India's Middle East Strategy

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Jon Alterman: C. Raja Mohan is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute based in New Delhi. He has been writing about Indian foreign policy for decades and is a very thoughtful commentator on India in the world. Raja, welcome to Babel.

C. Raja Mohan: Thank you. It's great to be in the tower.

Jon Alterman: What is India's strategic worldview, and where does the Middle East into India's priorities?

C. Raja Mohan: It seemed that at the end of the Cold War, the Middle East was dropping off from India's agenda. There was a particular type of approach that India took to the Middle East immediately after independence. Out of solidarity, they worked for the Palestinians against Israel. In fact, for a long time, we were not allowed to travel to Israel, and the sense was that India was standing up against the residual Western colonialism and domination of the Middle East. Post 1973, as oil became important, India engaged the oil producing countries, but that engagement was largely on a mercantilist basis. There was no real strategic relationship with the Gulf. We had Indian labor moving to the Gulf in large numbers from 1973 to 1974. The remittances became very important, but India did not have a political, strategic view of the region by the end of the Cold War. Since then, we have come a long way. Today, I think India takes a far more strategic view of the Middle East, and the difference between the past and present can be understood by three important changes. Three forces that India kept a reasonable distance from during the Cold War was the United States, Israel, and the Arab Gulf. For us, the United States represented a legacy of Western domination of the Gulf, so we did not want to be associated with the United States. Israel was seen as the principal problem in the Arab-Palestine issue, so we kept some distance from them. And in the Gulf, we preferred the secular, socialist regimes, rather than the conservative kingdoms. But today, the United States is one of our best friends in the region. Israel is a major partner for India in a whole range of defense and security issues, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seem to be very important partners for India.

Jon Alterman: You wrote an article for Foreign Policy last year arguing that in an effort to escape the legacy of the British Raj, India's post-independence foreign policy deliberately renounced the security role in the region and abandoned its central role as the Indian Ocean's economic globalization hub—two key roles it played in the colonial era. As you look now, what can India do in the Middle East? What does India want to do in the Middle East other than go along for the ride?

C. Raja Mohan: I would say that India has three broad objectives. We see a partner in the Arab Gulf, with its huge amount of capital that we can draw on—what we call Khaliji capital—for India’s economic development and transformation. So, this is no longer just about buying oil and getting remittances from Indian labor; now it’s about actually drawing Gulf capital into the Indian economy in a big way. For example, India and the UAE are talking about joint space programs and joint defense production, so a very rich agenda has emerged. Second, the champions of moderate Islam have become the most important partners for India in the Middle East. The Middle East is so close to India, and any radical ideologies from the region go straight to India because South Asia has more Muslims than the Middle East. India has almost 400 million Muslims, and in South Asia as a whole, there are close to 600 million. Any radicalization in the Middle East directly affects the position of those Muslims in India, and between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, so the interpenetration of religion and politics between the Middle East and South Asia is very deep—given the history of cross-border terrorism and radicalization supported by Pakistan and other jihadist groups. For us, the stronger the moderates in the Gulf are, the better. That’s why we see India welcoming the approach that the UAE is taking in promoting political moderation and religious liberalism, reforms by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, and President Sisi’s efforts to counter the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I think this is a very central, existential question for India, and there is a lot that we do in the region. Today, we see Israel as an important security partner, and the amelioration of the Arab Israeli conflict and the normalization of the relationship between Israel and some Arab states under the Abraham Accords has worked very well for India. We hope to build on that, and the I2U2 partnership—the new forum that India created with the United States, the UAE, and Israel—is a new way of entering the region. In terms of security competition, India, at this point, is not in a position to replace the United States in the Middle East—assuming the United States is going to retrench its presence in the region. But I think we want to engage far more in the security politics of the Middle East. That’s where we are beginning to look at in terms of how we help our partners. India now deploys its ships regularly on a mission basis in the Arabian sea, in the Gulf of Aden. We’re stepping up our military engagement with Arab countries. India has a presence at Duqm Port, along with some of our Western friends. Security presence in the Middle East was shunned by India in the Jawaharlal Nehru era, but we’re trying to reclaim that—not solely but in partnership with the United States and with our other Gulf partners in the region. I’d conclude here by saying that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabi and his presence at the Sino-Gulf summit marks an important moment. If the Middle East is diversifying its security coalitions, India would want to begin to participate in the security politics of the region, to the extent that it can.

