The realpolitik of Modi and MbS
If China’s engagement with Gulf countries has gathered much attention from Middle Eastern policy circles over the last five years, another parallel development has occurred in its shadow. Under the premiership of Narendra Modi, the Indian government is developing strategic ties with the Peninsula, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
These ties go beyond the obvious economic motivations – such as India’s energy demands and the massive Indian diaspora in the region – to include security co-operation. As Modi enters his second term, there are reasons to believe this India-Gulf rapprochement, far from being temporary, may re-define the nexus between the Peninsula and South Asia for the near future.
The logic behind reinforcing Indian-Gulf relations seems initially evident. Although an old phenomenon, the presence of Indian workers in the Arabian Peninsula accelerated with the oil boom of the seventies. Today, about 8.5 millions of Indians reside in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and 55 percent of remittances into India comes from the Gulf.
A common saying among the Indian diaspora in the Gulf is that Dubai is the fifth largest Indian city. Additionally, the secure flow of commodities through the waters of the Gulf is a genuine national interest for India: the latter imports about a third of its crude oil supply from the GCC.
Driven by mutual interests
On the GCC side, investors view India’s economic growth as an opportunity for new projects, particularly infrastructure projects involving Gulf companies like the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) or DP World.
But Gulf leaders, and in particular, those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, saw Modi differently. Modi’s security-driven approach to addressing political Islam resonated with their own views. Speaking at a ceremony in Delhi last February, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman portrayed Modi as his "elder brother".
Likewise, Modi developed unprecedented ties with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, and even invited him as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day in 2017, an honour traditionally reserved to heads of state. As one former Western ambassador to Abu Dhabi said: "The realpolitik mind-set and the strongman leadership style that Modi embodied truly fascinated the Saudi and Emirati princes."
Energy, security and defence
This mutual appreciation has translated into co-operation in critical domains, such as energy, security and defence. In order to guarantee India’s strategic petroleum reserves, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) started working in 2018 on a seven-year contract to fill up storage tanks of 5.860 million barrels of crude oil in a facility in Mangalore.
ADNOC is also involved with Saudi Aramco in a plan to build a 1.2 million barrel refinery in India’s Maharashtra state, the cost of which is estimated at $44 billion. The progress of these projects is particularly crucial in the context of U.S. sanctions targeting countries importing oil from Iran. Prior to the current U.S. administration’s rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran represented about 10 percent of Indian oil imports.
In May 2018, under American pressure, Delhi officially suspended these purchases while both Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared they would supply additional barrels to India to compensate for this loss. This was the core message of the visit of UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to India in July 2019.
Security co-operation between India and Gulf monarchies has also increased, especially with the UAE. Since 2013, Emirati authorities arrested numerous individuals tied to Indian organised crime and deported Indian members of terrorist cells. Military exchanges have also increased – both navies engaged in maritime security initiatives, and the Indian Military Academy recently started a training programme for Emirati soldiers.
These examples highlight the steady growth of bilateral co-operation. But more profoundly, decision makers in Abu Dhabi and Delhi share common views on their security priorities. Under the leadership of Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi sees Islamist movements – and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood – as its biggest threat, arguably more so than Iranian regional ambitions. This resonates directly with the views of Modi and of the architect of his foreign policy, Ajit Doval.
A former intelligence operative, Doval has been Modi’s national security advisor since 2014. In this capacity, he has been leading a more assertive campaign against Islamist militancies targeting India, involving retaliatory strikes deep inside Pakistan. It is, therefore, no surprise that the UAE has continuously supported Indian policies, from the 2016 airstrikes across the Line of Control with Pakistan following the Uri attacks to the abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
China's Belt and Road Initiative
Indian-Gulf ties have consequences for the Gulf-Asian nexus, starting with Pakistan. Pakistan was historically the closest Asian partner of GCC countries, thanks to a large Pakistani labour force in the peninsula, the cultivation of a common religious identity, and the significant role Pakistani armed forces played in the building of Gulf militaries. However, Islamabad’s refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war in 2015 tainted Pakistani-Gulf co-operation.
Yet, this was not translated into a full re-alignment of Gulf countries in South Asia. Although it opened a window of opportunity for enhanced cooperation with India – a momentum that Indian Prime Minister Modi used effectively – the rift was not complete. The election of Imran Khan in 2018 as Pakistan’s Prime Minister led to a new start. Khan looked to the rulers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as much needed investors to help keep the economy afloat with a looming IMF bailout.
Ultimately the real challenge to India-Gulf relations will not come from Pakistan, but from China. The GCC-India rapprochement coincided with China’s burgeoning ties in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, China’s logic is different: Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the main driver of the new Gulf-China relationship.
India, on the other hand, opposed the BRI, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are eager to position themselves as pivotal actors for China in the region. So far, the Gulf countries have been able to cultivate ties with both sides. But if the India-China regional competition escalates and turns into a zero-sum game, this will become a litmus test: third parties like Saudi Arabia or the UAE may be confronted with an inextricable dilemma.
Jean-Loup Samaan is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies attached to the UAE National Defence College.