Will 2022 be a crunch year for West Asia?
The notoriously fickle West Asia is frantic for geopolitical stability. Neighbouring India can contribute in this direction by creating new bilateral paradigms across the Arabian Sea
Most observers of West Asia were glad to see the back of 2021, annus horribilis on account of multiple Covid-19 waves, the Iran nuclear imbroglio, rising oil and gas prices, sputtering crises in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan following a dramatic United States (US) withdrawal. Many also have a sneaking foreboding that 2021 was merely a stage-setter for a more consequential 2022. While the best case scenario for 2022 is greater stability and fewer geopolitical tensions, there is a feeling that the region may yet again be beset by its well-known problems.
Arguably, the denouement of the Iran nuclear conundrum is the most critical regional determinant in 2022. The indirect negotiations for a complex deal — involving the US rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, lifting of economic sanctions against Iran, and Tehran’s compliance seem stalled. This deadlock is due to a combination of the trust deficit, high expectations, and pressure from hardliners. Tensions have been ratcheted up with both sides rattling their sabres. The US and Israel have cautioned about Iran reaching a nuclear breakout time in “weeks”, even as Iranian Republican Guards have held extensive military exercises.
A binary zero-sum game appears to be taking shape. In case this brinkmanship yields an unlikely durable deal, Iran could reap the rewards: An eco-political resurgence, end to four decades of ostracisation and regional stability. Otherwise, it is difficult to rule out a US-Israel military campaign to defang Iran’s nuclear option. Previous covert operations have largely failed to curb Iran. Given the extensive spread of Iran’s well-defended nuclear installations, this is unlikely to be a 1981 Osirak-type single shot surgical strike. Moreover, Iran and its regional allies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, have extensive missile and drone capability. Therefore, this “grand-mother of all battles”, if it does take place, could be protracted, messy and unpredictable, enveloping the entire region. It would impact the global economy extensively.
As Iran is also an entrenched actor in subregional conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, their respective courses during 2022 would depend on what transpires on the Iran-US confrontation. Otherwise, some of these conflicts, having run their course, are ripe for their respective political solutions.
Similarly, the longstanding regional political frictions over political Islam and the Arab Spring have wound down mainly due to exhaustion of the protagonists. A reconciliatory mood is palpable in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Syria and Iraq. Turkey and some GCC states are friends again. The Abraham Accords between Israel and each of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain are likely to further deepen in 2022. At the same time, divergences have emerged between the Joe Biden administration and each of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Separately, the competition between each of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for regional economic supremacy may escalate in 2022.
West Asia’s struggle with Covid-19 over the past two years has been waged at two levels. More organised countries such as Israel and the GCC states have coped relatively better. However, the majority of the West Asians living in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen have suffered due to low vaccination, instability and administrative confusion. With the Omicron wave on the horizon, 2022 may wreak further devastation on this group.
The global oil and gas economy is largely intertwined on the supply side with West Asian geopolitics and on the demand side with global Covid-19 trends. The unpredictability of both these factors puts a huge question mark over the region’s oil and gas revenues, the mainstay of its socio-economic sustenance.
India has a long civilisational history with the neighbouring West Asia. A comprehensive bilateral symbiotic relationship has evolved in recent years. Our current trade with the region is over $150 billion and we sourced over 70% of our oil requirements from it. Nearly nine million Indians residing in the Gulf remit around $50 billion annually to India. The investment flow across the Arabian Sea also remains robust.
Shedding a traditional reluctance for long-term, strategic engagements, India is currently negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the UAE, the GCC, and Israel.
Similarly, defence and security ties are being strengthened through exchange visits and joint exercises. And key economic stakeholders are also gearing up to synergise with their counterparts.
This organic growth in bilateral ties would help realise the long evident potential for political amity and economic complementarity. We need to move in this direction, carefully balancing our potential gains and liabilities. Above all, we need to acknowledge the notoriously fickle geopolitics of the region, particularly at this juncture, and avoid getting into any sticky situations either politically or economically.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be credited for being persistent and consistent in fostering strong ties with West Asia in general, and with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular. It is to be hoped that his planned visits to the UAE and Kuwait next month will create new bilateral paradigms going well beyond 2022.
Mahesh Sachdev is a retired Indian ambassador and an Arabist
The views expressed are personal