Recent developments in the Middle East, such as removal of Western sanctions against Tehran and the flare up of Iran-Saudi tensions due to the Saudi hanging of a Shia cleric, are likely to have a strong impact on geopolitics in South Asia. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already visited both Iran and Saudi Arabia to send a clear message that Islamabad will not take sides, and instead will be playing an active role as a mediator. India too needs to keep a close eye on the relationship, and be pro-active so as to guard its own economic and strategic interests in the Middle East.

Earlier, India’s cooperation with Gulf countries was largely restricted to economic ties – oil, and remittances from diaspora. The Arab Gulf is home to 6.5-7 million Indian workers, and over $40 billion of India’s $70 billion remittances come from this region. But now, these ties are multifaceted.Besides housing a large number of Indian workers and being an important provider of India’s oil needs, Saudi Arabia is also the chosen location for investments by major Indian companies such as the State Bank of India, Larsen & Toubro, and Wipro.

Significantly, Riyadh has also begun working with New Delhi on counterterrorism. During then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit in 2010, the first by an Indian prime minister to Saudi Arabia in 28 years, the two countries signed the Riyadh Declaration. This statement unequivocally criticized extremism and terrorism, insisting that these are not linked to “any race, colour or belief.” However, the strongest illustration of burgeoning ties came in 2012 with the extradition of Abu Jundal, a terrorist linked to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. This is important because Riyadh is known to have strong kinship with and leverage over Islamabad, and the extradition clearly showed its changing approach towards South Asia. Recently, in 2014, the two countries have also signed a memorandum of defense cooperation, to further strengthen their strategic relationship.

India’s close ties with Iran were clearly evident from the previous government’s decision to reach out to Tehran at a time when Washington-Tehran ties were strained. For example, Singh’s visit to Iran for the Non-Aligned Summit in 2012 reportedly caused a lot of discomfort in Washington. But more importantly, Iran remains key to enhancing India’s strategic and economic relationship with Afghanistan. The Chabahar port is pivotal in this effort, as also to provide access to oil-rich Central Asian countries. New Delhi has begun to show some urgency in clearing funds for the project, apparently after the Chinese also evinced interest in the port.

Thus, India has been doing a balancing act between Gulf Cooperation Council countries on the one hand, and Iran on the other. Despite these advances, there have been hiccups recently in New Delhi’s relationship with both Riyadh and Tehran, which might prove to be challenges to its diplomacy in the region. Two events soured ties with Riyadh— abuse  of Tamil Nadu woman Kasthuri Munirathinam, a housemaid whose arm was allegedly cut off by her Saudi employer for complaining about her plight, and an India-based Saudi Arabian diplomat being accused of raping two Nepalese women employed by him. With Tehran, recent reports suggest that it is pushing India to act fast on providing finances for the Chabahar project, or give up on the idea.

The Modi government will have to deftly deal with Saudi-Iran tensions by thinking outside the box. It must balance not just between Tehran and Riyadh, but also ensure that its ties with Iran do not have an adverse impact on its relationship with Israel. The last thing the government would want is domestic politics influencing India’s Middle East policy, or to look at this dispute from the Shia-Sunni lens. New Delhi will thus need to keep an eye on changing dynamics of the relationship, and the role great powers like the United States and China are playing, while utilizing its good relationships with both countries to reduce tensions.


Image: Saeed Khan-AFP, Getty

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