The national security advisors (NSAs) of four countries — India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States — met in Saudi Arabia recently. This is potentially a second Quad in the making involving the Middle Eastern states, the other Quad being India-Israel-UAE-U.S. or the I2U2.
A White House statement of the meeting said that the four NSAs — U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and National Security Advisor of India Ajit Doval — met on May 7 in order “to advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region.” The meeting is a reflection of “unprecedented intensification of India-U.S. engagement on West Asia” at multiple levels.
Both India and the United States have been intensifying their diplomatic outreach to the Middle East in recent years. The Abraham Accords, signed in 2020, have been significant in developing normalcy in relationships among a number of countries in the Middle East, including Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, and opening new doors for diplomatic outreach. The normalization of relations among these countries pushed open the envelope to explore new possibilities especially in the defense and security arena.
Although Israel and Saudi Arabia have not normalized their diplomatic relations yet, there are intense backchannel engagements between the two sides, which experts say have been an “open secret for years.” That both Israel and Saudi Arabia remain wary of the diminishing U.S. presence and influence in the Middle East is something that binds them. Both remain concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and its military funding activity in the region, and they would like the United States to continue “pressuring” Tehran.
While the relationship is expanding, Saudi Arabia is still not ready to normalize relations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is still hopeful of Israel’s ability to work out potentially a strong partnership, saying that “the sky’s the limit. And even the sky’s not the limit, because there are many opportunities in space as well.” Interestingly, Saudi Arabia is trying to strike a deal for a big prize – Riyadh is looking for “security guarantees from the United States, help with developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales as its price for normalizing relations with Israel.” According to latest media reports, the Biden administration appears confident of getting a Saudi-Israel peace deal before the year ends.
Meanwhile, India too has been upping its diplomatic game in the Middle East. India has old links with the Middle East, but the relationship has gotten added momentum in recent years with reciprocal high-level visits. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and individual GCC countries, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have remained critical partners for India’s significant energy requirements and investments, besides the GCC being home to a large Indian expatriate community. But the relationship over the past decade has broadened beyond the considerations of the remittance from the expatriates to include defense and security ties, especially maritime security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity.
The Modi government’s “Look West” policy managed to make serious inroads into the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is a fragile relationship that India needs to carefully manage. For instance, in summer 2022, the region saw anger and protests against India because of controversial remarks made by two BJP officials about Prophet Muhammad. There were protests across the region, including the UAE, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to make a short one-day visit on his way back from the G-7 meeting in Germany to calm matters down. Many Muslim-majority countries including the UAE made strong statements condemning the BJP leaders’ remarks. The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for instance came out with a statement underlining “the importance of strengthening the shared international responsibility to spread the values of tolerance and human coexistence while preventing any practices that would inflame the sentiment of followers of different religions.”
India had to do serious damage control, as it had been warming up to the UAE for close to a decade now. Modi himself traveled to the country, first in August 2015, a year after he became the prime minister, then in February 2018, and later in August 2019. The July 2022 visit was meant for damage control although the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that Modi was in the UAE to pay his respects after the death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the former UAE president and Abu Dhabi ruler. In addition to cementing the ties after the protests, the visit was also meant to make a personnel connection with the new president of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi.
While both India and the United States have had a long-term presence in the Middle East, what is possibly driving the fresh momentum is the increasing role played by China in the region, such as brokering peace between regional archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. In early March, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi National Security Adviser Musaid bin Muhammad Al-Aiban signed an agreement in Beijing ending years of hostilities and re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The Middle East is also an important component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Chinese state-owned companies are building rail lines, roads, ports, and power projects across the region.
Prior to the visit, Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor, said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the U.S. vision for the Middle East is built on five key components – partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy and de-escalation, integration, and values. He detailed each of these and in the partnership vertical, he talked about his meeting with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, India, and the UAE.
Sullivan in his speech also referred to the “Middle East Quad” of India, Israel, UAE and the U.S. saying that he “can’t decide [if I2U2] is a great acronym or terrible acronym, but it certainly can be memorable.” He added that “the fundamental notion [of the I2U2] is to connect South Asia to the Middle East to the United States in ways that advance our economic technology and diplomacy,” and that there are a number of projects already underway and many more to come in the coming days.
Even though China may not be referred to or written in bold letters, integrating different geographies such as South Asia and the Middle East in innovative ways to bring about greater collaboration in infrastructure, technology development, defense and security is much needed to moderate China’s creeping presence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Given that I2U2 is a forum that is up and running, the U.S. and India are exploring additional combinations of partnerships to make their efforts worthwhile.