Analysis

New India Finds an Old Role in a Changing Middle East

This time, India is not supporting another country’s empire but advancing its own interests.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.
Soldiers of the British Indian Army’s Camel Corps stand at attention at an unknown location during World War I.
Soldiers of the British Indian Army’s Camel Corps stand at attention at an unknown location during World War I. Alice Schalek/Three Lions/Getty Images

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When the United States, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates set up a new joint working group to coordinate strategy earlier this month, the four-country combination inevitably drew comparisons with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Indo-Pacific Quad that joins the United States and India with Australia and Japan.

It will surely be a while before the new Middle East quad—so far, it’s only a working group among foreign ministers—reaches the intensity and purposefulness of its eastern counterpart that already had two leaders’ summits this year. But the Indo-Pacific Quad also began as a modest exercise among senior officials back in 2007. Summing up the new quad’s objective, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed to the four countries’ many overlapping interests in “energy, climate, trade, [and] regional security.” The new format would leverage “complementary capabilities in very many areas” to get new things done in the Middle East, he said.

What makes this group remarkable, of course, is the inclusion of India. In his remarks at the first meeting, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told his interlocutors that his country’s ties with the three nations “are among the closest relationships we have, if not the closest.” That India considers the United States, Israel, and the UAE among its closest strategic partners, is willing to acknowledge that publicly, and is ready to work with them in the region is a reflection of how fundamentally India’s foreign policy in the Middle East has shifted. Keeping its distance from the United States, Israel, and the Persian Gulf states on regional issues has long been India’s default mode in the Middle East.

When the United States, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates set up a new joint working group to coordinate strategy earlier this month, the four-country combination inevitably drew comparisons with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Indo-Pacific Quad that joins the United States and India with Australia and Japan.

It will surely be a while before the new Middle East quad—so far, it’s only a working group among foreign ministers—reaches the intensity and purposefulness of its eastern counterpart that already had two leaders’ summits this year. But the Indo-Pacific Quad also began as a modest exercise among senior officials back in 2007. Summing up the new quad’s objective, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed to the four countries’ many overlapping interests in “energy, climate, trade, [and] regional security.” The new format would leverage “complementary capabilities in very many areas” to get new things done in the Middle East, he said.

What makes this group remarkable, of course, is the inclusion of India. In his remarks at the first meeting, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told his interlocutors that his country’s ties with the three nations “are among the closest relationships we have, if not the closest.” That India considers the United States, Israel, and the UAE among its closest strategic partners, is willing to acknowledge that publicly, and is ready to work with them in the region is a reflection of how fundamentally India’s foreign policy in the Middle East has shifted. Keeping its distance from the United States, Israel, and the Persian Gulf states on regional issues has long been India’s default mode in the Middle East.

The logic of India’s geography is coming back into view: Even a cursory look at a map suggests the subcontinent’s natural salience for both East Asia and the Middle East.

It is equally interesting that Washington, Tel Aviv, and Abu Dhabi are looking to build a partnership with New Delhi, which has long been marginal to the Middle East’s evolution. A rising India with its widening foreign-policy footprint is now a welcome partner for the United States and its regional allies.

As with the Indo-Pacific Quad, the new Middle East grouping marks the growing convergence between Indian and U.S. interests in Asia. New Delhi, which in the past stood in opposition to U.S. policies in East Asia and the Middle East, is now ready to work with Washington to stabilize both regions. If the need to balance China has emerged as the glue holding the Quad together in East Asia, the situation is far more fluid and complex in the Middle East.

As it reconfigures its alliances and reorders its global priorities, the United States is not looking for free riders to take under its security umbrella. Instead, it wants willing and capable partners, among which India is emerging at the top of the list.

The rapid transformation of India’s relations with Israel and the UAE—two major U.S. allies in the region—under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided a new basis for engagement among the four nations. After Washington facilitated the 2020 Abraham Accords—the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—Washington drew India into what some are already calling the Indo-Abrahamic Accords.

For the United States, adding “Indo” to its network of Asian allies and partners is a new and unexpected approach to strengthen the U.S. position in the region. New Delhi, with its strong traditions of anti-Americanism and non-aligned politics, would have recoiled at any suggestion of cooperation in the past but now appears an enthusiastic partner.

But a long-term perspective suggests something else: The logic of India’s geography is coming back into view. Even a cursory look at a map suggests the subcontinent’s natural salience for both East Asia and the Middle East. As a major power located at the fulcrum of Asia in the heart of the Indian Ocean, India is well placed to shape geopolitical outcomes in both regions.

What’s more, by returning to East Asia and the Middle East, India is reclaiming its historic role in both regions. Until the middle of the 20th century, colonial India played a key role in the British domination of the Indian Ocean and its adjacent areas. It provided the base from which Britain could control and defend its empire, promote the region’s globalization, and sustain a regional security order. India provided the military resources— manpower, supplies, and money—for Britain to stabilize large parts of Asia, from putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China to defeating Japan to fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

In a reminder of that role, Jaishankar began his visit to Israel by laying a wreath at the graves of Indian soldiers who gave their lives during World War I. About 900 Indian soldiers are buried in Jerusalem; Haifa, Israel; and elsewhere in the region. The British Indian Army’s role in the Middle East, including in the two World Wars, was an expansive one. But until Modi took office, Indian governments were reluctant to acknowledge the British Indian Army’s international role, which at its height consisted of some 2.5 million Indian soldiers. That has changed: Today, New Delhi actively commemorates India’s contribution to international peace and security during World War I and II.

