From Bombay to Jerusalem

With the crisis in Iraq worsening, how involved should India get in the Middle East? 

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The first high-profile national security challenge facing India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come in an unexpected spot: Iraq. Over 100 Indians — including 46 nurses — were caught stranded in Iraq’s conflict zone, while some 40 Indian construction workers were kidnapped in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The sudden advance in Iraq of the jihadist militant group the Islamic State has had other important repercussions for India, which imports over a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from Iraq. The resulting rise in oil prices has led to India’s currency, the rupee, dropping to its lowest value against the dollar in over a month, at a delicate juncture for its economy. 

The crisis in Iraq lies at the intersection of India’s broader interests in the Middle East — or, to use New Delhi’s preferred parlance, West Asia. While Indian political leaders and diplomats often emphasize their cultural affinity to the region — Persian was the court language of the Mughal Empire; trade links go back centuries — India’s interests in the Middle East today encompass the safety and security of its large diaspora, its dependence on energy imports, and its complex but finely balanced defense and intelligence ties with several regional powers. While these are all consequences of India’s growing international profile, they also expose the country’s vulnerabilities to energy supplies, remittances, and international terrorist activity. Over the course of his tenure, Modi will have to weigh the merits of adopting a more high-profile role in order to proactively shape the Middle East’s future. But a more diplomatically or militarily active India would risk abandoning what has so far been a fruitful, if low-key, approach to the Middle East, one that has enabled New Delhi to — perhaps uniquely — cooperate with Tehran, Riyadh, and Jerusalem.

Grand strategic considerations aside, India’s top priority in the Middle East is rather basic: oil and gas. Among major economies, India’s is the second-most dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, after Japan’s. The oil shock from the first Gulf War (1990-1991) triggered a balance-of-payments crisis in India, forcing the country to embark upon the initial liberalization of its economy in 1991. Despite subsequently diversifying to newer sources such as Angola, Nigeria, and Venezuela, India’s growing energy needs keeps it dependent upon crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Taken together, the Middle East accounted for about 64 percent of India’s oil imports in 2012. Meanwhile, Qatar alone provided a staggering 85 percent of India’s liquefied natural gas imports as recently as 2010, the last year reliable figures are available, although India has since made attempts to diversify.  

While energy has flowed east across the Arabian Sea to India, labor has moved the opposite way. Roughly 5 million of India’s 1.27 billion citizens work in the Gulf, many as migrant workers. And parts of India rely on migrant labor to sustain the local economy — in the southwestern state of Kerala, for example, remittances account for an estimated 25 percent of the state’s revenues. While the deaths of more than 500 Indian workers laboring at World Cup venues in Qatar over the past few years received only a mild official response, the safety and security of Indian nationals is often a national priority: In late June, New Delhi placed two Indian navy warships and the state carrier Air India on standby for the potential evacuation of Indian citizens in Iraq. In 1990, India employed commercial airliners to evacuate over 100,000 Indian citizens from Kuwait and Iraq in the runup to the first Gulf War.

Energy and population security — coupled with counterterrorism considerations and geographical proximity — have required India to establish a complex web of security partnerships across the Middle East. While India only established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, the two countries quickly developed a close defense partnership. India is now the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment — an estimated $1-$1.5 billion for 2014 — and Israel has benefited from India’s sophisticated and cost-effective satellite launch capabilities. The two countries also have shared interests in combatting terrorism, which deepened after the 2008 attack on Mumbai, in which the Pakistani perpetrators deliberately targeted Jews, as well as a 2012 attack on the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi. 

India has carefully balanced its Israeli security interests with its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran and India, for example, have cooperated in developing port and other logistical infrastructure to provide access to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan. Since the 1980s, both Tehran and New Delhi have maintained close ties to ethnic Tajik militias and other members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, in Afghanistan. Although relations with Riyadh are more complicated — India has long faulted Saudi Arabia for financing Islamist militancy in South Asia — counterterrorism cooperation has recently improved, resulting, for example, in Riyadh’s assistance in the 2012 capture of notorious Indian terrorist Abu Jundal.

India’s tricky Middle East balancing act has been predicated on a policy of nonintervention. But New Delhi came close to abandoning that principle in the spring of 2003, when India’s then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his cabinet considered sending an infantry division to Iraq in support of the U.S.-led stabilization operations. As described in Indian scholar Rudra Chaudhuri’s 2013 book Forged in Crisis, the plans, which the Indian Army supported, would have involved between 15,000 and 20,000 Indian troops deployed in either the Kurdish-dominated areas around Kirkuk and Mosul, or in the southern province of Basra. Indian forces would have constituted the third-largest military contingent in Iraq, after the United States and Britain. So close were these plans to materializing, according to Chaudhuri, that some Pentagon planning documents even designated an Indian Area of Responsibility in the north of the country.

Despite India’s deepening interests in the Middle East, an intervention of the kind contemplated in 2003 is out of the question today. But as the Middle East falls further into turmoil, India does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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