A combination of developments at home and abroad has given India a historical opportunity to radically change its relationship with the Persian Gulf. This will be symbolically underscored by the presence of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, as the chief guest of Republic Day this coming year. This will mean two Gulf leaders have come to New Delhi in this role in just 11 years — the late Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, having been the last. Given that no previous guests have come from the Persian Gulf since 1947, the sense that a new wind is blowing across the Arabian Sea is increasingly tangible.
Until recently, India’s relationship with the Persian Gulf states was almost a state of dependency on the part of New Delhi. India needed the Sunni emirates for oil and gas, it sought to ensure there was an open door for millions of Indian workers in the Gulf and their remittances and, tellingly, it was therefore obliged to stay quiet about the close relationship — ideological and military — that existed between some of these governments and the worst elements of Pakistani society. India was lauded as a civilisational and historical partner but the subtext was that, in the present, it was a nation of servants and drivers. Iran was often seen as a country that India would prefer to work with, but Tehran’s path after the Islamic revolution militated against close economic and political relations.
Circumstances today are quite different. India is still a net importer of oil and gas, but the Gulf is no longer the market dictator it once was. And with India potentially becoming the world’s largest importer as the United States drops off the market and the Chinese economic engine cools, the buyer is king rather than vassal. The US’ seeming willingness to shed its role as the Gulf’s security guarantor going simultaneously with the end of Iran’s isolation and the rise of the Islamic State means the sultanates are looking for other geopolitical anchors for the region.
India’s sheer size and its military capabilities make it an obvious candidate. New Delhi has already begun leveraging all this to redefine the relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rush of visits to the Gulf were notable for their many counter-terrorism agreements — a codeword for reduced security relations with Pakistan. He has also asked for, and begun to receive, much greater investment from these countries in India’s infrastructure, especially in the area of energy. Notably, at a time when sovereign wealth funds are reducing their emerging markets exposure, the Gulf ones are increasing theirs to India. But Mr Modi needs to be extremely careful. This is a region marked by some of the deepest, most fatal religious and ethnic faultlines in the world. It is no surprise that Washington wishes to exit and Beijing is fearful of entering. India is developing a new West Asian outlook, but it must ensure it is driven by Indian interests rather than regional emotions.