July 17, 2010

Amb. R.M. Abhyankar Lecture on 'India & West Asia' at IIT Mumbai on 16th July 2010


“INDIA AND WEST ASIA”
MEA Distinguished Lecture Series on India's Foreign Policy
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, 16 July 2010

Amb. Rajendra Abhyankar *


Director, IIT,And Friends,

I thank the Ministry of External Affairs and the IIT for giving me the opportunity to talk of Indian and West Asia – a region in which I spent over a decade of my career dealing with its complexities and challenges. It is interesting that I speak to you on West Asia here in Mumbai- I don’t know how many of you are aware that Iraq was administered from the Bombay Presidency during the early part of the British period. You have only to go to the Prince of Wales Museum - Chhatrapati Vastu Sangrahalaya - to see archaeological artefacts from ancient Iraqi sites which were brought to Mumbai then. But even more, Bombay has been, and remains, the first point of contact between the peoples of the Arab world- particularly the Gulf and Iran- and India. For decades we have seen Arabs in their traditional garb walking and lounging on Marine Drive taking the air in the monsoon season- something which is a rarity in their land.People who hail from Pune or Bangalore are equally familiar with Iranians who have settled generations ago. In fact when I was doing my PhD at Mumbai University Geroge’s Restaurant was a favourite for the Biryanis and Pullav’s it served!


I do not need to mention to this gathering that contact between the Indian people with those of West Asia goes back to centuries - even before Islam came to that region; neither do I need to mention that this intercourse was two-way and primarily benign. If we gave them the zero and the numeric system, we received knowledge of navigation and sea-faring; if the tales of the panchatantra reached them, in the Persian translation, as the stories of kalila wa dimna , then we received the metre and the rhyme of sufi poetry not to mention its theology. There were similar exchanges in the field of mathematics, astrology and astronomy, and medicine as also in craft- skills like carpet-making and brocade weaving ( zardodzi and kinkhab). The list is long but covers religion, culture, fine arts, sciences, music and musical instruments, dance, language and literature, and cuisine. But above all were the travel writings of Arab way-farers like al-Beruni and others who have left us a wealth of record on India of that time. The essential driver was trade and commercial exchanges. But for the water that separates us we are neighbours; the relationship has been both enriching and enduring.

When one looks at the Asian land-mass to our West we see four separate civilisations facing us- the Persian, the Arab, the Hebrew and the Turkish- all of them were brought together under the Ottoman Empire which lasted 500 years and had the widest spread of the then known world . It is interesting that while these four cultures confronted one another, it was to India that they all aspired- through trade or conquest or to escape from persecution in their native lands. It is even more interesting that they do not seamlessly merge into one another at their periphery- which may possibly have something to do with the ethnicities and languages that go with each culture: the Persians ( or Iranians) are from Indo –Aryan stock, the Arabs and Jews are both Semitic peoples and the Turks are themselves with a mixture of the Mongol. Each of these cultures has had a unique historical relationship with India.

West Asia not Middle East

It would not be out of place here to digress briefly to the controversy that runs like a common thread on discussions on the region in India: its nomenclature. Middle East is what it is commonly called, even though West Asia is its correct geographic location. It is so pervasive that even the computer dictionary gives you a prompt to capitalise M and E if you have not done it). We invariably call it West Asia. From where we are middle east will be Bangkok! So why WEST ASIA?

The term Middle East was was first used by US Admiral Mahan in 1902 to designate his strategic concept for the land bridge connecting Africa, Asia and Europe. As our Vice President, Hamid Ansari,, another former diplomat, has written, the term is a misnomer and legacy of an era when points on the globe were indentified with reference to the location of the seats of power of the European Empire. Nehru firmly distanced himself from calling it the ‘Middle East’ as Quite apart from its geographical position, it tended to continue a Euro-centric view of the region along with the attitudinal baggage that it implied.

Since Independence a lot has changed in the region- especially at the political and geo-strategic level. The oil crisis of 1974 focused the international community’s attention on the region as never before. When one super-imposes the monumental political developments, the world sees the ‘Middle East’ as the fulcrum of future political and economic stability in the world. The region’s nomenclature as ‘Middle East’ has gained widespread acceptance and even people of the region see themselves as from the Middle East first, and then as nationals from the country they belong. The word Middle East now bundles in it religion, culture, language and ethnicity. The term is now often used interchangeably with West Asia.

