Skip to main content
Past Event

Turmoil in the Middle East: Challenges for India

Past Event

History of Middle Eastern politics

Indian involvement in the Middle East
Play Video
Now Playing

Indian involvement in the Middle East

Panel Discussion on India-Middle East relations
Play Video
Now Playing

Panel Discussion on India-Middle East relations

Brookings India hosted a panel discussion on June 9, 2015 on “Turmoil in the Middle East: Challenges for India” featuring Dr. Sultan Barakat, Director of Research and Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda, Visiting Fellow from the Brookings Doha Center, Professor Gulshan Dietl, Indian Council of Social Sciences Research Senior Fellow, and Ambassador Pinak Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The discussion was moderated by WPS Sidhu, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy at Brookings India. The panel discussion focused on the current upheaval in the Middle East (or West Asia) and the implications for India’s policy in the region. While there was a general consensus among the panelists on the need for greater Indian involvement in the region, the actualization of this involvement remains a significant challenge.

That West Asia is currently in turmoil is an understatement. There are a number of challenges that plague the region and have caused significant upheaval in recent years. First, the horrific rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the spread of its extremist ideology in Iraq and Syria. The spill-over effects of IS to other countries in the region and the spread of extremism to other parts of the world are also of grave concern. Second, the repercussions of the Arab Spring are still being felt in the region with Syria and Yemen on the brink of civil war. Military intervention by other Arab states in these conflicts and the rapidly intensifying humanitarian crises that these conflicts have created are serious causes of concern for the region. Third, the Arab states are greatly wary of Iran’s nuclear aspirations and its increasing involvement in the Arab world’s conflicts through proxy wars. Finally, America’s waning interest and involvement in the Middle East has created a future of uncertainty for regional security.

The current situation in the Middle East is not particularly exceptional. The region has been in continuous turmoil over the past 40 years when majority of the Middle Eastern states gained independence from colonial rule. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was one of the first major crises in the region, resulting in the rise of religious radicalism in the region’s political scene. Soon after, the 1980 Iran-Iraq war resulted in further disruption and tensions. With Iraq emerging as the regional hegemon in the 1980s, its rising territorial and resource ambitions culminated in the invasion of Kuwait, resulting in various other regional states turning to the United States as a guarantor of peace and security in the region. In recent years, the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have arguably failed to achieve their intended goals and contributed to further deterioration of geo-political stability in the region. The core issue in the Middle Eastern political scenario seems to be the intrinsic disconnect between the regimes and the people they govern. The regimes have not lived up to the expectations of young Arabs, resulting in widespread strife. While Middle Eastern regimes have traditionally depended upon the U.S. for security and conflict prevention in the region, the strong-arm tactics of the U.S. has now resulted in the U.S. being viewed as a part of the problem and not the guarantor of peace. The transition of power in countries like Saudi Arabia and Oman has been one of the driving factors for this change in perception. With the U.S. now abstaining from directly intervening in the region, there is potential for other emerging powers, like India and China, to fill the power vacuum.

India has traditionally followed a ‘hands-off’ approach toward West Asian countries and consequently enjoyed good relations with them. It has refused to overstretch itself and interfere in the conflicts of the Middle East because of several reasons, not least the close relationship between Pakistan and the Gulf countries. Its involvement has mainly been motivated by its heavy dependence on energy resources from the region and has been restricted to its soft power influence, albeit a weak one at that. However, with waning U.S. influence in the Middle East, most panelists agreed that India is suitably positioned to play a greater role in the region. The Middle East has always been of strategic importance to India with roughly seven million Indians residing in the region and the Gulf supplying nearly two-thirds of India’s oil and gas. The proximity of the region and the spill-over effects of religious extremism are only few of the reasons why India needs to increase its involvement in in the region. A pro-active Indian approach to the Middle East and its problems would also ensure greater visibility for India vis-à-vis the rising influence of China. In recent years, China has signaled its geo-political and economic ambitions by signing multi-billion dollar investment deals and defense agreements with Middle Eastern states. India on the other hand has shied away from pursuing stronger bilateral defense and security relationships for various ideological and geopolitical reasons, with the notable exception of Israel. It is argued that Prime Minister Modi’s impending visit to Israel might raise concerns with the Arab states regarding Indian intentions in the region. However, India has long shared a close relationship with Israel, albeit a closeted one, and should not be a cause for any apparent concern now. There is a sense that Israel and Arab states can both enjoy a stronger relationship with India based on mutual interests.

While there is consensus on the need for a more focused Indian strategy toward the Middle East, it remains to be seen whether India is willing to and able to maneuver increasing fissures between the Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia dominated Iran in the Middle East.

Aakriti Chowdhary and Manik Soi contributed to this report. 

Event Announcement

Brookings India hosted a panel discussion on June 9, 2015 on “Turmoil in the Middle East: Challenges for India” featuring Dr. Sultan Barakat, Director of Research and Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda, Visiting Fellow from the Brookings Doha Center, Professor Gulshan Dietl, Indian Council of Social Sciences Research Senior Fellow, and Ambassador Pinak Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The discussion was moderated by WPS Sidhu, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy at Brookings India. The panel discussion focused on the current upheaval in the Middle East (or West Asia) and the implications for India’s policy in the region. While there was a general consensus among the panelists on the need for greater Indian involvement in the region, the actualization of this involvement remains a significant challenge.

Read the event report
Watch the event videos

More Information

To subscribe or manage your subscriptions to our top event topic lists, please visit our event topics page.

Get a weekly events calendar from Brookings