Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

India’s new West Asia approach is a welcome break with past diffidence

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- I2U2

Context

The first summit this week of I2U2, which brings together India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States – is exploratory in nature.

I2U2 forum

  • Following the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, I2U2 was founded in October 2021 to address marine security, infrastructure, and transportation challenges in the region.
  • It was known as the ‘International Forum for Economic Cooperation’at the time. At that time, UAE had referred to the new grouping as the ‘West Asian Quad’.
  • I2U2 seeks to empower the partners and encourages them to collaborate more closely, resulting in a more stable region.
  • India is seen as a large consumer market as well as a large producer of high-tech and highly sought-after items in the United States.
  • This has led India to enhance its relationship with Israel without jeopardising its ties with the UAE and other Arab states.

How I2U2 matters to India

  • India can contribute to peace and prosperity in the region: The initiative signifies the US bet that India can contribute significantly to peace and prosperity in the region.
  • West Asian engagement: It also underlines a new political will in Delhi to break the old taboos on India’s West Asian engagement.
  • Consolidation of  India’s Middle East Policy: The I2U2 marks the consolidation of a number of new trends in India’s Middle East policy that acquired greater momentum in the past few years.
  • What stands out sharply in India’s new thinking in the Middle East is that the summit involves three countries that Delhi had traditionally kept a safe political distance from.

India-Israel relations

  • Although India was one of the first countries to extend recognition to Israel in 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru held back from establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
  •  PV Narasimha Rao reversed that policy in 1992 but he did not travel to Israel nor did he receive an Israeli prime minister.
  • Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, which had a more empathetic view of Israel, hosted Israeli PM Ariel Sharon in 2003.
  • While the relationship steadily expanded, there was ideological reluctance in Delhi to give the partnership a political profile.
  • In the past few years India imparted a political character to the Israel ties.
  • No backlash from the Arab countries: There was little negative reaction to the more open pursuit of India’s ties with Israel.
  • The problem was never with the Middle East but Delhi’s ideological preconceptions that distorted India’s view of the region.
  • Turkey, now a champion of political Islam, had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1949.
  • Egypt normalised ties in 1980.
  • Under the Abrahamic accords promoted by the Trump Administration, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco set up formal ties with Israel in 2020.

India’s relations with the Arab countries

  • India’s engagement with Israel was matched by effort to deepen India’s ties with the Arab world.
  •  During his first visit to Israel in 2018, Prime Minister Mode also became the first Indian PM to visit Palestine.
  • Even more important has been the transformation of India’s relations with the Gulf Kingdoms, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
  • India’s traditional preference in the Arab world was for engaging the republics.
  • Engagement with monarchies: Delhi remained wary of engagement with the monarchies, telling itself that they were pro-Pakistan.
  •  No Indian PM visited Saudi Arabia between 1982 and 2010 and UAE between 1981 and 2015.
  • After 2015 India developed strong ties with these governments without a reference to Pakistan.
  • Despite Delhi’s ideological posturing, the Middle East had long ceased to be a political priority for India.
  • In contrast with the past, recently the prime minister has travelled four times to the UAE alone, negotiated a free trade agreement with it, and has ambitious plans for the transformation of bilateral relations.
  • The UAE has also backed India’s 2019 constitutional changes in Kashmir and is ready to invest in the union territory.

Change in India’s approach to the region

  • India-US ties: For political Delhi, the US and Western policies in the region were a main part of the problem.
  • The immediate focus of Nehru’s policy after independence was to actively oppose US moves in the region in the name of promoting an “area of peace”.
  • That policy had no lasting impact as many regional countries sought active economic, political, and security cooperation with the US and the West.
  • The I2U2 then marks a big break from the anti-Western tradition in India’s approach to the region.
  • Negotiating the terms of joint engagement: In the past, standing up to the West in the Middle East was part of India’s approach, India now is prepared to confidently negotiate the terms of a joint engagement.

Conclusion

India’s participation in the West Asian Quad brings Delhi in line with other major powers– including Europe, China, and Russia – to try and engage all parties in the region. The I2U2 sets the stage for a new and dynamic phase in India’s relations with the Middle East.

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Back2Basics: Abraham Accords

  • The Israel–UAE normalization agreement is officially called the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement.
  • It was initially agreed to in a joint statement by the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on August 13, 2020.
  • The UAE thus became the third Arab country, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, to agree to formally normalize its relationship with Israel as well as the first Persian Gulf country to do so.
  • Concurrently, Israel agreed to suspend plans for annexing parts of the West Bank.
  • The agreement normalized what had long been informal but robust foreign relations between the two countries.
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