India considers West Asia her extended neighbourhood. The region is of paramount importance to us in terms of energy security, diaspora, foreign remittances, shared concerns in security, counter-terrorism, etc. Conflicts in West Asia have security implications for India too.
In recent times, the relationship with the region has got a shot in the arm, with India not just Looking West, but also Thinking and Acting West.
Some important developments in select countries are discussed below –
In November 2018, Iran was India’s sixth-biggest crude oil supplier (after Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Venezuela, and Nigeria).1 The US-sanctions led to the drop in the position of Iran, which was India’s second largest supplier of crude oil in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.2
Though India, along with 7 other countries, secured a waiver under Significant Reduction Exemptions allowing her to temporarily continue trading with Iran, shippers, including Shipping Corp of India, have stopped operating to Iran due to lack of insurance cover by Western insurers.3 Hence, India has to depend on National Iranian Tanker Company’s vessels under a CIF (cost, insurance, freight) agreement. This resulted in cargoes getting delayed in November last year due to lack of ships.4
As on date, Iraq is India’s biggest crude supplier.5 Though Adel Abdul Mahdi was sworn in as the Prime Minister in October, the government remains fragile with not just Sunni-Shia-Kurd rivalries, but also intra-Shia rivalry as exemplified by the Islah and Bina blocs. Based on a power-sharing agreement, Iraq’s President is a Kurd, Prime Minister a Shia, and the Speaker in the Parliament is a Sunni.6
As India looks to improve its urban combat preparedness, she can take important lessons from Iraq in urban warfare. The manoeuvrability achieved by British and American tanks in Iraqi cities due to the advanced armour on their tanks making them resistant to RPG-fire is a case in point. It has shown that the presence of a population may not necessarily put the defenders at an advantage.
Israel has been in news for some time – be it for the Nation State Bill7 or Operation Northern Shield.8 An important development was the Israeli PM’s visit to Oman.9 Having a population of Ibadi Muslims, Oman has maintained strategic autonomy, not siding with Sunni/Shia powers, making it a good interlocutor in the region. The visit by the Israeli PM perhaps signals an increased role for Oman in mediating the troubled Iran-Israel relations.
Israel’s increased convergence of interests with Saudi Arabia is also very evident.10
From the Indian perspective, the relationship with Israel is one of utmost importance with collaboration in the fields of water, agriculture, animal husbandry, defence, and so forth.11 In recent years, in fact, the two countries have been partnering under the Make in India initiative to produce UAVs, air defence systems, etc.12
Israel’s handling of sub-conventional threats, working of Shin Bet, and the Digital Army Program (especially Tzayad) make for interesting studies.
It is interesting to note that during the 15th annual meeting of Russia-India-China (RIC) in 2017 in New Delhi, India, Russia and China refrained from seeking East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.13
The Nassib border-crossing with Jordan was recently opened, and the Quneitra border-crossing was handed back to Damascus.14 All these signal a definite improvement in the situation.
There have been contradictory statements from President Donald Trump and White House National Security Advisor John Bolton on the pull-out of US troops from Syria.15
While our official position has been that there could be no military solution to the crisis, we have also welcomed the Russian air-strikes against IS.16
It is increasingly clear that acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Assad regime and allowing Russia to take action against IS would be a crucial component of any way forward for the problem.
Investments in energy, infrastructure, etc are how India would like to engage in Syria – a country which has supported India on the Jammu & Kashmir issue and backed India’s right to “solve it in any manner”.17
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)
Be it the conflicts in the Gulf, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, oil output cuts, the flight of AI 139 directly from New Delhi to Tel Aviv over Saudi airspace, or even the now-famous high-five of the Crown Prince with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit, KSA has remained in news.
It is a very important country for India from the perspective of energy security and Hajj for Indian pilgrims. This year saw the participation of Saudi Aramco, along with United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), in the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical Project Limited.18 That mentioned, Saudi Arabia is also providing Pakistan the US $ 6 bn in aid to help it with its financial crisis.19 In addition, there are also plans to build Saudi Aramco oil refinery – the biggest Saudi investment in Pakistan – in Gwadar.20 Saudi is expected to sign several investment deals with Pakistan in February.21 It goes without saying that all this will come at a cost for Pakistan – perhaps an increased role in the conflicts in the Gulf (which may include combat roles for the Pakistani troops stationed in Saudi Arabia), and also in reigning in Iran.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
UAE is a close ally of KSA with which it plans to further deepen its relationship through the ‘Strategy of Resolve’.22 UAE is also heavily involved and invested in the conflicts in West Asia.
