Modi looks west: India and the Middle East

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In a recent Foreign Affairs piece, I look at India’s complicated history and relationship with the Middle East. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first gained international attention when the state he governed was enveloped by anti-Muslim violence, he may be in a position to bring India’s relations with the Middle East into a new era. Since independence, India has seen the Middle East almost entirely through the prism of commercial interests, namely imports of energy and exports of migrant labor. This is understandable given these two factors have supported poverty reduction, a central policy priority. 

Now, however geopolitical winds are shifting and the Middle East is rapidly becoming more strategically important to India. This is due in part to the anticipated decline, relative to other powers, of Washington’s interest and influence in the region, creating room for newcomers. China’s growing involvement further increases the stakes, as does India’s ambitions for a sphere of influence encompassing the Western Indian Ocean. In responding to both opportunities and threats, Delhi should adopt a long-term vision, targeting states and actors most important for India’s strategic ascendance and increasing engagement commensurately. While Modi’s domestic baggage will complicate matters, he can rely on India’s two perennial trump cards in the region—its image and diaspora.