India’s Soft Gulf Offensive

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For millennia, the Arabian Sea has served as an active link between the Indian subcontinent and the Gulf region. India’s government now seeks to explore this historical potential and behind the new offensive is Manmohan Singh, the bureaucrat turned Prime Minister who has been recently elected for a second term.

For him the region has “risen from being only an important area of global concern to perhaps the most crucial region”. Last year he thus met in Oman with all 27 Indian diplomatic envoys to the region and laid out the fundamental priorities of the new “Look West” strategy. The idea is to foster Indian on both hard and soft fronts, while securing a specific role for India in the West Asian security complex.

Hard concerns: Energy and investments

As Asia’s third largest oil consumer, with an import-dependency expected to reach 90% over the next decades, India’s first priority is to guarantee continuous access to energy resources in the Gulf region. There have been attempts to enhance energetic security by diversifying supplier groups to Latin America, Africa and Russia, but West Asia’s centrality remains undisputable, presently accounting for two thirds of India’s oil imports, with Saudi Arabia (25%), Kuwait (12%) and Iraq (10%) leading the way.

Stimulated by these new priorities, the Ministry of External Affairs has created the new Energy Security Division and New Delhi’s principal think tanks are allocating unprecedented resources to study WANA, the Indian acronym for West Asia and North Africa, in which the new Gulf strategy is integrated.

At the same time, there is also a clear effort to diversify bilateral economic relations with West Asia and to reduce energy’s excessive share. India is on the good way, having recently emerged as the Gulf Cooperation Council’s second largest trade partner, just after the United States. Bilateral trade has increased almost ten-fold in the last decade, now totalling close to 30 billion USD.

India’s largest public investment abroad, a fertilizer industry, is located in Oman, and private Indian capital, including the TATA, Reliance and Essar groups, have made impressive inroads into infrastructure, banking and service sectors in the booming economies of the region. At the same time, Manmohan Singh has also been luring the impressive Gulf sovereign wealth funds with attractive conditions to explore a 500 billion USD investment potential in India’s infrastructure sector.

Diaspora and security

Beyond the hard power of energy, trade and investments, the more than four million Indian migrant workers residing in West Asia represent a further priority in the region. This labour diaspora, concentrated in Saudi Arabia (close to two million Indian expatriates) and the United Arab Emirates (more than one million), is seen as a valuable economic asset, as their annual remittances of an estimated 15 billion USD are a shot in the arm for India’s economy, in particular to its banking sector.

Yet, as some of these workers are giving signs of radicalisation, participating in strikes and violent street protests against employers and host governments, India has also awakened to the important security implications of managing such a large diaspora in West Asia. The Indian ministries of External and Overseas Indian Affairs have thus been in constant touch with governments in the region, signing several bilateral agreements to regulate the migratory flows.

India is also developing new security stakes in the Gulf region. While planning, training and financing of most terrorist attacks on India still originate in Pakistan, over the last years Indian investigating agencies have traced several extremists back to operational platforms in West Asia.

In particular, some Gulf States emerge as crucial contact points between terrorist networks and Indian migrant workers, who are recruited, indoctrinated and sent back to India for operations. Given that most Indian workers in the Gulf originate from South India, this would also explain why a sector of the South Indian Muslim community has undergone radicalisation, as well as the appearance of several terrorist cells targeting Southern economic hubs such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Carving out a distinct role

Given all these stakes, from a minimalist point of view, India’s Look West policy seems to indicate a purely defensive strategy, concentrated on securing vital energy resources, as well as narrow economic and security interests. But there is a much wider strategic calculus underpinning Singh’s efforts to carve out a more relevant and distinct role for India in the region.

With China making an impressive, as well as threatening appearance in its immediate South Asian neighbourhood, Indian strategists now feel compelled to innovate and look out for extra-regional contexts where India can gather support, gain visibility and increase its strategic depth.

Aware of China’s formidable military capabilities and purchasing power, India is choosing to develop its own alternative niche, most notably by becoming proactive on the diplomatic front. As an actor viewed with little suspicion, and unlike all other external powers in West Asia not a major arms supplier, New Delhi is keen in exploring its role as an intermediary “bridging power”.

This ambition draws on its proven record of accomplishment to maintain friendly relations with conflicting parts, which has over time developed into a wide spectrum of partnerships, currently including Washington, Tel Aviv, Teheran, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo.

Specifically in West Asia, while New Delhi remains committed to the Palestinian cause, having been the first non-Arab country to recognize the PLO in 1975, Israel has simultaneously emerged as one of its closest defence and security partners. And while the Hezbollah itself lauded India’s UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, Manmohan Singh was busy negotiating a nuclear cooperation deal with George W. Bush and the acquisition of new Israeli military equipments. That is India’s omni-aligned diplomacy at its best.

Soft India, Hard China?

The nomination of a Special Representative for West Asia, and the Indian Navy’s eager participation in the anti-piracy maritime task force in the Gulf of Aden, come as two further examples of India’s availability to play a constructive role in the region. This objective is acknowledged by Ambassador Garekhan, the Special Representative, who did not shy away from noting that, unlike India, China did not have any “specific or defined role in the Middle East Peace Process”, thus seeking to underline India’s distinct diplomatic and “soft” potential in the region.

Economy, diaspora, cooperation and diplomatic mediation are the key words to understand India’s soft Gulf offensive. In New Delhi’s strategic calculus, West Asia represents a vital arena where it can project power and influence and thus balance China externally, beyond South Asia, and not necessarily through pure hard power politics. Feedback to this strategy from across the Arabian Sea is expected eagerly in New Delhi.

Constantino Xavier – Portuguese research associate based in Washington DC at Johns Hopkins University.  Editor of the weekly Lisbon India Monitor.

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