India and UAE have planned to build a Delhi-Abu Dhabi-Riyadh energy bridge to insulate against volatility in oil prices.23That apart, India and the UAE have also signed agreements on currency swap, trade, security and defence.24 Recently, Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd (ISPRL) signed a MoU with ADNOC to explore the possibility of storing ADNOC crude oil at ISPRL’s underground oil storage facility (in Karnataka).25
In a significant development, UAE opened its Damascus embassy on December 27, 2018.26
Though the warring parties had agreed to a ceasefire in al-Hodeidah in December, the UN blames both sides for failing to honour the terms of the ceasefire.27
Recently the US announced that it plans to stop the aerial re-fuelling facilities provided to the aircraft of KSA involved in the Yemen War.28 This was confirmed by KSA attributing it to the increase in its own capabilities. This would not impact the Saudi-led coalition’s capabilities in any major way as the US was providing this facility only to about 20% of the Saudi aircrafts.29 Moreover, the Pentagon sent KSA and UAE a bill of US $331 million for the services pointing to an “accounting error” which led to the two countries being under-charged.30
Despite the land and sea blockade of Qatar by, among others, KSA, UAE and Bahrain, it has not capitulated. It has increased its military spending, raised the term of compulsory military service for men to one year, and even started taking women volunteers.31 Despite having blocked by KSA and UAE in 2017,32 al-Jazeera was one of the most viewed media companies in 2018.33 As far as the Football World Cup 2022 in Qatar is concerned, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expects it to be “amazing”.34
As part of a defence agreement, Turkey will build a military base for its air force and navy in Qatar. Understandably, KSA is not happy with this move as it would provide Ankara access to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Northern Africa. It is pertinent to note that Qatar already hosts the largest US base in the Middle East – al-Udeid air base – which it is expanding further.
As part of a defence agreement between Turkey and Qatar in 2014, the first Turkish troop deployment to Qatar took place in 2015.35 The Turkish military presence in Qatar is perhaps a deterrent to any direct Saudi/Emirati military interference there. Since the blockade, the relationship between Qatar and Turkey has grown deeper with Turkey sending additional troops36 to Qatar and building a military base in Qatar.37. Qatar, on the other hand, came to the rescue of Turkey during the Lira crisis promising to invest US $15 billion in Turkey.38 KSA would not be happy with any move that provides Ankara access to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Northern Africa.
While Qatar is also an important ally of the US, the criticality of the al-Udeid air base (the largest US base in West Asia based out of Qatar) for US’ operations in West Asia further means that Qatar has enough latitude when it comes to its relationship with Turkey.
This ‘Switzerland of the Gulf’, while maintaining good relations with Iran, is also a member of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Coalition to Fight Terrorism. This autonomy makes it a good mediator in the troubled neighbourhood. It is one country whose importance remains understated.
The oldest defence partner of India in West Asia, the strategic location of Oman gives India access to wider West Asia and Africa through the Duqm port.39 A MoU signed between India and Oman earlier in 2018 gave Indian military vessels access to the Duqm port.40 The Oman-Iran-India gas pipeline, if realised, would be a great boost for the energy security of India.
In light of the changing world order and the emergence of new players on the world stage, the time is ripe for India to engage proactively in West Asia. Ports like Duqm give us the opportunity to enhance our maritime capacity and counter China’s increasing footprint in and around the region. As China allegedly eyes Jiwani after Gwadar, India has got the opportunity to operate a port outside its territory for the time – the Chabahar port. We would be able to engage more vigorously in Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics. India should now push of the pipeline projects ensuring her energy security bypassing Pakistan. Oil-rich countries of West Asia realise the importance of diversification in a world slowly switching to greener sources of energy. India should project itself, as it is already doing in some cases, as an ideal investment destination in light of the sovereign wealth funds that the Gulf countries boast of.
