After his extensive interactions with West Asian countries, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, in 2015-16, and two meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his second tour of West Asia on 9-12 February, which took him to Jordan, Palestine, the UAE and Oman. After a quick stopover in Amman, Modi went on a stand-alone visit to Palestine, emphasising that India has “de-hyphenated” its ties with Israel and Palestine and will interact with the two states separately.
Visit to Palestine: In Palestine, PM Modi got several things right - he affirmed India’s historic support for Palestinian aspirations; he applauded the role of Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian struggle and praised the Palestinians for their “great tenacity and courage in the face of persistent challenges and adversity”. He also extended development assistance valued at $ 50 million.
But, while committing himself to “an early realisation of a sovereign and independent state of Palestine”, he pointedly failed to refer to the prospective state being “united and viable” and having East Jerusalem as its capital, formulations that have been standard in Indian pronouncements on this subject for several years. Clearly, PM Modi was taking several new factors into account.
The most important among them are India’s blossoming ties with Israel: the latter has no interest in a peace process, will continue with the expansion of settlements in occupied territories (which already number 140, with 600,000 settlers), and has no intention of parting with united Jerusalem. Linked with this is the President Donald Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the US intention to shift its embassy to Jerusalem possibly by next year.
President Trump has also announced his commitment to a settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue based on a “deal of the century”. Regional media have already provided details of the US offer. Al Khaleej of the UAE points out that the President Trump “deal” has removed the refugees’ right of return, the issue of settlements and the status of Jerusalem from the discussion.
Again, the peace plan will be a “interim solution”, not the final settlement: the proposed Palestinian “state” will be located on some parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, with certain neighbourhoods and villages in Jerusalem’s suburbs, mainly the village of Abu Dis, to be built as its “capital”; the Old City and historic Jerusalem, including Arab neighbourhoods, will remain part of Israel. The borders of this “state” and the settlements will remain under Israeli control, even as Israel will exercise sovereignty over the entire territory.
PM Modi’s remarks on the prospective Palestinian “state” should be seen in this background – clearly, there is no place here for a “united” or “viable” Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Visit to the UAE: PM Modi’s visit to the UAE on 10-11 February was his fourth interaction with the UAE leadership from 2015 and affirmed the close personal ties he has established with the UAE leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and the habit of regular high-level engagement the two leaders have put in place. A substantial joint statement was signed at the end of the visit that took forward agreed areas of bilateral cooperation in regard to: combatting extremism and terrorism; security, defence and space cooperation; and cooperation in trade promotion, investment, energy, climate change, and education and culture.
As before, the statement affirmed the two countries’ commitment “to further consolidating [their] comprehensive strategic partnership” by pursuing specific projects in diverse spheres – political, economic, energy, defence, security, and culture. The statement also highlighted the importance of enhanced cooperation in food security, maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean, and working together “in the spirit of South-South cooperation” in sub-Saharan Africa.
Visit to Oman: Prime Minister Modi’s first visit to Oman recognised the historic links that bind the two countries and affirmed their “strategic partnership based on trust and mutual respect”. Flowing from this, the two countries highlighted the importance of “promoting regional peace and security” and “further cementing bilateral strategic engagement, especially in the areas of security and defence”. The statement also gave considerable importance to the expansion of defence ties through “joint exercises by the three defence forces”, operational visits of Indian naval ships and aircraft, and strengthening of maritime cooperation in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean regions.
After this West Asia sojourn, Modi received two dignitaries from the region – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the ruler of Jordan, King Abdullah II.
President Rouhani in India: Rouhani’s visit to India on 15-18 February followed those of Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad in 2003 and 2008, respectively, and Modi’s visit to Tehran in 2016. The joint statement referred to the lease for an interim period of 18 months for Chabahar port before the 10-year contract between Iran’s Port & Maritime Organization and India Ports Global Limited gets activated.
After talks with Rouhani, Modi said "We will support the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link so that Chabahar gateway's potential could be fully utilised." The Iranian president added that the rail line will be an economic boon for both countries. He also said that both sides "are prepared for joint ventures in gas and petroleum sectors" and sought Indian investments in Iran’s industrial and mining sectors.
In the statement, India expressed support for full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal. The statement also stressed the need for “a strong, united, prosperous, pluralistic, democratic and independent Afghanistan, while supporting the National Unity Government in the country”.
