Not just a gas station: India’s broader interests in 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.

India and Middle Eastern states—particularly in the Gulf—have long enjoyed strategic and mutually beneficial relationships. For most of the period since independence, India has seen the Middle East almost entirely as a commercial relationship, driven by flows of energy and migrant labor. India’s “hands-off” approach—secured by Washington’s commitment to ensuring the free flow of oil worldwide—has suited India’s traditional non-aligned and non-interference foreign policy, which in turn boost its reputation in the Middle East.

Yet major changes in global, regional, and even internal Middle Eastern politics call for a new interpretation of the strategic importance of the Middle East to India and vice versa. The United States has slowly tried to shift away from the Middle East, even as China enhances its geopolitical and economic ties there through multi-billion dollar investment deals and defense agreements.

Indian leaders cannot help but wonder if mounting instability in the Middle East will affect oil imports (India imported roughly 60 percent of its oil from the region in 2014), or the livelihoods of the 7 million Indian nationals sending home $40 billion in remittances annually. For the Brookings Doha Center, the one-year anniversary of the Modi government seemed an opportune time to visit India and investigate the emerging global power’s changing perceptions of the Middle East.

Everywhere but the Middle East

In 2014, the controversial then-Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi led the nationalist, religious-conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an unprecedented election victory, winning 52 percent of the seats. Since their platform emphasized national economic development, most commentators have been surprised by the extent of the government’s foreign policy focus in its first year.

But while his government focused on India’s immediate South Asian neighborhood—as well as East and Southeast Asia and the West—there has been much less focus on the Middle East. Modi indicated he will visit the region in his second year; interestingly, his first declared destination is not a key oil producer, but Israel.

No one can deny the importance of India’s relationship with Israel, particularly for military support, technology transfer, and agricultural and irrigation development. Still, the visit will undoubtedly affect relations across the Middle East—even though, according to a former senior Indian ambassador to the region, Modi seems to think that the “Arab States are too busy fighting each other and Iran to worry about his visit.”

Through recent meetings with members of civil society, diplomats, and former officials in New Delhi—and with the help of our colleagues at Brookings India—we developed a more nuanced view of India’s ties to the Middle East. Although the upcoming visit to Israel can still (and should) be employed to deepen India’s constructive engagement with the broader region, the visit cannot stand on its own. Rather, it should form part of a broader plan to renew India’s relationship with the region.

The challenges facing India and the Middle East, and the need to formulate a holistic engagement strategy, formed the basis of an informative panel discussion held in collaboration between the Brookings Doha Center, Brookings India, and others. The debate that ensued made it clear that the country’s enormous diaspora, combined with its positive image in the region, helps ensure that countries across the Middle East are open to enhanced relations.

Security cooperation is one key area of engagement. In the last decade, India has signed unilateral defense agreements with a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman. At the same time, India has become Israel’s largest arms buyer. In broader terms, New Delhi needs to be more proactive in supporting order and stability in the region—this will incur fewer costs than waiting until conflicts boil over and threaten the Indian diaspora in the region.

Additionally, India can share its experiences on strengthening pluralism and tolerance with Middle Eastern states struggling with sectarian divisions—experiences likely to be more relatable than any Western model. Despite sporadic outbreaks of communal violence, the country of 1.25 billion has long stood as a model for pluralist democracy in the developing world. India has accomplished this in the face of mass poverty and immense diversity along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines.

India can also offer its technical expertise in a number of ways. Having rapidly developed professional services, education, and knowledge economy sectors, it could provide lessons for Middle Eastern states looking to diversify their economies.

Tapping expertise

Our visit to New Delhi also revealed the substantial and growing expertise in Indian civil society and, in particular, policy think tanks. This force can be harnessed to further relations with the Middle East and offer technical expertise to Middle Eastern partners.

As it embarks on re-examining its relationship with the region, India’s government would benefit significantly from better utilizing these existing resources. Given short staffing at the Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative Service (with any growth in personnel outpaced by India’s rapidly expanding foreign interests), it should draw on expertise at the Observer Research Foundation, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Brookings India, and the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERRI), among other organizations. If India aspires to rise to great power status, it should learn from the world’s only superpower: the United States, whose government is unparalleled in its ability and willingness to utilize diverse external sources of expertise and advice.

The wealth of expertise available in India underpins opportunities for future collaboration with researchers from the Middle East. Such research will help to better understand the contours of the relationship and can produce recommendations for policymakers and civil society on how to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for the peoples of both regions.