The Persian Gulf, and West Asia as a whole, has been seen as holding a fatal attraction for Indian foreign policy. New Delhi has enormous stakes in the region. That Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the chief guest for the 68th Republic Day is proof of India’s growing ties with the United Arab Emirates, and, by extension, the Gulf region as a whole. The region is the country’s largest trade and investment partner, the primary source of oil and gas imports, all undergirded with a long-standing historical relationship. But it is also riven by mediaeval forms of tribal, ethnic and sectarian rivalries. The sort of instability and violence that regularly engulfs parts of this region serves as a warning to New Delhi which oversee a similar patchwork society.
New Delhi encourages the export of labour and import of fossil fuels, but works hard to ensure that West Asia’s poisonous ideologies are not stowaways with the more benign cargo. This uneasy relationship is only further complicated by Pakistan, a country that actively imports the worst that West Asian minds produce — and adds some homegrown hatreds to the brew. Islamabad initially did so as a means to access the wealth of countries like Saudi Arabia. But part of its leadership has come to believe that radical Islam is actually the glue with which a Pakistani state can be assembled. India had, therefore, assumed there was little in the way of strategic convergence between itself and the Gulf states, especially the Sunni monarchies, and shunned such arrangements.
There is now evidence, signalled by the crown prince’s presence and an earlier visit by the then Saudi Arabian monarch 10 years ago that a revisiting of both Gulf and Indian assumptions about each other are afoot. The most important, and least mentioned, development is a growing recognition among some Sunni Arab leaders that their past patronage of radical Islamicist movements has proven a double-edged sword, the worst manifestation being the Islamic State.
The United Arab Emirates is at the forefront of this reconsideration with the present ruling faction of the Saudi royal family also struggling to find a reformist path. In addition, uncertainty over the Gulf’s strategic utility to the United States — the region’s traditional external power broker — and the rise of India’s economy and energy imports has made the Gulf region come to see New Delhi in a new light. Automatically Pakistan has become devalued in this new regional equation and it is the possibility of engendering a giant regional pivot away from Islamabad to New Delhi that has led India to become so much more proactive in the Gulf.
The actual construction of a new path requires an economic equation that goes beyond workers and crude, a military relationship that at present is largely on paper and, finally, a careful examination of how far each side is prepared to go on promoting the sorts of Islam, such as Sufiism, that have India at their core.