Defining the Region

The West Asian region breaks down conveniently into concentric circles of proximity : The innermost circle comprises Afghanistan, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran, Iraq and Yemen.

In the next circle are the countries of the Mashreq ( West Asia)–( Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) - to our west and those of Central Asia to our north-west; next the circle comprising Turkey, countries of the Maghreb( Mediterranean sea-board)- Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco- and the countries in the Horn of Africa -Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia.

It is amazing that when one surveys the Asia continent from Istanbul – its western most extremity - one is struck by how much India has received from, and given to, each of the cultures we encounter in between- the Arab, the Persian and the Turkish. With each the intensity and thrust of our bilateral relations has been different.

Contours of India’s Policy

At Independence the first three decisions on India’s foreign policy concerned West Asia:our active support to the Khilafat Movement;India’s stand in the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947 when in a dissenting note we advocated the establishment of a federal Palestine with internal autonomy for the Jewish population;and the decision on how we were going to deal with the state of Israel when it became independent in 1948.

These decisions were conditioned by India’s Partition which had left a traumatised, yet larger, Muslim community within India than went to Pakistan. The importance of the region, particularly Mecca and Medina in fulfilling the spiritual and religious needs of India’s Muslim population could not be under-estimated. These early decisions by the Government of India illustrate the counter pressures which have always led India to search for a middle ground in its policy towards the region. They also illustrate the considerations which come into play even today in India’s policy towards the region.

From an early concentration on looking at the region through the Islamic prism, Indian policy considerations have evolved in the last sixty years. The prism has shown other dimensions of the relationship: the oil-rich countries of the Gulf, particularly Iran and Iraq, became increasingly important for India in the 1960s and 1970s and remain so for our energy security. From the 1980s the region became a source of employment for Indian workers, who today number 5 million and correspondingly a source for huge remittances of about $ 20 billion annually. The history and current status of India’s Diaspora in the Gulf is unique in that it has become the driving force of those economies. The considerations which have guided our policy in these years remain valid today despite the change in the political, economic and social matrix:Friendly relations with the people of the region on the basis of shared history and culture;equidistance in intra-regional conflicts; support to the Palestinian cause;Desire to play an effective role in the region, even as a possible intermediary;in this context, management of the relations with Israel;oppose both exclusivist religious ideologies and religious fanaticism; Develop economic, trade and investment ties;

Energy security

As Prof. Girijesh Pant has written ‘for India, West Asia is the region to augment its power rather than to display or assert its power.’ The thrust of India’s West Asia policy and diplomacy thus has to be geared towards mobilizing resources - political, strategic, economic and cultural - from the region to contribute in its emergence as global power. .while India’s recent economic success has made this possible at the political level, Indian policy makers need to recognize that West Asian sensitivities have been offended and hurt by aggressive US intervention in the region. Indian policy has to be shaped in consonance with regional concerns. This does not mean that Indian policy has to be hostage to West Asian expectations but to underline that rise of India as a global player critically hinges upon its clout in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. In defining India’s role we need to do so within the geo-politics of a rising Asia.

It is important is to note that throughout this early period the India-West Asia relationship remained one-sided. It was always India and Indians who were dependant on the region and not so much in the reverse sense. It is only since this Millennium that the relationship between India and West Asia has become two-dimensional on which more later, it is akin to a re-discovery of India by the countries of West Asia.

The Region in Crisis:

Developments since 2000, the most provocative act being the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, changed the face of the region. The last ten years have been described as ‘a bad decade’ by noted Lebanese journalist Rami. G. Khoury . Paradoxically, events and developments in the region had a profound influence on the world and the way it thought of itself, yet the region could not itself rise above the forces it unleashed.

The crisis in West Asia today can be traced to the long-term unresolved issue of bringing about a secure and viable Palestinian state, and the short-term issue of invasion and continuing presence of foreign forces. It has put pressure on national sovereignty, national security and the authority of State. Yet unlike in Europe, after fall of the Berlin Wall, centripetal rather than centrifugal forces have prevented the region from imploding or the re-drawing of national boundaries and creation of new states. The region presents the following challenges:

Waning of the belief in Arab solidarity, unity and socialism which had blurred ,if not eliminated, differences of sects, beliefs and region and tribe; Change in the social structure and mores in the region in favour of sect, tribe and tradition; and a conscious desire to get away from western values. The growing tension between the Sunni and Shia Muslims radiating westward from Pakistan from which India has remained immune so far;


The emergence of a ‘back-to-roots thinking which gives primacy to religious belief in political matters; the sway of Al Qaeda and the Taliban;

The consolidation of the state of Israel in the region, and internationally; the unwritten edict which makes it taboo to mention Israeli nuclear weapons while giving no quarter to Iran ( and Iraq earlier) on the presumption that they either possess or seek to build them.

