The Gulf region is important for India because of increased cooperation in the fields of trade, business, politics, and security. India’s endeavors for deeper engagement with the region have been well accepted by the Gulf countries that realize India’s potential as a large, stable, democratic country and an emerging political and economic power in Asia and the world. The Look West policy has certainly accelerated India’s engagement with the Gulf region.

IMPRI center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a special Lecture on the Topic “India’s Act West Policies: opportunities and challenges with guest speaker Amb. Anil Trigunayat (Retd IFS) as part of the series State of International Affairs – #DiplomacyDialogues to deliberate on India’s plans for improving their diplomatic and economic relations with certain countries in the western region.

The moderator for the session was Dr. Simi Mehta And the discussants include Dr. Omair Anas, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Turkey, and Nina Slama, Guest Lecturer and Teaching Assistant, The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel.

Starting the moderator of the session Dr. Simi Mehta Shared that it is well known that how volatile is the situation in West Asia with continuing instability and countries have weathered different kinds of regimes and aspirations for democratic systems. Hence it is important to understand the current challenges and scenarios and how India is moving ahead with its Act west policy.

Why the Gulf Matters

Beginning with Amb Anil Trigunayat highlighted that west Asia geography is extremely crucial and critical for India. He stated that the primary objective of every foreign policy is to serve its own national interest. The talk was divided into three categories to explore India’s interaction with West Asian countries: historical context, transactional engagement, and evolution of relationships. West Asia is a complex and dynamic region functioning with a lot of uncertainty.

As Amb. Anil mentioned that the region has many hotspots with conflicts that are fuelled by not only competition and influence but also religious-political rivalries. As the ambassador emphasized, “powers are in constant competition and in that they have been trying to attract external powers”. The demise of hyper powers or superpower nations in the region, between the 60s and late 80s countries like Egypt Iraq, and Syria have gone through drastic changes causing the decline in their influence and have relegated broadly to the background. Post this period we have seen the emergence of oil-rich Persian states and Gulf countries such as Israel and Turkey who have engaged in militarizing their foreign policy.

The West Asian problem

The US intervention in Iraq created a huge flux of terrorist activities and terrorist groups and whenever there has been an intervention, in Amb. Anil Trigunayat’s words “has always created some kind of a continuous stream of terrorism”. Even though most leaders were supporting terrorist activities such as Ghaddafi, they were able to contain the extremist strands in the society and create a balance between the political and religious influence in the society. Amb Anil termed their approach to be “somewhat secular”.

However, their contribution towards providing a haven for terrorist forces in the region created a larger scope for instability in the region. Be it the actions of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Amb Anil remarked that “the big powers have been not pushing the right lever in order to contain these crises or being so naïve in order to be taken for granted”.

The two watershed events in the past decade according to the ambassador was the Arab Spring and the Abraham Accords. These are important events as they had far-reaching impacts on the issues and the evolution of the new dynamic equations the strategic equations in the region. Today there are primarily four or five nations or powers calling shots in the region: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, UAE, and Qatar. These countries play a cupid role in many issues. Nations such as Oman and Kuwait have been in efforts to diffuse the tensions within the GCC. GCC has evolved in terms of its foreign policy objective which had become far more assertive with the oil wealth that they had achieved.

Changing times

The economic and social reforms taking place in countries that depended on hydrocarbon energy sources are also moving towards some political points. Whether it is vision 2030 or some other programs branching out from the hydrocarbon-based economies to more renewable energy-based economies or towards more high-tech economies. The UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are very well entrenched in this new kind of movement which is of a global

geostrategic significance. The global trading routes pass and we have heard about for a while, the choke points between Iran and other countries have found more significance making the Red Sea an active interest for Saudi. Most of the countries in the region are trying to work in multiple dimensions in order to move forward with their own interests but at the same time, these countries are also involved in constant warfare whether it is Israel-Palestine Israel-Iran, Iran-Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia-Qatar.

Pakistan Factor

Initially, the Indian administration allowed the strategic space between Pakistan and other Islamic nations. Even though India has the second-highest Muslim population in the world, Indian foreign policy has not been able to project it. The story of the Pakistani President pleading with the Jordanian King, the King of Morocco, and the Saudi King to remove India from the talk at the 1969 OIC conference in Morocco. This led to the withdrawal of India from talks. This has occurred multiple times even at the OIC conference held in Abu Dhabi where Pakistan again protested India’s involvement in the talks.

