After the Modi-led BJP party took office in India, the country adopted whole new approaches toward the Middle East since 2014. In other words, India’s foreign policy which was based on nonalignment shifted toward economic pragmatism after the demise of the cold war. In the Modi era, the Indian prime minister sees the Middle East as its strategic partner. Based on this, the Indian foreign policy toward the Middle East is focused on two points, the occupied lands(Israel) and the Arab Persian gulf states.
Taking a look at history, after the Palestinian Declaration of Independence on November 18, 1988, India recognized the country. Despite establishing formal relations with Israel at the end of 1992, but considering India’s uprisings against the British colonialism, adopting a nonalignment policy, its backing of liberating and anti-colonialist movements and hosting a sizable Muslim population, the Indian authorities tried to establish some sort of balance in their relations with Israel and Palestine. But since 2014, the New Delhi and Tel Aviv relations have become much closer. During the Modi era, for the first time since India’s independence , an Indian premier made a trip to Israel, a move which was reciprocated six months later by Netanyahu visiting New Delhi and the countries opened a new chapter in their economic, security, and military relations by signing various agreements and memorandums of understanding. It is worth noting, against all states’ common procedure , Modi refrained from visiting Palestine and Mahmoud Abbas.
On the other side, we are witnessing changes in the relations between India and the Arab Persian gulf states, especially the Emirates. Modi’s first trip to the Arab Persian gulf states after about three decades was made to the UAE in 2017 . Following was the trip made by the Abu Dhabi prince to India as a special guest in January 2017 to attend the Indian independence day which turned the friendly relations to a strategic partnership; during the visit, 16 cooperation documents were signed. This is while the last time a prominent figure from the Arab Persian gulf states visited India as honorary guest was in 2006 where Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the former Saudi king, had attended the ceremony.
The U.A.E. is the third biggest trade partner, exporter of energy and a destination for 2.5 million Indians- equivalent to 30% of the UAE population, and an investing partner for India. The UAE is one of the most important foreign investors in India, which with recent investments has proportionately increased its share of investments in India. Modi’s next trip to the UAE was made in February 2017 and then again in August 2019, during which he received the highest civilian award of the UAE. Also India was invited to attend the session of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation held in Abu Dhabi in 2019 as especial guest.
Although Modi’s pragmatism and India’s economic growth in competition with China are motives for Modi’s getting closer to the Middle East region, other political and security ends should not be ignored as the Arab Persian gulf states have adopted new positions and approaches in line with those of India in important political, security and military fields. The first case is India’s attending the Islamic Cooperation Organization. While always one of the last paragraphs of the session would pay to the Kashmir issue and condemn the Indian actions in this region, inviting India blunted discussing the Kashmir subject according to Pakistan narrative. The Organization for Islamic Cooperation ‘s reason d'etre is to pursue important Muslim world issues such as Kashmir. Inviting India was followed by Pakistan’s objection and it not attending the session.
The second case is related to India’s action in revocation of the special status of the Kashmir region and establishment of martial law in the country in August 2019. Despite the Arab Persian gulf states long held support of Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, in this period of time, the UAE, while declaring it a domestic issue, considered the Indian step as bringing more peace and stability; also Saudi Arabia did not take a specific positon. Despite UN security council resolutions and world states inclination for peaceful settlement of issues through negotiations and international institutes, India was not met with any hurdles.
The third case goes back to several years earlier in 2015. After the enactment by the bicameral Pakistani parliament regrading noninvolvement in the Yemen war and with respect to Pakistan’s commitment to defending the two sacred shrines in case of any incursion to them, the UAE made its strongest objection to Pakistan and stated that Pakistan would pay the heavy cost of its impartiality in the Yemen war. Declaring establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in September 2020, completed the India- Israel-UAE tringle of relations and opened a new front of power with a combination of the Hindu Modi, Jewish Netanyahu, and Muslim Ben Zayed which could be branded “ Indo-Middle East”. This left Pakistan with a tremendous shock; because establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE and then Bahrain as well as silence and inaction from some Arab states like Saudi Arabia , on one side, and a lack of capabilities and capacity in countries like Bangladesh for projecting power against India are indicative of Pakistan’s surrounding environment becoming security-centered and driving away Pakistan’s old friends and allies from this country. Under these circumstances, from India to the Middle East, Pakistan has no other friend than Iran.
No doubt, the aim of an alliance, especially during the prime ministerial period of Modi , who is an extremist Hindu, is to restrict Pakistan as a Muslim country and a neighbor of Iran which has good relations with China, Iran and Russia as well as pressure Islamabad officials in the Kashmir subject. The Modi administration is trying to put Pakistan under maximum pressure to force it give up its hostile or as India calls subversive and terrorist positions on India, Kashmir and Pakistan. To tighten the circle around Pakistan , on one side, India has tried to push the Pakistan friendly countries away from the path of convergence with it , and on the other side, due to Pakistan not establishing relations with Israel , by making Israel more entrenched in the south Asia region, further restrict Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Under such circumstances, Pakistan has had to pay double costs to handle its vital issue regarding Kashmir, peace with the Taliban, and to maintain its relations with the Arab states and handle its ties with Israel and America which have become harder issues due to the weak economy , the regional challenges and the ethnic and domestic tensions Pakistan is now faced with . While, now, Pakistan is in desperate need of foreign countries especially the Arab states to handle its current affairs, at present one of the main sources of finances, i.e., the Middle East is itself grappling with a crisis, as a result, pakistan’s defense and military issues have been overshadowed.
Thus, in the Pakistani Indian relations, there can be seen not only no perspective for settlement of 70 years old challenges of the two countries, but India is actively pursuing undermining Pakistan to impose its new conditions on this country which will directly influence Pakistan and indirectly Iran, China and the regional environment
Maedeh Karimi Ghahroudi, Senior Expert at Foreign Ministry
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)