The impotence of major players to find a way to establish an secure, independent and viable Palestinian state causing a running sore on the psyche of its peoples ; the dilemma of not having an honest broker to solve the Palestinian issue coupled with growing disenchantment with US power and ability to perform this role;


The presence of foreign troops, in ever larger numbers, both on land and sea- we now have US troops in bases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, UAE and Western navies patrolling the Gulf, in particular the Hormuz straits.

The passing of Arab leadership from Egypt, Syria, Libya , Iraq and Tunisia in the post-colonial period to the growing clout of non-Arab players –Iran, US, Turkey and Israel, – in the post-secular period;Iran is today the biggest beneficiary of US intervention in Iraq as well as the policies of Israel and earlier US Administrations. With its ascendency its neighbours, many with significant Shia minorities, are concerned, particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iran has now proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Palestine;

The importance of energy resources of West Asia as the driver of political and economic developments in a globalizing world: differences on their security and their ownership;

The coming into their own of the Gulf Sheikdoms on the back of high returns from energy , growing stash of foreign exchange reserves and low population bases leading leveraging these resources for internal and external investments;

Consolidation of authoritarian governments and suppression of dissent within the trappings of democracy; the inability and unwillingness to hand political power to Islamic- oriented parties; at the same time, an increasing recourse to confessional type of governance- Lebanon no longer the exception but the model;

The increasing desire on the part of major Arab countries-Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to seek nuclear and missile weapon capacity both to create equities against Israel but to offset other regional players like Iran , all within professed adherence to the NPT straitjacket;

The use of Terror as an instrument of political negotiation :Internationalization of the scourge of terrorism and terrorist groups after 9/11 ; by implication a change from opposition of such groups to their placation through co-option and clandestine support to achieve larger goals of religion or political dominance; popular frustration at the inability to change systems and promote participative governance;

The passing by of West Asia by the most significant development of the 21st century- the knowledge economy; West Asia is at most a recipient, but neither an innovator, nor a provider;

Moribund nature of Arab and Islamic institutions – Arab League and the OIC; while the former is regarded by Egypt as an instrument f its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia takes a similar view of the latter. Suffice it to say that in the face of the tremendous pressure that Islam and Arabs have been under since 9/11 the two organisations have failed to take up the challenge to project the universality of the Arab and the benign face of Islam.

From India’s point of view India’s Gulf Security rests on three pillars: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. These pillars have never looked as much in flux as during the last decade. The strategic importance of the region will continue to lie in its geography and it’s much demanded natural resource petroleum and natural gas even though according to one estimate global dependence on West Asian oil is declining – as of 2007 the region produced fewer than 30 per cent of the world’s crude oil compared to 40 per cent in 1974-75.

India and the Region

India has always believed that its relations with the West Asian region are sui generis and immune from the effects of relations of other regional and global powers. This accounts for our relative unconcern with the role of other major and regional powers in the region. We have tended to believe that our role does not compete with any of the great powers, and to a large extent it does not. In the last decade this sanguine belief has received a rude shock. Issues like terrorism, money-laundering and safety of oil lanes have imposed new imperatives. With our energy requirements expected to grow exponentially we will come into conflict with China and the US for the oil and gas resources of the region.

The developments which have defined the shape of the region in the recent past have necessarily centred on US policy particularly since 2000. It is the articulation of US policy towards Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia which has set the agenda for the region in the forthcoming decades. The period has equally seen US- India relations getting closer and diverse with the beginnings of a global strategic partnership. It has been both an asset and a liability.

How much was India influenced by the developments in the region and did it play any role in them? What has been India’s position on the seminal events of the decade? How is India perceived in the region as we start the second decade of the 21st century?