India has strategic trade relations with the countries both oil-producing and also the countries from the Abraham Accords. As Amb. Anil said “ in my view personally, for India West Asia actually is even more important than its own immediate neighborhood, because why number one to 70 percent

of India’s oil and gas comes from there so you are energy-dependent on that you are dependent on the maritime security lanes and safety.”  Food security which is not talked about much India imports the largest quantities of phosphates or virtually 90 percent of their phosphate production of phosphoric acid from Jordan morocco from Egypt and Tunisia and other countries but these are important for the agricultural economy these countries play a tremendous role.

In his concluding remarks, Amb. Anil stated that India is also quite actively involved in his view on closing in on the region. The region would have continued to have their internal problems but if they are not able to resolve them, it can lead to a situation where there would be a further accentuation of the strategic competition and the negativity in the region.

A greater role for India

In continuation, Naveed stated that Afghanistan’s situation has gone from a development perspective to a very extreme humanitarian crisis. With respect to India’s perspective, he commented that it is in India’s interest to very closely follow the events occurring in Afghanistan due to the reasons of terrorism, and India plays a big role as it is chairing the United Nations Security Council. Another aspect is that India should aspect the fact that Pakistan has won strategist interest in Afghanistan. Also, India should take a strategic and leading role in involving all stakeholders including the international community, political influencers to make sure that future government in Afghanistan complies with international standards.

Nina Slama Guest Lecturer and Teaching Assistant, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel

Ms. Nina Slama starting with stated that concerning India in the region in West Asia today one will see more competition between different coalitions in the region which means India needs to conduct its foreign policies at bilateral and multilateral levels forming different coalitions with countries who are willing to work together in order to address its security, political, economic challenges being face today. The most important issue is radicalism which is the main source of problems for political, economic, and social crises faced by the countries.

“The countries have to sit together to think about ways to combat radical Islam in west Asia.” Says Nina

Dr Omair Anas Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt Üniversitesi, Turkey

Dr. Omair Anas made brief remarks that India is not psychologically ready to assume any bigger role and it seems that India’s diplomacy in the region is reluctant diplomacy, despite changes many of the assumptions on which initiatives were started have changed with the coming of Biden’s administration.

“India’s west Asia perspective is not strategically well equipped.” Says Dr. Omar

He further commented how far we can rely our diplomacy on diaspora as most of the countries don’t want diaspora anymore. Secondly, India’s non-oil trade relations have not yet improved and they need to be diversified and start in a big way. Also, the people-to-people relation between India and West Asia is extremely poor and limited. He further emphasized that a single west Asia policy may not be effective and India needs to prepare for each division with a separate policy.

“We need to see our assumptions very carefully and evolve a comprehensive strategy to fit our own security and national interest in the region.” Says Dr. Omar

Responding Ambassador Anil stated that there is a need for more proactive and divergent policy relations with each country is predicated on its own norms and interest and there is a need to find some alignment with each of these countries. Talking about the Taliban he commented that the world has to hold the new Taliban government with certain accountability. He further said that the sanction regime has nowhere been successful in the world and hence humanitarian assistance should be the priority.

“India must take upon itself whether under United Nations edges or bilaterally to provide humanitarian assistance forthwith as soon as possible for the people”. Says Amb Anil

India’s regional and sub-regional strategy has actually been missing however India today is following a multi-alignment policy. Also, people to people relationship plays a critical role. India has so far followed a non-prescriptive, no-interventionist policy but it’s a great possibility for India to play a bigger role.

Pertinent Questions and concluding Remarks

Responding to a question on Indo Abrahamic accord Amb Anil stated that it has opened a new opportunity as we have excellent strategic relations with Israel, especially in the high-tech areas. However, since India aborts the world’s alliance hence it is not an alliance but a framework within which three can work together.

Responding to a question on Afghan refugees he stated that it is going to be a major problem for the world but the aspirations of Afghans cannot be met by evacuating them.

“At present, it is important to channel humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.” Says Naveed.

“India should play a more active role in the region with a clear policy towards West Asia.” Says Nina

“We should think that West Asia security is India’s Security and India must contribute towards security of west Asian region.” Says Dr. Omar

“India needs to have not just act west Asia policy rather an active west Asia policy.” Says Dr. Omar

We need to have a multi-dimensional approach towards the region.” Says Amb Anil

Acknowledgment: Arjun Sujit Varma is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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Picture Courtesy: The Quint