India in the Middle East: From Rigid Ideology to Flexible Pragmatism
Delhi's growing ties with pro-Western forces in the region exemplify how it has shed its Cold-War era political bias towards the Middle East. India hopes the “new Quad” framework it shares with the U.S., Israel, and the UAE will help deepen its economic interests and political influence in the region, where all other major powers are already deeply involved
Indian PM Modi with Israeli PM Bennett at the COP26 summit, November 2021 | Photo: Haim Tzach, GPO
Two broad ideas shaped and constrained independent India’s Middle East policy from 1947 until the end of the Cold War. The first was anti-colonial (read: “anti-Western”) solidarity. The second was the imperative to manage the consequences of India’s partition on religious grounds – the “Muslim question” at home, and Pakistan’s Islamic solidarity with the Middle East.
Nothing illustrates India’s comprehensive break from its past engagement with the Middle East than the formation of the so-called “new Quad” along with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States in 2021. The new forum, which may develop to be the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Indo-Pacific Quad framework (formed by India, Australia, Japan, and the United States), might take a while to emerge as a force to reckon with. But like the Quad, its very formation represents the cumulative changes in India’s international relations and increases the prospects for a larger Indian role in the region.
The incremental shifts in Delhi’s approach to the Middle East after the Cold War are many. They include the transition from the emphasis on anti-colonialism to collaboration with the West; from championing the ideology of pan-Arabism to a more nuanced regional policy; breaking out of the confines imposed by the so-called Muslim question in India’s domestic politics; and moving from the narrow post-Cold War focus on bilateralism to a strategic regionalism.
Recently, the Abraham Accords, signed between Israel and four Arab and Muslim states and promoted by the United States, have also helped Delhi discard many of the old Indian shibboleths and imagine a bolder regional policy.
Finally, India’s rapid economic growth in the last couple of decades has propelled the nation up in the global hierarchy. Its current GDP of approximately USD 3 trillion makes India the sixth largest economy in nominal terms; it could well become the third largest – although still far from China and the U.S. – by the end of the current decade. This provides India with new resources and tools for its regional policy, as well as making it a more attractive partner for the Middle East.
This essay argues that India is returning to a role in the Middle East that is commensurate with its size, geographic proximity, and strategic potential. If the post-colonial era saw the relative decline and marginalization of India from in the Middle East, its economic expansion since the end of the Cold War and an interest-based foreign policy have significantly expanded India’s regional possibilities.
The article begins with an assessment of India’s sharp regional divergence from the West after the Second World War and the renewed convergence of interests. It then looks at India’s successful efforts at overcoming some of the major factors that constrained its involvement in the Middle East. The final section outlines the potential benefits that the “new Quad” could bring India as it engages with the region.
Reconnecting with the West
Until the middle of the previous decade, the idea that India – one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War – would one day consider the United States its most important strategic partner, would have been incredible. Today, however, none of Delhi’s other great power relations are as comprehensive and deep as those with Washington.
Discarding the traditional framework of viewing India through the constricting lens of “South Asia,” the U.S. has begun to see India as an important element of the Asian balance of power system in the 21st century. Alongside Australia and Japan, India has become a key member of the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Forum (the Quad) aimed at shaping the Indo-Pacific architecture. It could be argued that the Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategy are at least partially about drawing non-aligned India into an alliance-like relationship with long-term U.S. allies.
Despite improving relations with the U.S., until recently working with Washington in the Middle East still seemed a bridge too far for Delhi
As this transformation unfolded in the last few years, it was widely presumed that extending the Indo-Pacific convergence between Delhi and Washington to the Middle East was impossible. Unlike in the east, where shared concerns about China’s muscular assertiveness brought India and the U.S. together, there was little that seemed to bind Delhi and Washington to the Middle East.