The answer to some of these questions will decide whether India’s West Asia policy has adapted with the times or suffered from cognitive disability. It is axiomatic that ties dating from antiquity of culture and religion, commerce and economics, politics and security, oil and gas and people-to-people bind us and make it incumbent to maintain forward-looking relations with the countries of the region.



While Mahatma Gandhi articulated it early on, since Independence India, as the leader of the nonaligned movement, has always been counted on for its steadfast support of the Palestinian cause. The political capital that Jawaharlal Nehru built for us in the region nurtures our relations to this day. People of the region rarely forget India’s support on a host of causes dear to the people of the region.


I will illustrate this with a personal reminiscence. Soon after the fall of Baghdad to US forces on 8 April 2003 I visited Iraq incognito to make an assessment on the the vexed question of sending Indian troops to Northern Iraq to help the US and coalition forces . We were under relentless pressure from George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. I vividly recall meeting Jalal Talabani (now President of Iraq) in his northern redoubt of Dhokan and Massoud Barzani (now President of of Iraqi Kurdistan) in his lair in salubrious Salahaddin to get their views. Their opening remarks to me were identical: both quoted verbatim Nehru on the Kurdish cause in his Glimpses of World History. A cause which subsequent Indian governments could do nothing about.It evocatively brought out how much we had achieved in the opening years of our nation and how much we had distanced ourselves from our core causes. The question which arises: have we built on this legacy, adapted it or squandered it?


With 9/11 we found that finally our continuous 20-year old refrain on cross-border terrorism finally found a receptive audience: but it became the global war on terror and by the end of the decade we found that the perpetrators- Pakistan- had assumed the mantle of victims. Nevertheless our view Pakistan is the epicentre of terrorism has become conventional wisdom today although, and once again, no one –not even the US –was interested to bell the cat. The country remains far too important to fighting the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, never mind the terror groups it continues to nurture to continue its proxy war with us.

9/11 provoked a re-think on the Islamic ideology in much of the West Asian region, above all, in Saudi Arabia which saw the terrorism sponsored through its inspiration come home to roost. We found an increased willingness for the first time on the part of the Gulf Sheikdoms to co-operate with us on counter-terrorism, restricting flow of funds to institutions with dual agendas and defence co-operation. The lead was given by UAE which fully assisted us in the deportation of Aftab Ansari, the perpetrator of the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata who like Afzal Guru and Murugan remains on death row.

In the last decade the character of our relations with the Arab world became genuinely two-way. Till then our relations were unidirectional: it was India which needed their political support on Kashmir and their oil and gas; and Indians who found jobs boosting the economy with large remittances and spiritual sustenance from the Two Holy Cities and other places of pilgrimage. As an economy moving at the much reviled ‘Hindu rate of growth’ there was precious little that India could fundamentally contribute to the region. The shoe was always on the other foot notwithstanding the salience of the political factor.

If one surveys our relations with the region they fall into two broad categories: With West Asia and North Africa, the thrust remains primarily political based on India’s status as a leader of the Nonaligned crowned by our consistent support to the Palestinians. It was only in the latter half of the decade that the economic content of our relations with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya became more significant ;

With the Gulf, the thrust is mainly economic engendered by our consistently high rates of growth since 1997. Talk of ‘strategic economic partnerships’ became current and an FTA between the GCC and India was gone through. The increasing realisation in these countries that their hydrocarbon resources needed to be up valued through long-term and stable returns made India a natural partner with its growing market, its thirst for hydrocarbons and its highly skilled professionals. The last decade has spurred inward investment and resource-based projects both in situ and in India. The lead given by the Gulf countries was taken up by Syria, Jordan, Morocco and others.


India’s economic success was the driver of this change. It was greatly assisted by two major developments:India’s growing relationship with the US made India attractive as a partner to others also, and secondly, the growing tension in relations between the West and West Asia exacerbated by the impasse in the Arab-Israeli situation had a positive influence on its relations with India. The need to tie up viable economic and investment projects catering to the Indian market or to Indians became the over-riding concern;


We saw a significant improvement in the ambient tenor of our relations with the countries of the region although Gulf Security became even more complicated. The spawning of terror outfits which received inspiration, sanctuary and funds from the region became a matter of major concern with the rise of terror attacks in India culminating with the Mumbai attack of 26/11.