Jon Alterman: How do you see China's role in the Middle East? That's something that a lot of Americans, and certainly people in the government, are quite seized with. Do you buy the argument that China is only really interested in economic engagement and doesn't really have a military component? Do you think China is interested in pushing the United States out? Does it matter that China wants to have deeper ties in the region, and if so, how?

C. Raja Mohan: For us, it does. For India the principal contradiction in its security condition is with China. We have a serious territorial dispute which has become conflict prone in recent years. China is trying to undermine India’s position on the subcontinent. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is growing, so purely from those principles, I would rather have the United States as the security guarantor of the Gulf, rather than have the Chinese gain a hand on the oil spigot in the Middle East. That is pretty straight forward. I don’t see the Chinese as purely innocent economic actors. They already have a military base in Djibouti. They’re looking for others. The Middle East is the last area that they’re making a big presence, but today, China’s opening on the economic front gives it the capacity to engage in more strategic security engagement with the region. For us, that will be a matter of concern because we don’t want the Chinese beginning to dominate our Western Arab frontiers.

Jon Alterman: You often describe India as a medium power. You've said the United States, China, and Russia are great powers. Demographics are going to drive India to have twice the population of China by the end of the century, do you see India transcending its medium power status? And what would that mean for the regions adjacent to India?

C. Raja Mohan: I think India should not present itself as a major power because I think purely in analytical terms, India will become a major power. By the end of this decade, hopefully, India will be the third largest economy in nominal terms. But it will have a number of developmental challenges, and it will have a number of other problems. Therefore, I think it’s premature for India to present itself as a great power that could compete with the others, so India needs partnerships in the near term. If India sees itself as the weakest of the major powers and the strongest of the middle powers, it makes sense to be modest, build as wide a network of partnerships as possible, and to focus on dealing with the growing Chinese power in the Middle East. So, it does alarm us when states like Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—close partners of the United States—turn to China. I think the United States has tended to take the Middle East for granted all these decades. The region is looking for diversification in ties, but I hope this is a tactical play vis-à-vis the United States and that the United States and the Gulf Arabs can come back together, because I think any permanent rupture between them would be terrible for India and for many of us in the region.

Jon Alterman: You had mentioned this I2U2 configuration—the partnership between India, Israel, United States, UAE. It's certainly not an alliance, but it’s a grouping. What can that group really do? What do you think should be on the agenda for that group to do? I still remember being at the Indian embassy and the Israeli ambassador said, “Between Israel and India, we represent one out of six people on the face of the earth." There are some very disparate levels of power there.

C. Raja Mohan: I think that giving the aggregate numbers like that, for example, when we say the BRICS nations have so much power, it’s mostly about Chinese power. When we say Asia is rising, we are largely talking about China’s rapid growing rate. My sense is that the I2U2 is publicly focusing on economic projects. If you go back to Secretary of State Blinken’s statement at the launch of the I2U2, he also mentioned maritime security, so eventually I think we can and should develop security cooperation in the region, because the idea that you can do anything without politics and security seems alien to me. But I think it's better to start in a modest way—to pick up some economic projects, or to see if the Europeans would want to work with us as well—and build from there. But eventually, we can work to maritime security, connectivity, and find ways to develop security cooperation for stability in the region. For this, we need the United States to be engaged in the Middle East. We need the moderate forces in the region to come together, and we need to prevent the potential destabilization of the Middle East by Russia and China. That should be our principal objective.