Worse still, the differences between the two in the region were long-standing and deep. For decades, Delhi simply saw Western colonialism and its new variants as the source of most of the region’s problems. If the West set up the Cold War alliances in the Middle East, Delhi stood in opposition to them and led NAM in the region; if the West was at odds with Arab nationalism, Delhi was its champion; while the West gravitated towards conservative sections of the Arab elites, India embraced the secular socialist elites of the region; finally, the Anglo-American alliance with Pakistan throughout the Cold War completes the long list of differences. This divergence was reinforced by the leftist and populist orientation of Indian domestic politics, which together precluded any cooperation with the West. Being seen working with the U.S. in the Middle East became a political taboo.
After the Cold War ended, India’s relations with the U.S. improved significantly, and it simultaneously began to adapt to the multiple changes in the Middle East. Nevertheless, working with Washington in the region still seemed a bridge too far for Delhi until the end of the last decade.
Enter Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not carry the left-of-center ideological baggage, has shed what he has called “India’s historic hesitations” about engaging with the United States, including in the Middle East. India is also ramping up its engagement with Britain and Europe, especially France, to find common ground to the west of India – in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.
During the colonial era, India’s resources were critical in maintaining Britain’s leading role in the Middle East. If India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru deliberately dissociated Delhi from that legacy, Modi is open to working with the U.S. and the West in the Middle East – only on terms negotiated and agreed upon by a sovereign India.
Rethinking the region
India’s ideological commitment to Arab nationalism and the Palestinian question in the Cold War often led to internal criticism of Delhi being more “Arab than the Arabs.” Establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel after the end of the Cold War (1992) was part of a slow but certain Indian appreciation of the multiple contradictions within the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict notwithstanding.
For a long time, independent India was stuck in a difficult position in the Middle East. This was due to the division of the subcontinent along religious lines, the creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam in 1947, the presence of a large Muslim minority in India, and Islamabad’s attempt to build religious solidarity with the Middle East. As a result, support for Arab nationalism and having a tough stance against Israel became the preferred means for the Indian political class to overcome Pakistan's presumed religious advantage in the Middle East. Internally, it also provided a basis for demonstrating that Delhi was standing by the presumed internationalist sentiments of Indian Muslims.
Contrary to widely-held convictions, Modi’s new warmth towards Israel did not prevent India from significantly improving its ties with the Islamic world
Since 2014, PM Modi’s Hindu nationalism helped break the stranglehold of the “Muslim question” in dealing with the Middle East. The Hindu nationalist BJP has long castigated these policies as appeasement of Muslims. Once it came into power under Modi, it ended the traditional defensiveness about relations with Israel. Modi flaunted his personal friendship with former Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. What used to be a furtive relationship is now well set to expand in the open.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in the Indian foreign policy establishment, PM Modi built on new possibilities by reaching out directly to the rulers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, thus lending the relationship unprecedented political momentum. Also against the widely-held perceptions of the Indian foreign policy elite, Modi’s new warmth towards Israel did not prevent India from significantly improving its ties with the Islamic world. Although, the excesses of Hindu extremist groups and anti-Muslim vigilantes have created negative sentiments among Muslims globally. These provocations, at least for now, have not generated significant official backlash from the Muslim world.
Importantly, as its economy grew at a faster clip from the 1990s, India also became a major importer of oil. Consequently, Delhi began paying greater attention to Iran and the oil-producing states of the Arabian Gulf, which have long been neglected since India’s political focus in the region was on Arab-Israeli issues.
During the Cold War, Delhi was uncomfortable with Arab conservatism and aligned with Arab nationalists. Although there was much goodwill for India in the Gulf, Delhi saw the Gulf Kingdoms as too closely aligned with Pakistan in its disputes with India. Likewise, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) frequently took up the question of the disputed region of Kashmir at the behest of Pakistan, making cooperation with Delhi difficult.
The slow evolution of economic interdependence has dramatically raised the salience of the Gulf for India. Alongside Delhi’s deepening energy dependence on the Gulf, since the mid-1970s there has also been a massive growth in the number of Indians migrating to work in the region. Today, there are more than eight million Indian workers in the Gulf.
Furthermore, as India gradually became an economic powerhouse, the Gulf kingdoms began to move towards neutrality on the Kashmir question and labored to expand commercial engagement. Growing counter-terror cooperation with the Gulf countries has also strengthened Delhi’s ties to the region. Pakistan’s own relative economic decline vis-à-vis India also facilitated the definitive transformation of India’s partnership with the Gulf.
India is also negotiating free trade agreements with Israel, the UAE, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. A successful conclusion of these agreements will deliver greater depth to India’s regional engagement.
External Affairs Minister at the India-UAE Joint Commission Meeting, 17 August 2020. India continues to explore new avenues into the Middle East | Photo: Indian Ministry of External Affairs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The "new Quad" and regionalism
Post-independence India’s engagement with the Middle East began with a sweeping ideological stance that took definitive political positions on regional issues. In contrast, the pragmatic post-Cold War era saw Delhi focus on the expansion of bilateral ties with all the key actors without much reference to politics or conflicts between India’s partners. Indeed, barring Turkey, Delhi currently enjoys a positive relationship with all the major regional powers.
However, missing in the new bilateralism was a larger strategic framework for engaging with the region. The “new Quad” partnership is likely to provide an important complement to India’s post-Cold War focus on bilateralism. That India is building a regional partnership with three countries with which it was politically hesitant to engage in the past, marks a significant evolution in India’s foreign policy thinking.
Six potential themes present themselves for India in partnership with the “new Quad”:
First is the new framework’s declared focus on economic cooperation, specifically in infrastructure. Though the demand for the development of regional infrastructure has grown rapidly, India has so far largely remained on the sidelines. It has watched its rival China dramatically expand local investments in infrastructure, especially ports, to lay the foundations for a long-term presence in the Indian Ocean. To be sure, the “new Quad” is not about competition with China in the Middle East – as Israel and the UAE have already established a strong cooperative relationship with Beijing. India can, however, up its infrastructure game in partnership with the “new Quad” in the region.
Second is in the domain of innovation. The combination of Israeli strength in innovation, Emirati capital, and the booming Indian market and its growing connection to U.S. technology companies can make a positive impact on the region’s economic transformation since even oil-rich countries look beyond hydrocarbons in planning their economic future. Cooperation in the technological domain could become the bedrock of the Middle East’s long-term economic evolution.
A strong regional partnership with the “new Quad” could help Delhi reach the strategic periphery of the Middle East with more purpose
Third is in the domain of homeland security. All four of the framework’s members have a significant interest in countering violent religious extremism in the region. While counter-terrorism cooperation exists between all four at a bilateral level, elevating it to the level of the “new Quad” would significantly enhance the framework’s value for all of them by pooling their intelligence and law-enforcement resources.
Fourth is about strengthening defense cooperation in the long term. India now has growing defense ties with the U.S. and Israel, and the UAE is keen to develop similar ties with India. As in the Indo-Pacific, the “new Quad” does not seek to present itself as a security alliance. However, that does not prevent the four parties from promoting greater collaboration on defense production, maritime security, and capacity building in the Middle East and the Western Indian Ocean. As the U.S. begins a downward adjustment of its force posture in the region, defense cooperation among the like-minded countries of the region, as well as greater burden-sharing with Washington, have become inevitable.
As long as the U.S. was shouldering the burden, India could afford to sit on the margins of the region’s security politics; nowadays, Delhi has no choice but to actively participate in the shaping of the regional security order.
Fifth is the institutional framework. The Indo-Pacific Quad framework was built to look beyond existing institutions like the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Similarly, the “new Quad” could help India transcend the old regional institutional engagement in the Middle East, which was centered on the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council – as well as the political stagnation that came with it.
Finally, the “new Quad” could help India engage more effectively with the slow but definitive expansion of the Middle East beyond its traditional geographic confines. Whether it is in the eastern Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa, the continent’s east coast, or Central Asia – the impact of Middle Eastern countries is steadily growing. Although India’s traditional preference is to act alone in these regions, the effectiveness of this approach has steadily diminished. A strong regional partnership with the “new Quad” could help Delhi reach the strategic periphery of the Middle East with more purpose, including in the subcontinent.