For India, increased attention by the major countries in West Asia was an interesting development and took place at a time when the country was trying to cope with the growing terrorist threat and its inability to deal with it. India’s focus on developing beneficial economic and investment projects was only marginally successful and foundered on the perception of an absence of reciprocity in the relationship, particularly high-level visits. It is no surprise that the goodwill engendered by the factors noted above was almost dissipated given the repeated postponements of PM’s visits to region, especially to Saudi Arabia which finally took place in March 2010.

On the whole the tenor of our relations with each of the countries in the region was positive and there appeared less of an incentive on their part to flog the issues of Kashmir. To some extent this was helped by two factors: first, India decided to embark on a Dialogue relationship with the Arab League based in Cairo which helped to clear the air on India’s nuclear policy, relations with Israel and related issues; second, for the first time there was a move by some OIC countries to take a more positive view of India and the success of its secular model with the second largest Muslim community in the world. During his visit to India Saudi King Abdullah proposed that India should be made an Observer ruffling the placid waters of an organisation which has primarily moved to Saudi signals. Furthermore, OIC's own fixation on making itself more relevant against the Western onslaught following repeated Al Qaeda terror attacks put its Pakistan-inspired India baiting on the back burner. There was also a realisation at the popular level in the region that more than political creed, most needed was regimes which would promote greater prosperity and participatory governance.

Having considered the general trend of our relations with the region it is useful to focus on some of the critical points in the region in order to understand how our relations have developed at the micro level.

1.The AFPAK Region

Today the region which encompasses the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has become the fulcrum in terms of future security in the region and indeed internationally. Despite the expenditure of close to US $ 31 billion since 2001 and the presence of 130000-140000 foreign, mainly US troops there is no end in sight for the War In Afghanistan. Even with the scaling down of US war aims to a single point of defeating Al Qaeda so that it cannot attack the US homeland again, we see a losing scenario. While cooperation with Pakistan is crucial for this goal it has blind-sided the US on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror against India, its pandering to the Afghjan Taliban to hold a strategic asset in that country, facilitating the re-grouping of the Taliban and its pursuit of nuclear weaponisation.


India has worked within its policy of close friendship and assistance to the Afghan people. We are working on a project investment of USD 1.3 billion which will go to the Afghan people. We have persisted in this despite repeated ISI-sponsored attacks against our projects and Embasssy in Kabul. At the political level we have had to acquiesce with recent US-Pakistan-Afghanistan discussions on reconciliation with elements of the Taliban even though their coming back into government is anathema to us given our experience of 1996. From our point of view Taliban’s implacable hostility makes it impossible for us to do business with them.


More important, however, is the fact that its link with ISI makes it a part of the larger issue of India-Pakistan relations. We have now re-started the bilateral dialogue accepting that in the face of Pakistan’s terrorist agenda against India it is still better to keep talking to them. Despite US pressure Pakistan is not inclined to reduce its anti-Indian rhetoric or agenda.

2. Relations with Israel

The US played a pivotal role in ending Israel’s diplomatic isolation and has stood by Israel within the UN and outside it. Despite the fact of Israeli nuclear capability, the United States has kept mum on it and has kept the distance between India and Pakistan on the one hand and Israel on the other. Given its dependence on Washington for political support, technological assistance and economic largesse, Israel’s ability to pursue any major defence deals with the outside world, including India, depends squarely on Washington. As Israeli defence exports to India are being conducted under the watchful eyes of the United States, the ties between India and Israel will also be constrained by the extent to which the US wants this engagement to expand.

In this background, India found it relatively easier to manage its relations with Israel. The acquisition of defence equipment and defence material vital for the security of India’s one billion people set the bench mark for the relationship. The relationship has diversified into industry, manufacturing, agriculture, services and ICT. After almost two decades of diplomatic relations these relations have acquired a ‘special’ character although it has not stopped Israel from attempting to open relations with Pakistan. By the same token, India has ensured that its growing relations with Israel do not dilute its traditional support to Palestine. For the first time since the Middle East Peace Process commenced, India was invited to the US sponsored Anaheim Summit. Yet Israel’s penetration in India has not been without costs: first, continuing sentiment in the Arab world that India had abandoned its strong support of the Palestinians although the latter have themselves remained divided; second, Mumbai 26/11 demonstrated the danger of allowing new Jewish places of worship in India given that Shabad House was a target. The issue for India now remains the management of this mutually beneficial relationship.