Jon Alterman: You mentioned politics and that you can't do things without politics. One of the aspects of that which I’m seeing in the Indian American community is the sense that a rising Hindu nationalism is marginalizing the roles of Muslims inside of India—which has a large Muslim minority as you know. Is the marginalization of India's Muslim community an irritant in India's relations with the Gulf? Is the treatment of the large ex-patriot community in the Gulf an irritant in India-Gulf ties?

C. Raja Mohan: Delhi is very sensitive to that question. For example, there was a spokeswoman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who said something on a TV show that was seen as blasphemous to Muslims, and there was a lot of reaction in the Gulf. Prime Minister Modi moved very decisively and quickly to shut her down because I think he clearly sees the issue. Even last week, in an election campaign, he said that India’s improved relations with the Gulf is a big achievement, so it’s clear that he’s not going to let the fringe of his party undermine his major achievement in the Gulf—where there is both capital and 8 million Indian expats. There is religious mobilization in India—all that is there—but Modi and his party know that it needs to be kept within reasonable bounds. They know they can’t let the fringe overwhelm the more carefully calculated politics. They’re quite conscious of it, and as a result they’ve managed to build quite strong relations with the region. But separately, I would ask, “Have Arab states said anything about Xinjiang.”

Jon Alterman: Arab states have said very little about Xinjiang—partly because the Chinese have said, “don’t talk about Xinjiang.”

C. Raja Mohan: Yes—so I think for a long time, in India, we labored under the illusion that the Middle East was about Islamic politics. The left of center politicians said we must be nice to the Arabs because we have a Muslim minority, or we must appease the Muslim minority because we have relationship in the Gulf. Mr. Modi, I think has actually built a more practical, deeper relationship with the Middle East than the Congress Party or the left of center parties ever did. In a way, he’s taken religion out of the equation. Today, the relationship is interest-based. There is a deeper economic connection, but at the same time, he is firmly aware of the role of Islam and the size of the Muslim population in South Asia. So, we have to be careful, but it’s not like the left of center parties who let the religious question overwhelm their foreign policy. Modi is willing to engage with the Arab world in a far more practical way. The Congress Party would come in and say, “Oh, this is all about Palestine. This is about standing up to Zionism. This is about standing against the Americans because that’s what the radical elements, both left and right in the Middle East, want. We were laboring under that delusion, and allowed ideology to overwhelm the pragmatic, and I think Modi’s intervention has taken that out of the equation. We engaged with the United States. We engaged with Iran. That’s what a major power needs to do—like all the major powers currently do. They all engage everyone and manage multiple contradictions in the Middle East, and I think under Modi, we are learning to do that in a practical way.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you about Iran. Mr. Modi met with President Raisi on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in September. India has often had robust relations with Iran. About 10 percent of India's oil came from Iran and then stopped when U.S. sanctions blocked a lot of the trade. What do you think got done when Mr. Modi and President Raisi met in September, and what do you think is going to be done?

C. Raja Mohan: Nothing. I would say Iran has been a most overestimated, over-discussed element of Indian foreign policy in the region. Ideally, we would love a good relationship with Iran because Iran is the neighbor of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have direct access to Afghanistan, which is good for India, because Pakistan denies us access to Afghanistan. Being friendly with Iran gives us some physical land access into Afghanistan, making Iran a valuable friend. Second, as the Americans have always told us, Iran is the prize of the Gulf. Its size of the population, its geopolitical location, and its oil resources make it an important country with which you'd like to maintain good relations, but for us, the problem is that Iran is locked in a conflict with the United States and the West. So, none of that oil or other assets can be fully developed. It doesn’t look like the conflict will be resolved today, although we’ve hoped many times that it would be. Today, we are not there. The radical approach of the Iranian regime constantly creates problems, so we have to manage our relationship within the bounds set by the United States, because nobody is going to sacrifice the larger relationship with the United States for the sake of Iran. A third level at which we saw Iran's importance was that its geographical location gives us access into Central Asia, but at this point, the Iranian clerics are not great traders. They’re not like the UAE or the Gulf Arabs. The idea that you can draw a line on the map between India and Iran and other countries looks great, but if they want to open every container to check what’s really there—if there is a bottle of whiskey or something else—Iran isn’t ready to play the role of a transit country. If we take our relationship with the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians into consideration, our relationship with Iran is very limited because of all those constraints. India has about 8 million people in the Arab Gulf, and we have barely 50,000 people—maybe even less than 10,000—living in Iran. Iran’s potential is there, but Iran is not in a position to exploit its natural advantage because it’s locked in confrontation with the West.

