The Indian Air Force is a few months back has participated for the first time in Exercise Desert Flag-VI in UAE along with air forces of the United Arab Emirates, United States of America, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Bahrain.
In this article, we will discuss and analyze various aspects of the strategic significance of the Persian Gulf Region for India.
India’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have witnessed a significant upswing since 2015, across the areas of trade, investments, counter-terrorism, and security cooperation.
Regional and international developments, including the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), China’s growing regional footprint, as well as heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, also contributed to amplifying the importance of the GCC states in India’s foreign policy calculus.
Persian Gulf: A backgrounder
- Persian Gulf also called Arabian Gulf is a shallow marginal sea of the Indian Ocean that lies between the Arabian Peninsula and southwestern Iran.
- It is bordered on the north, northeast, and east by Iran; on the southeast and south by part of Oman and by the United Arab Emirates; on the southwest and west by Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia; and on the northwest by Kuwait and Iraq.
- The Shatt al-Arab river delta forms the northwest shoreline.
Global fossil fuel depot
- The Persian Gulf and its coastal areas are the world’s largest single source of petroleum, and related industries dominate the region. ‘
- Safaniya Oil Field in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest offshore oilfield, is located in the Persian Gulf.
Conflicts in the Gulf
- The Persian Gulf is a relatively constricted geographic area of great existing or potential volatility.
- The smaller states of the gulf are particularly vulnerable, having limited indigenous populations and, in most cases, armed forces with little more than symbolic value to defend their countries against aggression.
- All of them lack strategic depth, and their economies and oil industries depend on access to the sea.
- Over the last decade, the Gulf has been in ferment — the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 deprived Saudi Arabia of its security partner and created in the kingdom a deep sense of strategic vulnerability.
- It saw in Iran a hegemonic player in regional affairs and opted to challenge the expansion of Iran’s presence on a sectarian basis in the region that it considered its zone of exclusive influence.
- This set up proxy conflicts between the two Islamic neighbours in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
What is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
- The GCC is a regional, intergovernmental political and economic union that consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
- The Charter of the GCC was signed on 25 May 1981, formally establishing the institution.
- The significant presence of the Indian community in the Gulf countries over the last 40 years and the role of Indian enterprises in the development of the region have taken place in the framework of important changes in bilateral political and economic relations.
- The GCC countries also became India’s principal trade and investment partners.
- The Gulf is an integral part of India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’, both by way of geographical proximity and as an area of expanded interests and growing Indian influence.
- The governments of the GCC members are India-friendly and Indian-friendly.
- Many GCC members have outrightly ignored Pakistan’s foul cries regarding Kashmir in the OIC.
- The Prime Minister of India has received the ‘Order of Zayed’, the highest civilian order of the UAE and the ‘King Hamad Order of the Renaissance’, the third-highest civilian order of Bahrain.
- The GCC states are among India’s key suppliers of energy, and annual remittances from Indians in these countries are worth an estimated USD 4.8 billion.
- The UAE and Saudi Arabia are India’s third and fourth-largest trading partners respectively and the total bilateral trade of the GCC countries with India for the year 2018-19 stood at USD 121.34 billion.
- UAE also features in the top 10 sources of FDI inflows into India.
- Both India and the GCC are members of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
- Apart from the participation of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and others in India’s mega multilateral Milan Exercise, India also has bilateral exercises with most of them.
- India’s relations with the peoples of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula go back several millennia when Indian sailors, merchants, intellectuals and men of faith traversed the waters of the Indian Ocean, exchanging navigation skills, goods, ideas and belief systems.
- They thus enriched each other materially and spiritually and created a shared ethos that endures to this day.
India and Iran
- India has always shared a friendly relationship with Iran.
- But the India-Iran relation faces one of the most complex phases at all times due to the USA’s pressure which has politico-economic impacts.
- In May 2018, the USA abandoned the nuclear deal and reinstated economic sanctions against Iran.
Qatar Crisis and India
- Qatar’s has connections with various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and groups supported by Iran.
- Such developments are likely to have significant implications for India, given that its citizens make up the largest expatriate group in the region.
India’s importance to the Gulf
- India has acquired a large and rewarding regional footprint, particularly as the preferred source of manpower, food products, pharmaceuticals, gem and jewellery, light engineering items, etc.
- Indians are also the biggest stakeholders in Dubai’s real estate, tourism and Free Economic Zones.
- Indian interests do not entail power projection but necessitate peace and regional stability. India has always avoided involvement in local or regional disputes in the region.
India’s interests in the Gulf
- There are around seven million people of Indian origin working in the Middle East. Security and stability in the region is hence of paramount importance for India.
- Further, the Indian diaspora in the region remits around USD 40 billion a year.
- These funds are immensely valuable as they help India manage its current account deficit. Energy is another critical area of engagement.
- A fifth of India’s oil, and about 65 per cent of gas imports, comes from countries of the Middle East including Iran, Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others.
Future of Cooperation
- Economic recovery after the pandemic and the building of ties on fresh bases will need to take into account that the pandemic has accelerated many of the trends in the world economy that were at nascent stage earlier.
- These are a shift in favour of clean energy, digitisation and the attendant need for skilled manpower, and the paramount importance of connectivity, both physical, to explore new trade links, and digital, to shape new regional value chains.
- Water conservation can be a new area for cooperation between India and the GCC countries to sustain a better quality of life over the long-term, given that both regions are facing water stress.
- Food security is also a priority concern for all GCC nations, with the countries being particularly anxious about supply disruptions due to market or political volatilities.
- Given India’s huge fruit and vegetable produce and vast quantities that are wasted due to poor storage, the food processing sector has the greatest potential for GCC-India cooperation, especially investments.
- Given the five millennia-old narrative of engagement that has defined India’s links with the Gulf, the pandemic has opened opportunities to reinvent our connections on new bases, as we have been doing over several centuries.
- There will be a clear synergy in India and the GCC countries consolidating their traditional areas of cooperation — energy, trade and investment.
- This will need adopting of an integrated and cohesive approach, backed by institutional support, to develop ties in the diverse areas set out above — renewables, water conservation, food security, digital technology and skills development.