The deep commercial and military connections between India and the Middle East from the 17th to the 20th century are dismissed by many observers in India and abroad as tainted by colonial context. Some historians of the colonial era, however, emphasize the centrality of India in the British Empire and argue the horizontal links across the empire were as important as the vertical links between London and the subcontinent.

What we are witnessing today is a reestablishment of those connections between India and today’s dominant Western power—the United States—from the Suez Canal to the South China Sea. But unlike during the colonial age, India is coming back to the region as an independent actor with political agency of its own. India’s cooperation with the United States, unlike its role under the British, is negotiated by New Delhi. India is not helping uphold another country’s empire but advancing its own interests in the region.

The new Middle East quad highlights New Delhi’s successful shedding of past obsessions that constrained its engagement with the region.

India’s post-independence foreign policy in the Middle East took place in a corset, driven by the need and urge to distance itself from the British Raj’s legacy. India deliberately renounced a security role in the region and abandoned its central role in the Indian Ocean’s economic globalization—two key roles it played in the colonial era.

Independent India pitted itself against postwar alliances like the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), which Washington intended to contain the Soviet Union on its southern flank and fill the vacuum created when India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, withdrew India from the region’s security politics. Pakistan, in contrast, was a founding member of CENTO along with Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Britain. But Pakistan could hardly fill the shoes of an undivided, colonial-era India that loomed so large in the Middle East. In any event, CENTO did not last long.

India had a brief moment to reconsider its reluctance to be a regional security provider in 1968, when Britain announced it would withdraw from most of its colonial possessions east of Suez. New Delhi, however, struggled to reconcile its ideology of nonalignment with its security interests in the Indian Ocean. Its attempt to bridge the two was to campaign against a foreign military presence in the region.

Some of the Gulf states, all of which had depended on Britain for their security, turned to India for defense cooperation in the wake of their independence. India signed a minor protocol on military exchanges with Oman in 1972 but was otherwise not ready to step into the breach. Instead, Nehru and his successors were in thrall to the era’s larger ideological themes, including third world radicalism, anti-colonialism, anti-Zionism, the embrace of the Palestinian cause, and Arab nationalism. Contributing to a regional security order did not fit into any of those templates.

As India’s new leaders emphasized autarky and the country’s economy turned inward, New Delhi steadily severed its old economic links with the Middle East. Although rising oil imports and the export of Indian labor to the Gulf promoted the beginnings of a deeper integration between India and the Gulf, New Delhi’s approach remained mercantilist rather than strategic.

Some of that began to change after the Cold War, when India established diplomatic relations with Israel—though old anti-Zionist, pro-Arab hesitations remained. As some Israeli diplomats put it, New Delhi treats Israel like a mistress: engaging in private but reluctant to be seen together in public.

One of Modi’s first acts was to formally embrace Israel as an important partner and flaunt the relationship. Indian diplomacy in the past constantly cited Arab concerns, which limited ties with Israel. Modi discovered he could pursue ties with both without inhibition.

Another notable shift is Modi’s surprising enthusiasm for engaging with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. New Delhi had long viewed the Gulf states as being too close to Pakistan and the United States. Under Modi, New Delhi figured out there was much it could do to build commercial, political, and security partnerships—and discovered the Gulf states were more practical than ideological.

The Middle East Quad will likely progress faster than the Indo-Pacific Quad after its launch in 2007, when it remained nearly dead before its revival more than a decade later.

The new Middle East quad is in many ways a culmination of India’s greater foreign-policy pragmatism. It also highlights New Delhi’s successful shedding of past ideological obsessions that constrained its engagement with the region. It would not have been possible without the United States’ promotion of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations among Israel, the UAE, and other Arab states.

The initial focus of the Middle East Quad will be on economic issues rather than strategic ones. There is much synergy among the Indian market, Emirati capital, Israeli technology, and U.S. geoeconomic clout in the region. To that end, India has recently revived its free trade negotiations with both the UAE and Israel. And the United States has become India’s most important economic partner.

Jaishankar and his counterparts have promised to quickly develop a concrete and practical agenda for the new grouping. The level of political comfort among the four governments—and the comparable pragmatism in New Delhi, Abu Dhabi, and Tel Aviv—means the Middle East Quad will likely progress faster than the Indo-Pacific Quad after its launch in 2007, when it remained nearly dead before its revival more than a decade later.

Whereas the Indo-Pacific Quad began with a security focus and has since moved to a broader agenda, the Middle East Quad has prioritized nonmilitary themes. That does not, however, take away from India’s expanding bilateral defense cooperation with the United States, Israel, and the UAE.

Over the longer term though, this could lead to greater strategic coordination between the four partners in the region. At the same time, the Middle East Quad does not prevent any of its members from cooperating with others in the region. New constellations will surely emerge as traditional rivals in the Middle East reengage with one another amid the region’s great geopolitical churn.

The Middle East Quad can be seen as part of the effort to rearrange the regional order and balance of power, in which New Delhi returns to a more prominent role—in tune with its geographic location, economic salience, and political interests.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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