3. Relations with Palestine

India’s support to Palestine has been stead-fast since our Independence. We were the first to recognise the Stae of Palestine declared by Yassir Arafat and have continually given the movement financial and poitical assistance. Our not having relations with Israel till 1992 was in their eyes a positive factor.It was only after the Us – sponsored Madrid Middle East Peace Process started in 1n 1991 that we decided to open relations with Israel. It was our contention that since the Arabs and hte Jews were talking to each other –also under the Oslo framework- there was no rreason for India to hold out. While we had stipulated that our relations will be calibrated with progress in the Arab-Israeli process, in fact the relations have moved regardless.

We were invited by the US to be part of the US-sponsored Peace Process at the Anaheim Conference in 2007 which failed to give the process a major impetus. On the other had the division in Palestine itself- between the Hamas led Gaza administration and the Mahmood Abbas led Palestine Authority in Ramallah has not been helpful. Gaza remains under Israeli siege and there is no headway to meeting te concerns of Hamas. India has excellent relations with the PA and only intermittent contact with Hamas in Gaza.

Given the current scenario it is difficult to visualise a break-through on the Arab-Israeli front: even the balanced policy which President Obama enunciated has not seen the light of day yet. Meanwhile Israeli settlement activity continues as also its hard policy against thePalestinians in Gaza.

4.Relations with Iran

Iran enjoys a rare political consensus in India and since the early 1990s every Indian Government has placed a high priority on strengthening its ties with Tehran. India is unlikely to share Israeli apprehensions over neither Iranian radicalism nor Israel of India’s concern over China. A number of factors such as India’s need to counter Pakistan’s influence in the Islamic world, the increasing geo-political importance of Central Asia, and the need to strengthen economic and commercial ties have led to a growing convergence in India-Iran interests in the post-cold war period.

The Iranian puzzle also brings in the American dimension that has both positive and negative implications after four sets of US/UN sanctions the last in May 2010. India and Iran have differences of perceptions on the issue of nuclear proliferation, gas pipelines and relations with Israel. India is keen that Iran follows its NPT obligations and opposes its nuclear ambitions. This is true of Russia, China, Europe and others also. At the same time we have no problem if Iran wants to assert itself in the region. Over the past five years it is Iran which has benefitted the most from the actions of extra-regional and regional powers. Their cooperation will be crucial in successfully tackling the problems of the region. During EAM Krishna’s visit to Tehran in May 2010 we discussed the developments in the AfPak region in which both have major interest. We also agreed that terror was the common challenge for both countries.

5.Relations with Turkey

India’s relations with Turkey have again been historic with the Mughals- Turko-Mongols - coming to India for conquest. During the Independence struggle Mahatma Gandhi launched a campaign to support the Caliphate in Istanbul which was under the threat of extinction under Mustafa Kamal Attaturk- the Khilafat Movement. Funds were collected for this purpose and sent to Istanbul; but they reached only when the Caliphate had been abolished. Ataturk, in his wisdom, used the funds for the construction of the first building of the Turkish Parliament.

After Independence with Turkey’s membership of NATO and CENTO it became close top Pakistan- which still remains if in no other way than sentiment. With Turkey’s aspiration for joining the European Union it has come closer to India in its views on terrorism and bilateralism in discussions with neighbours.

Turkey is today undergoing a transition from the secular ethos which was a hall mark of Kemalism to a more religiously oriented polity with the ascendance of the AKP- a moderate Islamic political party. In a way the wheel has come a full circle. India’s relations with Turkey remain good with a strong injection of the economic component. Turkey is today the transit for the BTC oil pipeline which delivers Azerbaijani crude on the Mediterranean sea. Indian companies have been involved in construction of the pipeline and Turkish companies have been looking at infra projects in India. Turkey has an important role in Afghanistan and provides a strong contingent as part of NATO. It has, apart from Pakistan, the oldest links with that country.

6.Relations with Saudi Arabia

The visit to India of Saudi King Abdullah in January 2006, fifty years after the last, signalled an important change in that country’s way of looking at India.It was noteworthy that out of his 4-country visit to India, Pakistan, Malaysia and China, he spent the longest in India and the shortest in Pakistan, its traditional friend. The visit sent a powerful message to the Arab World and led to visit of other Arab leaders from Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Egypt and others.