For way too long, India has punched below her weight in this region. The time has come for India to assess and assert itself and punch according to her weight – neither below, nor above.
(This is a gist of the introductory remarks given by the writer during a discussion at CLAWS on West Asia. The remarks were followed by a detailed discussion.)
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India's Iranian oil imports slide in December under U.S. pressure - ET Auto. [online] Available at: https://auto.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/oil-and-lubes/indias-iranian-oil-imports-slide-in-december-under-u-s-pressure/67491033 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 5 https://www.hindustantimes.com/. (2018). India inks pact with Iran to pay crude oil bill in rupee. [online] Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-inks-pact-with-iran-to-pay-crude-oil-bill-in-rupee/story-HnI1yHeyvr8xPnGmnSnBPJ.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 6 Rasheed, A. and Jalabi, R. (2018). Iraq names new president and premier, ending deadlock. [online] www.reuters.com. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-politics/iraq-names-new-president-and-premier-ending-deadlock-idUSKCN1MC2J9 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 7 Lis, J. and Landau, N. (2018). Israel passes controversial Jewish nation-state bill after stormy debate. [online] haaretz.com. 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Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/border-crossing-between-israel-and-syria-opens-for-first-time-in-4-years/ [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 15 DeYoung, K. and Demirjian, K. (2019). Contradicting Trump, Bolton says no withdrawal from Syria until ISIS destroyed, Kurds’ safety guaranteed. [online] washingtonpost.com. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bolton-promises-no-troop-withdrawal-from-syria-until-isis-contained-kurds-safety-guaranteed/2019/01/06/ee219bba-11c5-11e9-b6ad-9cfd62dbb0a8_story.html?utm_term=.3704024d13b8 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 16 Business-standard.com. (2015). India wants political, not military, solution in Syria: Mukherjee. [online] Available at: https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/india-wants-political-not-military-solution-in-syria-mukherjee-115101100647_1.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 17 Datt, G. (2016). Syria on Kashmir issue: India has the right to solve it in any manner. [online] indiatoday.in. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/syria-india-jammu-kashmir-pakistan-terrorism-337256-2016-08-26 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 18 Pib.nic.in. (2018). Saudi ARAMCO and ADNOC sign MoU for participating in the Ratnagiri Refinery project in Maharashtra. [online] Available at: http://www.pib.nic.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1536440 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 19 Johnson, K. and Shahzad, A. (2018). Saudis offer Pakistan $6 billion rescue package to ease economic.... [online] reuters.com. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-saudi/saudis-offer-pakistan-6-billion-rescue-package-to-ease-economic-crisis-idUSKCN1MX2FA [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 20 DAWN.COM. (2019). Saudi Arabia to sign MoU for setting up Aramco oil refinery in Pakistan: media. [online] Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1456037 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 21 ibid 22 Gulfnews.com. (2018). UAE, Saudi Arabia announce 'Strategy of Resolve'. 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UAE reopens Syria embassy in boost for Assad. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-emirates/uae-reopens-syria-embassy-in-boost-for-assad-idUSKCN1OQ0QV [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 27 Matheson, R. (2019). Hodeidah ceasefire accord failing Yemen's lifeline. [online] Aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/hodeidah-ceasefire-accord-failing-yemens-lifeline-190101125931018.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 28 Browne, R. and Starr, B. (2018). US to stop air refueling of Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. [online] cnn.com. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/09/politics/us-yemen-houthis-missile/index.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 29 ibid 30 Cohen, Z. and Browne, R. (2018). US military sends $331 million bill to Saudis, UAE after refueling 'accounting error'. [online] cnn.com. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/13/politics/pentagon-saudi-aerial-refueling-costs/index.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 31 Hubbard, B. 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Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-oman-explore-a-wider-maritime-partnership/articleshow/64292490.cms [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019]. 40 Roy, S. (2018). India gets access to strategic Oman port Duqm for military use, Chabahar-Gwadar in sight. [online] indianexpress.com. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-gets-access-to-strategic-oman-port-for-military-use-chabahar-gwadar-in-sight-5061573/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2019].