finance to infrastructure and logistics etc.
- Growing political influence: The Gulf’s financial power is increasingly translating into political influence and the ability to shape the broader regional issues in the Middle East. For example, have normalised relations with Israel, growing ability of the Gulf to influence regional conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon and from Libya to Somalia.
- Reforms in Social order: For example, the UAE recently announced a series of legal changes that make the Emirates an attractive destination for foreign workers such as decriminalization of alcohol use, permission for cohabitation among unmarried couples, criminalization of honour crimes against women, and the institution of long-term visas.
- Security in Indian ocean: The UAE currently chairs the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), friendly relation with gulf countries can bring scale and depth to its regional initiatives on connectivity and security in the Indian Ocean.
What are the roadblocks in strengthening India-West Asia ties?
- India’s narrow bureaucratic approach towards the Gulf was incapable of a political engagement with the region’s interests. For example, India viewed gulf countries through the prism of Pakistan.
- The Indian elite has long viewed the Gulf as a collection of extractive Petro-states run by conservative feudatories.
- There is a wide gap between the investments that the Gulf is ready to offer and India’s ability to absorb needs. For example, in 2015, Abu Dhabi committed to invest $75 billion in India. Still, India is a long distance away from facilitating that scale of investments.
- India provided very little attention to the significant reforms unfolding in the Gulf that seek to reduce the heavy hand of religion on social life, expand the rights of women, widen religious freedoms, promote tolerance, and develop a national identity.
How India’s perspectives on the Western Indian Ocean have changed recently?
- From 2015, India has acknowledged the strategic significance of the Indian ocean island states such as mauritius and Seychelles. Since then, South Block has brought Madagascar and Comoros along with Mauritius and Seychelles into the Indian Ocean Division.
- India also unveiled a maritime strategic partnership with France, a resident and influential power in the Western Indian Ocean.
- India became an observer at the Indian Ocean Commission, the regional grouping that brings France’s island territory of Reunion together with Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
- India has also become an observer to the Djibouti Code of Conduct — a regional framework for cooperation against piracy between the states of the Gulf, the Horn of Africa and East Africa.
With Gulf economies reinventing themselves, India now has every reason to support the Gulf rulers who are trying to reverse course and promote political and social moderation at home and in the region. India needs to discard outdated perceptions of the Gulf and seize the new strategic possibilities with the region.