Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

India &Gulf regions


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Gulf countries

Mains level: Paper 2- New possibilities in cooperation with the Gulf countries

The Gulf region offers new possibilities of cooperation to India. The article explains these possibilities.


  • External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recently is a good moment to reflect on the structural changes taking place in the Gulf and the region’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean.

Issues in approach towards the region

  • For decades, India’s mercantilism saw the Gulf as a source of oil and a destination for labour exports.
  • India’s bureaucratic approach to the Gulf was incapable of a political engagement with the region’s interests.
  • The Indian elite has long viewed the Gulf as a collection of extractive petro-states run by conservative feudatories.
  • Although the Gulf kingdoms were eager to build strong and independent political ties with India without a reference to Islamabad, India viewed them through the prism of Pakistan.

Influence in the Indian Ocean

  • Delhi’s traditional focus in the Indian Ocean was riveted on Mauritius and the large Indian diaspora there.
  • P.M.s visit to Mauritius and Seychelles in March 2015 saw the articulation of a long-overdue Indian Ocean policy and an acknowledgement of the strategic significance of the island states.
  • Since then, India 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.
  • Earlier this year, Delhi 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.

5 Areas of new possibilities with the Gulf

1) Protecting India’s interests

  • First is the immediate need to shield India’s interests in the post-pandemic turbulence that is enveloping the region.
  • As the Gulf considers cutting back on foreign labour, Delhi would want to make sure its workers in the region are insulated.
  • Delhi is also eager to improve the working conditions of its large labour force — close to eight million — in the Gulf.

2) New and long-term economic cooperation

  • As the Gulf looks at a future beyond oil, they have embarked on massive economic diversification and are investing in a variety of new projects including renewable energy, higher education.
  • India must get its businesses to focus on the range of new opportunities in the Gulf.
  • India also needs to tap into the full possibilities of Gulf capital for its own economic development.

3) Financial power translating into political influence

  • The Gulf’s financial power is increasingly translating into political influence shaping political narrative in the Middle East.
  • The influence has been manifest in their successful transformation of the debate on Arab relations with Israel.

4) Influence on regional conflicts

  • The Gulf’s ability to influence regional conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon and from Libya to Somalia has increased.
  • The Gulf today delivers economic and security assistance to friendly states.
  • The UAE currently chairs the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and has been eager to work with India in developing joint infrastructure projects.
  • India needs to bring scale and depth to its regional initiatives on connectivity and security in the Indian Ocean.

5) Reforms taking place in the region

  • The Gulf 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 that is not tied exclusively to religion.
  • The UAE has been the leader in this regard.

Consider the question “India’s engagement with the Gulf countries has been limited in several aspects. However, the region offers new possibilities of strategic and cooperation to India. Evaluate these possibilities.” 


As India seeks to recalibrate it’s ties with the Gulf, the real challenge for South Block is to get the rest of the Indian establishment to discard outdated perceptions of the Gulf and seize the new strategic possibilities with the region.

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