India's growing inroads into the Middle East

Illustration - Analysis - India
7 min read
25 May, 2023
Analysis: India's cooperation with traditional US partners in the Middle East is increasing, with Washington hoping to leverage this against China. Yet as an emerging power, India still has its own independent regional interests.

China's recent role in mediating talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia has drawn attention to its competition with the United States in the Middle East. However, amid the focus on these major powers, India is quietly emerging as a significant player seeking to make inroads in the region.

In a meeting held in Riyadh on 7 May, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan, his Emirati and Indian counterparts, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman discussed a large-scale connectivity project. This ambitious initiative aims to establish road, railroad, and seaport links, fostering stronger economic links between the Middle East and India.

This project is the result of several meetings held by the I2U2 Group since July 2022. Comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the US, the group primarily focuses on economic growth and trade synergies, rather than strategic or political matters.

The White House, in its efforts to solidify this alliance, stated that the infrastructure project aims to "advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region interconnected with India and the world".

"With its rapid economic growth and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership since 2014, India has sought to deepen its trade and strategic relations with the region"

In February, the US Department of State also highlighted the group's focus on areas such as food and water security, energy, space, transportation, health, and technology, including support for clean technology and decarbonisation.

Despite talk of the US’ declining influence in the Middle East, Washington is currently striving to merge its Indo-Pacific strategy, which involves curbing China’s expansion in that region, with its engagement in the Middle East. It hopes to achieve this by leveraging ties with Delhi, showing a growing interconnectedness between these two geopolitical hotspots.

The prospect of these deeper connections in the Middle East was initially unveiled in 2021, as India, Israel, and the UAE forged what analyst Mohammed Soliman described as an "Indo-Abrahamic alliance". 

Building upon initiatives like the 2020 Abraham Accords, where Israel and the UAE normalised relations, the United States sees this potential Indo-Abrahamic alliance as an opportunity “to do more with less” in the region, added Soliman. Moreover, the Abraham Accords have been advantageous to India, as they have facilitated a framework for Delhi to operate regionally.

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India's interests in the Middle East

Indians may highlight their ancient civilization's extensive links with the Middle East, including trade, religion, and culture. Ties between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent grew stronger during the British Raj, encompassing both economic and strategic aspects.

After gaining independence in 1944, India largely kept a distance from the Middle East due to its non-aligned status in the Cold War, though it opposed Western influence in the region and showed solidarity with Palestinians. However, with its rapid economic growth and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership since 2014, India has sought to deepen its trade and strategic relations with the region.

A founding pillar of India's interest in ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt partly has ideological elements, given their mutual opposition to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, argued that from India’s perspective, Delhi views these countries as “the most important partners for India in the Middle East,” particularly as it sees them as “champions of moderate Islam”. Mohan also argued India may have concerns over “radical ideologies” in the Middle East inspiring similar movements in South Asia.

Modi India
India is quietly emerging as a significant player seeking to make inroads in the region. [Getty]

Additionally, India has built a close alliance with Israel, despite only establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fostered close relations with Modi, sharing like-minded views on many political issues. Indeed, Israel has provided training, surveillance equipment, and radar technology to Indian police in India-administered Kashmir, while Delhi currently stands as the largest buyer of Israeli-made weapons.

Along with these security and military ties, Israel’s membership of the I2U2 means it would be closely involved in the negotiations in the recent connectivity deal. Despite Israel and Saudi Arabia’s current lack of official diplomatic ties, the US has still pushed for a normalisation agreement between the two. Moreover, as Soliman stated, “Riyadh has nurtured good relations with Israel and India and may look to this grouping as a strategic opportunity in the long run”.

These ideological connections have certainly laid the foundation for the wider strengthening of economic ties. India has always considered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an essential economic partner, benefiting from hydrocarbon imports and remittances from Indian expats. And more recently, India and the UAE have collaborated on space programs while Abu Dhabi has committed to over $100 billion worth of investments in Indian sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and renewable energy.

"India's presence in the Middle East reflects the growing multipolar nature of the region"

Like with Israel, India has also benefited from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s support over Kashmir, particularly as Emirati investments in the disputed territory have solidified Delhi’s control over it, albeit straining relations with Pakistan.

Bilateral ties between Cairo and Delhi have increasingly grown, spurred by India’s recognition of Egypt's crucial positioning in the Mediterranean and its economic and military significance.

This momentum was further strengthened by the visit of Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi to Delhi in January, where he emphasised the importance of forging economic relations with India to address Egypt's fiscal challenges. Such ties could also boost Egypt’s inclusion into the I2U2 forum, further enhancing its cooperation with India.  

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US-India alignment

US efforts behind the I2U2 group may reflect Washington’s concerns over China's growing influence in the Middle East. And new infrastructure connecting South Asia and the Middle East could work parallel to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-funded infrastructure and may even undercut Beijing. As one former Israeli official, who was directly involved in early discussions over the connectivity project said, “nobody said it out loud, but it was about China from day one”.

For India’s part, it has maintained a cautious approach toward China's involvement in the region. While welcoming initiatives like the Abraham Accords and recent mutual appointments of Emirati and Iranian ambassadors, India's silence over the China-brokered Saudi-Iran talks reflected its reservations about Beijing’s influence.

China’s view towards the latest I2U2 negotiations is unclear. However, given its scepticism of other US-centered organisations like the Quad, Chinese officials are likely to perceive this as another attempt by the US to undermine Beijing.

India may prefer working with the US over China in the Middle East; however, it still has its own independent approach to the region beyond the US’ strategic vision. Testament to this are Delhi’s discussions with Abu Dhabi to settle non-oil trade in Indian rupees as opposed to the US dollar, though oil trade remains settled in dollars – along with the aforementioned benefits of India’s deepening ties with individual Middle Eastern states.

Two giant Israeli Likud Party election banners hang from a building showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a caption above reading in Hebrew 'Netanyahu, in another league' on 28 July 2019. [Getty]

For its Middle Eastern members, I2U2 isn’t aimed at merging a US front against China, since Israel and the UAE have balanced economic relations with China along with their strong links to the US. Interestingly, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo have even expressed desires to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) group, alongside other Arab countries that aspire to join the group.

While there are many layers to the cooperation between I2U2 members, the US evidently hasn’t shifted its focus from the Middle East just yet. And given the pace with which multilateral relations within the I2U2 group have expanded, more economic syncing within the forum should be expected. Sullivan even mentioned further “new exciting steps” will occur in the coming months.

Given the nuances of India’s foreign policy, along with its own economic cooperation with China, US officials may be wrong to solely see Delhi as a bulwark against Beijing. Nonetheless, India’s presence in the Middle East reflects the growing multipolar nature of the region.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey