India-GCC Ties Can Boost Regional Stability

During these times of uncertainty and faltering alliances, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been left in a conundrum. The perceived diminishing role of the US in the region has raised a few eyebrows with the GCC contemplating new partnerships to help secure its own safety. What better alternative than to encourage and persuade the states that rely on and are most affected by any conflict the GCC may find itself in? These troubles provide a country like India with the opportunity to expand its role as a strategic and military partner in the region. The GCC can and should use to its advantage the shared interests between India and the US to further strengthen stability in the region and secure oil transit routes. One of the biggest and most positive aspects of this old friendship is the fact that unlike western nations, India has never sought to dominate or forcefully intervene in the local politics of the GCC and till today continues to maintain a non-intrusive policy.

The GCC states currently account for at least 50 per cent of India’s oil imports, while Qatar is India’s largest gas supplier. Today, the GCC is India’s largest trading partner with an estimated $120 billion (Dh441.36 billion) worth of trade. India is currently the second-most populous country in the world after China and while its population continues to grow along with its immense market, so too will India’s need to maintain a stable, consistent and increasing supply of energy. This will further enhance its partnership with the GCC.

A recent theme (and obstacle) in the expansion of these relations is Iran. The current relationship between Iran and India can be seen as being cordial — considering Iran’s vast energy reserves, it is only natural for India to want a stake. Though, western sanctions against Iran have made it difficult for India to tap into the market fully. Unlike the GCC, there is little evidence to suggest that Iran has ever been a reliable partner as many deals between the two countries have fallen through. Ironically, Iran also did not show the support India wanted when it was pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

On a regional level, Iran continues to fund various proxies and participate directly or indirectly in various acts of terrorism and sabotage. Any future conflict between Iran and the GCC will be a huge blow to India’s rising energy needs — either through a spike in energy prices or through the complete stoppage of energy flows for a variety of reasons. Further, an aspect less focused on will be the negative impact on the millions of Indian expatriates living in the GCC, who will surely also be victims of such a conflict — either by being forced to return home or by being affected directly as victims. India should use its relationship with Iran to increase stability and perhaps even play the role of a mediator between the GCC and Tehran. This is a region where realpolitik is the order of the day with no room for vague and unfounded idealism. India should take a stronger stance to protect its interests.

The latest elections in India have brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) back in power with Narendra Modi as the new Prime Minister. While the foreign policy goals of the BJP so far have been vague, many believe the new PM’s controversial past and history with Muslims will be a hurdle in strengthening ties between the GCC states and India. However, with the Indian economy not performing as well as expected and with Modi’s own successful economic model in Gujarat, it is imperative for the BJP administration to invest in this relationship and be more pragmatic in its outlook. The new administration has already taken a few positive steps, first by inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Modi’s inauguration and also by assuring the Muslim population that they would not be targeted by any form of discrimination. The GCC states themselves can find new opportunities in doing business with India. Many deals and investment plans in the past have faced difficulties due to bureaucratic obstacles. Modi’s interest in doing business, increasing foreign direct investment and economic growth will hopefully ease the process of doing business and investing in the Indian market. Though, for now it will be hard to assess how any form of future violence and discrimination against Muslims will affect relations since both the GCC and India have strong historic and economic links.

The growing insecurity in the area surrounding India, Middle East, Arabian and Indian oceans requires a much higher level of cooperation on important issues such as piracy, terrorism, maritime terrorism and safety of supply lines. Both the GCC and India need to work together; the Gulf states would be interested in an Indian presence that emphasises stability, economic and military cooperation. It should be noted that India in the near future will be unlikely to ever completely replace US military engagement in the region. A more likely scenario will be some form of a burden/power-sharing agreement between the GCC, India and the US.

What is unclear is how the US will entertain an increased Indian military presence in the region. A few experts believe the US administration will not accept such a possibility. India will help the region by bringing in its neutral power, which is respected by all the key players in the region. At the end of the day, India will always be viewed as a complement to the policies of the GCC states and there is no doubt that with time, this beneficial relationship will grow.

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