Several factors have come together to facilitate a larger Indian role in the Middle East. These include growing warmth with the United States and the West; the easing of some traditional divides in the region, for example, between the Arabs and Israel; India’s growing economic salience and its deepening interdependence with the region; its significant military capabilities; and domestic political shifts that helped Delhi overcome past ideological constraints in engaging with the region.
The “new Quad” is a culmination of these changes: a partnership with three countries – the U.S., Israel, and the UAE – from which India kept deliberate political distance during the Cold War. While it will take some time before the framework gains significant traction, it is bound to strengthen India’s growing economic, political, and security engagement with the Middle East.
As the weakest of the major powers involved in the region (in comparison to the U.S., EU, Russia, and China), India’s current imprint on the Middle East remains relatively small. But as it rises in the global power hierarchy, leverages its geographic proximity, deepens its pragmatic approach to the region, and builds new regional coalitions. India’s influence in the region is likely to grow significantly in the coming years.
C. Raja Mohan is a Senior Fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute in Delhi. He is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, and was previously the Director of ISAS. Mohan was the founding director of Carnegie India in Delhi, the sixth international center of Carnegie Endowment for Peace. He was associated with several Indian think tanks, including the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses and the Observer Research Foundation. He was a Professor of South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. He served on India’s National Security Advisory Board and was Henry Alfred Kissinger Chair at the U.S. Library of Congress, Washington DC. He is currently working on an Adelphi book for the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on India’s role in rebalancing Asia.
 The idea was first articulated during the 2000 U.S. Presidential election campaign by Condoleezza Rice, who was to become National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State to President George W. Bush. Since then, it has acquired steady momentum through initiatives such as the U.S. “Pivot to Asia,” the Indo-Pacific, and the “Quad.” See: Condoleezza Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting National Interest”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000, at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2000-01-01/campaign-2000-promoting-national-interest
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, 9 June 2016. Full text at: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/full-text-of-pm-narendra-modis-historic-speech-in-the-us-congress-13124-2016-06-09
 For a discussion of the sources of domestic criticism, see: Girilal Jain, “Disillusionment with the Arabs: Shift in Indian Public Opinion”, The Round Table, Vol. 57 (1967), pp. 433-38.
 See: Theodore P. Wright Jr., “Ethnic Group Pressures in Foreign Policy: Indian Muslims and American Jews”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 17, No. 14, 9 October 1982, pp. 1655-60.
 Nicolas Blarel, “Modi looks West? Assessing change and continuity in India’s Middle East policy since 2014,” International Politics, 3 June 2021.
 See: Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel, “Why Gulf States Are Backtracking on India: Islamophobia is undoing years of New Delhi’s diplomatic gains in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, 5 May 2020, at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/05/gulf-states-backtracking-india/
 Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), “Population of Overseas Indians,” December 2016. http://mea.gov.in/images/attach/NRIs-and-PIOs_1.pdf
 Mohammed Sinan Siyech, “Understanding India’s increased counter terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” India Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2020, pp. 351-75.
 “India working on free trade agreements with Israel, Middle East Nations”, Jerusalem Post, 18 December 2021, at: https://www.jpost.com/international/india-working-on-free-trade-agreements-with-israel-middle-east-nations-689120
 Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s Meeting with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Israeli Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid,”, 18 October 2021. https://www.state.gov/secretary-of-state-antony-j-blinkens-meeting-with-emirati-foreign-minister-sheikh-abdullah-bin-zayed-indian-external-affairs-minister-dr-subrahmanyam-jaishankar-and-israeli-foreign-minist/
 The UAE was among the few countries to support India’s controversial constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and has recently agreed to invest in the province. See: Murali Krishnan, “Why Dubai plans to build infrastructure in Kashmir,” Deutsche Welle, 25 October 2021, at: https://www.dw.com/en/why-dubai-plans-to-build-infrastructure-in-kashmir/a-59620265