India, unlike China, was not able to effectively convert the opening provided by the Saudi visit in 2006 into major projects based on their energy and other mineral resources and on strong political support. There is no gainsaying the fact that support from Saudi Arabia remains crucial to our concerns on Pakistan’s machinations on Kashmir and in the OIC. Saudi support becomes even more important as and when the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan given the former’s support of the Taliban; and because it our largest supplier of crude from the Gulf. The visit this March of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gives us an opportunity to pick up these threads.


Under the wise King Abdullah Saudi Arabia has tried to maintain its leadership of the Arab world despite charges of being the inspiration, if not the inspirator, of Islamic-oriented terror which eventually hit the country internally also. Whether on the Palestine-Israeli issue, or the OIC or new openings the Saudi King has steadfastly moved ahead. Yet the intensification of Shia -Sunni conflict in Iraq, the presence of US troops and bases in the region and growing internal pressure on the US Administration to make an honourable exit from Afghanistan by doing a deal with the Afghan Taliban, Saudi Arabia’s capacity to determine the flow of events will only increase.

Looking Ahead

It will be seen that the last decade was eventful for West Asia and the Gulf insofar as much of what came out of there drove the reactions and policies of the rest of the world. The US invasion of Iraq disturbed the settled relationships of the earlier era and brought ethnic and religious conflict fore-ground bringing new players in the region other than the US- Turkey and Iran. Yet in the larger movement of technology, finance, innovation and enterprise the world passed it by. While the last decade brought a degree of respite from the highly political content of its relationship, India did not keep up the flow of interaction at high political levels. India’s increasing acceptance as an emerging global power was seen as compensation enough possibly to the detriment of our long term interests. India’s initiatives in the region were more bilateral aimed at enhancing our energy security and the security of our borders. International concerns besetting the region had a relatively lower salience in our policy and we remained content to watch developments from the sidelines.

India still has considerable political capital in West Asia built up over the Nehru years. The re-defining of this capital would be challenge of our West Asian policy in the years to come. In defining an Indian role in West Asia a number of considerations not directly in the realm of foreign policy come into play. The immutable considerations - all domestic - that have weighed heavily on our policy are the presence of the second largest Muslim community in the world; the dependence of our country on West Asia’s energy resources (60 per cent of our hydrocarbon needs); and the remittances from the Indian Diaspora in the Gulf. These will continue to determine the parameters of our policy in the future also. To this have to be added new determinants: India’s economic success which has created a growing market for energy and other natural resources from West Asia and a secure destination for its investment; India’s role in a rejuvenated group of developing countries alike IBSA and BRIC; India as a paradigm for democratic and cultural pluralism; and India’s firm opposition to terrorism in any form.

The future looks equally uncertain for the region in the background of projected withdrawal of US and Western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. The reconstruction of these devastated countries, and the region itself, will have both challenges and opportunities. India still has the best credentials in the region not having been identified with the negative developments of the last decade. Despite last year’s global financial crisis our economy looks poised to maintain its growth trajectory at a time when the Gulf and West Asia is still reeling. The moment is opportune for a new opening to the region. Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia sent a positive message in the region on which we need to capitalise.

Let me list some cardinal points which could determine India’s policy on West Asia

India will always support secular, democratic and plural societies in West Asia while finding a modus vivendi to do business with the parties in power in order to maintain its traditional friendship with the countries of the region. Its continuing interest in the Palestine issue must be translated into constructive engagement.

India’s primary goal has to be the safeguarding of the security in the Gulf, and to this end, enhancing its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran in a non-zero sum approach. It would mean developing cooperative maritime security and counter-terror arrangements with all the Gulf countries. It would also require close contact with these countries in combating terrorism and the linked nexus of arms smuggling, money laundering and drugs.

India’s relations with Israel have acquired a depth and diversity which cannot be rolled back. This has happened because Israel has been able to meet crucial Indian needs in the field of defence, agriculture and technology. The relation has to be seen in the context of the imperative of any Indian government to assure the security of one billion people. Our experience has shown, as in Kargil that despite usurious costs Israel has shown itself to be a reliable partner. India does not need to be defensive on this score especially since the importance of this relationship cuts across party lines. It is a situation which needs advocacy both within the country and the region.

