For the past four decades, India’s interests in the Arab world have largely been confined to the Persian Gulf. The “jasmine revolution”, which is initiating political reform in north-west Africa and the eastern Mediterranean region, will require New Delhi to widen its engagement.
Nothing in Egypt and Tunisia has changed the overriding importance of the Persian Gulf to India — the primary source of India’s oil and gas imports, its largest trading partner, its second-largest source of remittances and home to one of its largest diasporas.
The assumption in India is that the Gulf states, buffered with huge amounts of hydrocarbon revenues, will remain largely unaffected by the street protests. There is no evidence to challenge this assessment. But in the Arab world there are three larger trends India needs to keep abreast of.
One, that the Arab world has been divided into the Saudi and Iranian factions (the second providing leadership to some Arab nations) is all too evident at meetings of the Arab League and Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Egypt had been the main Arab ally of the Saudi bloc. Even if political churn forces Cairo to become a neutral player, this will greatly reduce Saudi leverage.
Two, the fossilisation of Arab politics had allowed non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran to seek leadership roles in the Muslim world. But Indian officials believe that if Egypt throws up new political leadership, the hopes of Ankara and Tehran will be stillborn.
Three, the battle for Islam will become increasingly one between conservative and militant Islamicists. Unfortunately, secularism in the Arab world has come to be associated with dictatorship. The most consistent political dissident culture has been that of conservative Islamic groups such as the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood. They will be the main beneficiaries of free and fair elections.
The question will be whether Arab voters and democracy provide sufficient checks and blocks to ensure conservative Islam does not cross into an embrace of political violence. However, India should keep in mind that conservative Islam has generally taken a supportive view of Kashmiri separatism. A future Egyptian government diplomatically more critical to India's Kashmir policy cannot be discounted.
The jasmine revolutions will mean a drastic thawing of these polities. But this is exactly India’s strength. Encouraging engagement between Indian and Arab civil society — corporations, academics, media and NGOs — should now be at the forefront of Indian diplomacy.
Nothing resounds more in the Arab world today than the success of Indian democracy. Democracy, they realise, carried out in conditions not dissimilar to what exists in their own lands. India should offer to provide support in the promotion and practice of democracy. Jasmine, after all, is a flower whose genetic home is northern India.