Observers have described the visit as “subdued”, primarily on account of the different priorities of the two countries, i.e., India’s concerns relating to increasing Chinese influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and Iran’s preoccupations pertaining to its domestic agitations, the future of the nuclear agreement, and challenges to its influence in West Asia from the US, backed by its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Visit to India of the king of Jordan: King Abdullah II of Jordan began a three-day visit to India on 27 February, his first visit since 2006, and his second meeting with Modi after their quick interaction when the prime minister was on his way to Ramallah earlier in the month.
Jordan has some unique geopolitical features. It shares borders with six countries – Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq – and thus is affected by developments in its turbulent neighbourhood. As the historic custodian of Islamic sites in Jerusalem now under Israeli occupation, it is also central to the Israel-Palestine issue, particularly since over half its citizens originate from territories that are now part of Israel or occupied by it.
The Syrian conflict has saddled Jordan with nearly a million refugees, while opening it to attacks by extremists along the southern border with Syria. Its role is complicated by the fact that in Syria it has to engage with a variety of competing players – the Assad government, Iran, Russia, Israel, the US – and motley groups such as Hezbollah, numerous Syrian militia and jihadi cohorts.
The king’s visit has provided a unique fillip to bilateral ties with the signing of the MOU on defence cooperation, covering peace-keeping, counter-terrorism, cyber-security, training and military medical services. The MOU on long-term supply of rock phosphate and fertiliser recognises the central place of these items in bilateral trade ties, while the MOU on setting up the next generation Centre of Excellence in Jordan will train 3000 Jordanians IT professionals over the next five years. On the culture side, important agreements relate to the “twinning” of the cities of Agra and Petra, a media cooperation agreement, and an agreement to set up a Hindi Chair in the University of Jordan.
India’s West Asia policy: With his frequent and substantial engagements with the countries of West Asia over the last three years, Prime Minister Modi has imparted an unprecedented significance to India's ties with the region. Every engagement of the prime minister has been marked by warmth and affirmations of the great esteem in which he personally and the nation he leads are held. Every capital sees India as a valued partner and is seeking to shape a “strategic partnership” based on enhanced political, security and defence ties.
India has a serious stake in West Asian stability. It gets about 80 percent of its oil imports from the Gulf countries. Its trade ties with just the six countries of the GCC are valued at about $ 140 billion annually, with the UAE being its largest export destination as well. Above all, India has a resident community in the GCC numbering about eight million that remits to the mother country over $30 billion annually. India also has crucial strategic stakes in the successful implementation of its connectivity projects to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia through the Iranian port of Chabahar.
The regional security scenario is getting more complicated by the day, being marked by visceral animosities among regional players engaged in bloody proxy conflicts, re-shaping of alignments to obtain new regional balances and increasingly intrusive postures of major world powers to define the region in terms of their own interests. And, lurking across the region is the shadow of a destructive region-wide war.
All the leaders Modi has met have sought a greater Indian role in promoting security in the region, though no details have been spelt out, nor is there any indication so far of an Indian initiative in this regard. It is now clear that Modi’s extensive interactions with West Asian leaders, representing different political interests and concerns in the complex regional mosaic, have not yet led to the shaping of a new Indian policy approach. India in fact has affirmed that its approach will remain bilateral and transactional – engaging robustly with different countries on bilateral basis to build political and economic ties that will encompass the new areas of security and defence, but will not move beyond the bilateral to a regional approach.
This affirmation of the traditional line reflects both a lack of national confidence and lack of imagination, as also a lack of understanding of the consequences of non-action and the opportunities that have opened up for an Indian initiative to promote mutual trust and dialogue between the estranged Islamic giants, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-Iran divide, emerging on the Saudi side from perceptions of expanding Iranian regional influence and its possible intrusive role in regional politics, is at the heart of regional conflicts that are being shaped by sectarian considerations. The two countries are already engaged in proxy conflicts, in Syria and Yemen, and the prospect of a direct conflict between them cannot be ruled out. Bridging the gap between these two Islamic giants by promoting mutual confidence as a prelude to direct discussions between them should form part of an India-led initiative.
Once an Indian initiative is agreed to in principle in New Delhi, several approaches are available in terms of content and approach and the partners India could co-opt to support its effort. An excellent associate would be the UAE - both countries share concerns relating to the regional security scenario and are pledged to address regional security challenges unitedly.
The joint statement issued after PM Modi’s recent visit to the UAE expresses the commitment of the two leaders “to augment [their] cooperation further to promote regional security, peace and prosperity”.
Promotion of stability in West Asia would be the most important outcome of PM Modi’s robust engagement with the region over the last three years.
March 3, 2018