Jon Alterman: As a fellow nuclear power, does India have any role in the diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program?

C. Raja Mohan: I think we don't have any role there. I remember this issue came up and India was negotiating its own nuclear deal with the United States, and in the question in 2005/2008 of how you deal with Iranian violations of its commitments, India largely supported the United States. We’re not standing up for Iran to say, “Look, this is somehow about defying the West.” We’ve gone long past that approach. That approach used to be fashionable during the Cold War, but today we are not going to sacrifice our interests for the sake of Iran. So, Iran’s nuclear program is a problem. Our sympathies are with an attempt to find a solution, but it looks like even the best efforts by the Biden administration are not going to play out with a solution. The more important thing, I’d say, is that our stakes with Arab states today are much bigger than our stakes in Iran.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you a final forward-looking question. How does India think about the energy transition and its future relationship with the countries in the Middle East? What's the timeframe that India is thinking about, and where does India think the chips are going to fall?

C. Raja Mohan: The war in Ukraine has completely shattered all the calculations. People thought we were on a transition, but the moment the war came, India, as the largest importer of oil, found that when the market gets squeezed, it faces a higher price for oil. Given that 90 percent of Indian oil is imported, oil price has a direct bearing on inflation, and in a democracy like ours, inflation is the biggest enemy. So, for us in the near term, the war has made it much messier to make the transition. I see that Europeans and the United States—who did not invest in oil production in the last few years—are suddenly scrambling to find various sources of oil. So, we discovered that oil will remain important in the near term, but even over the longer term, the timeframes that we thought were true just one year ago have no meaning. What’s interesting is that the Gulf Arabs themselves are investing in alternative energy sources. In fact, the UAE is willing to support a large number of renewable energy programs in India. I think we need to keep building on that, but—as you saw in COP26 last year—the Gulf Arab states are willing to derail the boat by saying, “we’re not going to let the oil be taken away.” In fact, we were at odds with them. India proposed a reduction in the consumption of all fossil fuels, but the Saudis said no, and they have enough influence and clout to block that. Now, I think we’re in a messy state, but if the war in Ukraine comes to an end and we find peace, then we can go back to the original transition plans. But in the near term, I would say that oil looks like it’s going to be here for quite some time.

Jon Alterman: But in 30 years’ time, what is the nature of India's relationship with the oil producers of the Gulf, in your mind?

C. Raja Mohan: I would say where the Gulf countries themselves are preparing for a future without oil—where they’re not dependent on oil. For example, we are talking to the Gulf about food security corridors. How does India produce food security for the Gulf Arabs? How do we generate enough capabilities, so that they invest in India's food industry, and we can take care of their needs. And the diversification of the Gulf economies is quite bold. I don’t know how realistic they are in Saudi Arabia, but the UAE seems to be investing a lot in space, technology, AI—and a whole range of other things. There’s a lot of synergy between us there. My sense—at least in parts of the Gulf where there is a realization they have to go beyond oil—is that we can work with them on this and both benefit from that transition.

Jon Alterman: C. Raja Mohan, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

C. Raja Mohan: Thank you for having me here.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

C. Raja Mohan

Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute