In the past few months, there have been a slew of groundbreaking events that point to the emerging diplomatic contours of the future Middle East and the broader world. Recent news that Saudi Arabia had granted Air India approval to run direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv through Saudi airspace is indicative of critical changes in the Middle East and illustrative of India’s role in the region.
Saudi Arabia had implemented a ban on Israel-bound commercial flights using its airspace for the past 70 years. The apparent agreement with India marked a notable departure from past policies amid a growing stream of reports on enhanced – albeit non-public – Saudi-Israel cooperation. While seemingly trivial in a vacuum, this situation is representative of some critical changes in attitude from engaged parties in the region at a time of great geopolitical flux and volatility across the board.
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman could have been signaling to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in the Israeli establishment, and in the region, that to achieve more direct benefit, Israel will in fact need to take steps in Saudi Arabia’s direction. And those steps may very well relate to the grander peace process, which the crown prince needs to see through successfully for his own domestic political reasons if he is to carve out space for additional creative maneuvers.
Nonetheless, bounded by the common threat of an increasingly bellicose Iran which has openly threatened to “annihilate Israel” and is perceived by both parties as attempting regional hegemony, the Saudis and Israelis seem to be exploring avenues to move past the long-standing hindrance that is the Palestinian problem to address more pressing security and strategic challenges. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly paid a secret visit to Israel in September 2017 and Yaakov Amidror, former head of the Israeli National Security Council, met with former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al Feisal in Washington last year.
The United States, due to a complicated foreign policy, has left a vacuum in the region that in recent years has been filled by Russian, Iranian and Chinese influence. In an increasingly unstable Middle East, Israel is increasingly being perceived as a reliable potential partner by the Saudi establishment. The Saudis may be losing confidence that the United States will act quickly or constructively to prevent Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, and gaining confidence that Israel will take that position. Ideology is no longer suitable grounds to alienate or ostracize at a time when basic fundamentals matter for survival and prosperity.
India’s role in the region is of paramount importance. As older relationships and partnerships changes and new actors emerge it is a prime time for a reorientation of India’s “Look West” policy in context of modern day geopolitical realities.
Despite India’s long-running ties with the six petro-monarchies of the Arabian Gulf, it has struck a solid balancing act by rapidly expanding ties with Israel as well. India is now a top customer of Israeli defense manufacturers, settling an estimated $1 billion in defense deals annually. Indeed, during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s maiden visit to India in January of 2018, the goodwill demonstrated between the two heads of state affirmed the positive trajectory of bilateral ties, despite divergent policies on Iran and Palestine. While Israel would undoubtedly have preferred that it’s flagship carrier, El Al, be given aviation rights over Saudi Arabia rather than an Indian carrier, the transactional decision is further indicative of the mature and level-headed pragmatism of the involved involved to look beyond existing disputes and compartmentalize their bilateral relations to allow for breakthroughs in some areas despite disagreement in others.
Consolidated by the presence of 2.8 million Indian workers and burgeoning energy and commercial ties (Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner and India is its largest oil importer), India’s ties with the Kingdom have quickly acquired defense and security dimensions. This was most recently evidenced by the 2012 deportation of the 2008 Mumbai attacks suspect Abu Jindal, who was based in Saudi Arabia with a Pakistani passport, back to India by the Saudi establishment and security forces. Additionally, the Saudi government evidenced its high regard for Prime Minister Modi by bestowing on him the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, Saudi’s highest honor, during his state visit to Riyadh. Bilateral visits between the respective countries have become much more common since the late King Abdullah’s 2006 visit to India, and India’s ties with the Kingdom seem only set to grow in coming years.
Modi’s Middle Eastern overtures have included his breaking of Indian extant protocol by saying openly that his nation hoped to see an “independent Palestinian state living in an environment of peace.” Modi also expressed direct admiration for the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling him “one of the great leaders of (our) time.” In doing this, Modi sent the message to the world, and India’s Muslim community, that he pays Israel no favoritism. In fact, the balancing act Modi exemplified on his tour was not only demonstrative of India’s strategic maturity and renewed out of the box thinking, but also the enormous maturity of the Arab states in engaging with a rising power for constructive, rather than ideological, purposes as has traditionally influenced foreign policymaking and relations with the subcontinent. Modi has allowed for enhanced economic convergence between the Gulf States and India, overseeing with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi the signing of several agreements including a consortium of Indian companies securing a stake in a major Abu Dhabi offshore concession for $600 million. As the Associated Press noted, “The deal marks the first-time Indian oil and gas companies will have a share in the UAE’s crude production.”
For many years following the independence of the Gulf states from colonial powers and the subsequent formation of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), India was dismissed as only a peripheral player in the Gulf equation. India’s relationship with Gulf nations was largely understood as transactional, based on the sending of remittances from Indian laborers in the Arabian Peninsula. But India’s Gulf relations have widened and deepened. Just as with Saudi Arabia, enhanced economic interconnectivity between India and the smaller Gulf states has resulted in a major paradigm shift that has seen India emerge as a nation that figures deeply in the strategic considerations of Gulf leaders.
India’s role in the Middle East continues to be driven by its enormous economic presence in that region. It is on this basis that the country’s leadership is beginning to develop a security presence to complement hard economic power. As Kadira Pethiyagoda noted for the Brookings Institution, “a 2013 poll found that 94 percent of Indians feel their country should have the most powerful navy in the Indian Ocean, and that 89 percent believe that India should do more to lead cooperation in the region.”
This has been demonstrated in recent decades, for example by the air evacuations of Indians in Kuwait and Yemen which marked a shift from prior years where ties were exclusively limited to remittances and labor inflows. Additionally, China has been developing its strategic role in the Middle East, which drives New Delhi to boost its own strategic presence to avoid encirclement. In recent years, India has signed defense and security agreements with all GCC countries except Kuwait and Bahrain.
India’s engagement with Gulf partners occurs during a time of remarkable domestic and social evolution across the region. The extent of economic and strategic convergence with India in facilitating this domestic trajectory should be duly considered as the Gulf contends domestically and geopolitically with its own existential problems of outdated modes of governance and social norms facing a population at the throes of modernity and global interconnectivity. These are struggles that will indubitably affect the Indian population in these lands, most of whom have beliefs that have not traditionally been subsumed under the Gulf social contract.
The broader Indian Ocean region, critical to the Indo-Pacific, has always been India’s strategic sphere of influence. This is expected to be a fixture of India’s strategy going forward even despite the significant challenges posed to the existing Indo-Pacific balance of power by Chinese geopolitical and geoeconomic clout and bellicose incursions. The flight route between Delhi and Tel Aviv through Saudi airspace is indicative of just how an engaged Indian approach to the greater Middle East region can be a critical component of the country’s renewed approach to the entire Indo-Pacific.
Rachel Brandenburg is Director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Bharath Gopalaswamy is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.