India by the weight of its historical relations with and its current economic success has to carve a role leveraging its growing market and talent pool and the natural and financial resources of the region. While the Gulf countries, including Iraq and Iran are the most susceptible to this approach, it is equally possible with countries like Egypt and the other countries in the Maghreb like Libya and Morocco. Maximising economic and trade interaction will provide the ballast for closer and more balanced overall relations .As stated above the rise of India hinges on its clout in its proximate neighbourhood.

India’s goal will be to develop a two-dimensional relation with the countries of the region. Recent indications of West Asian countries ‘looking East’ towards India need to be capitalized upon. India’s future lies in its increasing recognition as a rising Asian economic power.

India’s model of a secular and democratic polity and its commitment to ensuring minority rights has a great attraction in today’s West Asia where religious and cultural differences amongst the diverse ethnicities have been exposed. In this context, India needs to develop a new channel of interaction through civil society organizations as a means to foster exchange of views on common social and economic problems. Some trends in this direction with Saudi Arabia and Iran are already noticeable. Development of cultural relations will have to be a major plank of India’s policy towards West Asia.

India will have to carefully calibrate its relations with the region in such a way that its policy parameters remain inviolable amidst pressures of its growing relations with the Great Powers particularly the US. A regular dialogue with the US and EU on developments in West Asia would provide a tool to understand the parameters on both sides.

A number of minorities in the region like the Kurds who have found a voice, in the churning that the region has undergone, hold India in high esteem. A subsidiary goal of Indian policy in the region has to be to encourage these communities within the framework of the constitutional structure in the countries in which they live.

Foreign policy decisions in the coming years will have consequences for peace and harmony in our multi-cultural, multi-religious country. We should do what we can to strength the forces of stability and moderation in the region.

Let me end on a lighter note by coming back to our cultural links- in particular cuisine. Much of the cuisine of the Arab world has its roots in the Ottoman cuisine considering they were part of that empire for 500 years. Different parts of the Arab world specialised in different components of Turkish cuisine – while the Lebanese excelled in salads, the Syrians became the masters of filo-pastry and desserts, and the Iraqis of grills, the couzi whole lamb pullav is universal to the Arab world. A lot of this cuisine also travelled to India with the Turko-Mongols. Next time you order a Shami Kebab remind yourself that it comes from Damascus, which in Arabic is called balad as-sham; but strangely they don’t make this dish in Syria. They instead make a dish called kebab hindi which is nothing like the shami kebab!

Thank You



*Amb. Rajendra Madhukar Abhyankar

Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar is currently Adviser The Asia Foundation, New Delhi and Chairman,Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research, Pune. A former diplomat, his last assignment was India’s Ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg. As Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi,( 2001-04) Ambassador Abhyankar’s responsibilities included supervising India’s relations with the the Middle-East [West Asia and the Gulf] and the Islamic world; the countries of South-East Asia including ASEAN, member-states of the Pacific Island Forum, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, DPR of Korea, Mongolia; and Central Asia and Turkey. He was closely involved with India’s policy on Iraq, a country with which he has a long association having been in post in Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war. He was also responsible for fashioning India’s policy on Palestine-Israel issue; and on developing India’s relations with Israel. He also formulated and supervised India’s policy in the field of counter-terrorism and led a number of bilateral groups with countries in the region.


He has held Ambassadorial posts in Cyprus (1987-90) Syria (1992-96), Turkey and Azerbaijan (1996-98). His tenure as Consul General in San Francisco (1998-2001), coming as it did, soon after US sanctions following India’s nuclear tests in 1998, required him to undertake special advocacy of India’s views and perspectives on disarmament and non-proliferation. The economic success of India and of Indians during the Internet boom in Silicon Valley added a new dimension to Ambassador Abhyankar’s knowledge, experience and contacts. He has an experience of over five years in handling India’s relations with Sri Lanka having also served in Colombo (1982-1984). His two tenures in Brussels and one in Rome have given him a unique insight into the workings of European institutions and policy.


Ambassador Abhyankar was the first Director, Centre for West Asian (Middle East) Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi (2005-2008). As Director, The Asia Foundation, New Delhi (2005-2009) he was instrumental in starting TAF’s India Program and setting up its Delhi office.


He is a frequent speaker on India, Middle-East and other international issues at universities, think-tanks and public affairs forums in India, US and abroad and contributes to Indian newspapers.


Apart from four Indian languages he speaks French, Italian, Arabic, Turkish and Greek.

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