India and the Gulf Are Getting Cozy—to Counter China
A new project aims to link New Delhi to the Middle East through roads, rails, and seaports.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: An ambitious connectivity project aims to better link India to the Middle East, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is detained months ahead of national elections, and communal violence flares in the Indian state of Manipur.
Linking India to the Middle East
Last weekend, national security advisors from India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss an ambitious connectivity project to link the Middle East to India through roads, rails, and seaports. The idea emerged during meetings of the I2U2 group—which also includes Israel—over the last year, Axios reported.
The proposed initiative signals that India and the United States are ready to take their joint efforts to counter China beyond the Indo-Pacific region and into the Middle East. It’s clear the Biden administration views the connectivity project as a way to balance Chinese power in the region. “Nobody said it out loud, but it was about China from day one,” a former senior Israeli official told Axios.
This is a bit surprising: The I2U2 group—a relatively new vehicle for U.S.-India cooperation in the Middle East—was not envisioned as a China-focused entity, given the close commercial cooperation that both the UAE and Israel enjoy with China.
It’s easy to see why India would want to participate in a new minilateral effort to push back against China’s growing Middle East footprint—driven by Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments and by a recent strategic agreement with Iran. (Beijing also recently mediated a reconciliation deal between Tehran and Riyadh.) The Middle East is an increasingly significant space for India, given its trade interests there and the several million Indians who work in the region and send remittances back home.
The connectivity project aims to leverage India’s capacity as an infrastructure provider. Its track record includes the construction of the world’s largest rail system in Asia and contributions to cross-border electricity-sharing arrangements. Through the new initiative Indian officials hope to develop a deeper infrastructure footprint in the Middle East to counter China’s BRI.
To be sure, the Middle East-India connectivity initiative is still purely aspirational, but its potential is vast: linking New Delhi with a region critical to its interests and in cooperation with some of its top partners. According to one assessment, in a best-case scenario India could eventually benefit from land and sea trade routes stretching from Israel and the UAE all the way to Greece’s Piraeus port and onward into Europe.
Saudi Arabia hasn’t formalized relations with Israel, which means the latter isn’t a formal part of the project, but its membership in I2U2 suggests it will have a role. On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited New Delhi. Although he departed early because of a crisis with Gaza, he likely planned to meet with Indian interlocutors about the connectivity project. In a statement released before the visit, Cohen said India can play a key role in strengthening regional stability in the Middle East.
Ultimately, the connectivity project shows just how much India benefits from the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era agreement that normalized relations between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors. The deal allowed for the establishment of the I2U2 group, and discussions there gave rise to the new initiative.
India now has opportunities to scale up influence, trade, and diplomacy beyond the Indo-Pacific region—all in a year while holding the G-20 presidency, enjoying rapid economic growth, and overtaking China as the world’s most populous country.
What We’re Following
Imran Khan arrested. On Tuesday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested before an appearance at the Islamabad High Court. Khan faces a multitude of corruption and terrorism-related charges, most of which he and his supporters say are fabricated. It’s unclear why Khan was finally arrested yesterday, but days earlier he posted a video alleging—not for the first time—that a senior military intelligence officer was behind a November assassination attempt against Khan. (The military denies these allegations.)
Pakistani officials say Khan was arrested on corruption charges, but that seems to be pretext to detain the former leader. The civilian and military leadership aim to ensure that he can’t return to power in national elections to be held no later than October; his arrest takes him out of the running, as he can’t stage campaign rallies from a jail cell.
In the wake of Khan’s arrest, protests erupted across Pakistan. Most were peaceful, but some protesters tried to storm or set fire to military facilities. Paramilitary forces conducted the arrest, which suggests the Pakistani Army may have orchestrated it. Some observers noted that in some areas, security forces didn’t make much effort to stop protesters approaching military facilities, and reports have emerged that the state wants to encourage unrest—giving it pretext to keep Khan in detention and even delay elections.
On Wednesday, Khan made a brief court appearance, where he was indicted on charges related to how he handled gifts during his time as prime minister. The court ordered him to be held in police custody for eight days. The secretary-general of Khan’s party, Asad Umar, was also arrested on Wednesday. Protests continued in major cities, and the internet was shut down across much of the country.
Caretaker governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, where Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party enjoys the most support, requested assistance from the military to manage public order. The assemblies of both provinces were dissolved earlier this year in a PTI push for early elections.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen next, but Pakistan could build a case to permanently disqualify Khan from public office, buoyed by the corruption indictment. Jail time would stop him from campaigning but not from contesting elections, but disqualification would rule out both options. With the state seemingly set on detaining top PTI leadership, plans may be in the works to eventually ban the party from politics.
Deadly violence in Manipur. The state of Manipur in northeastern India was calm on Wednesday after several days of ethnic violence that killed at least 60 people and displaced 35,000 more. Unrest began last week, after members of ethnic Kuki and Naga tribes staged protests against a court recommendation to consider awarding special social benefits to the ethnic Meitei, a non-tribal group that makes up half the state’s population. Clashes ensued between the Meitei and the tribal communities.
The Kuki and the Naga are listed under India’s Scheduled Tribes category, which allows them to draw on special economic and social benefits. But the more marginalized tribes fear there will be fewer resources available for them if the Meitei receive access to those special benefits. The Meitei have sought to receive these special benefits for years, unsuccessfully, and have raised concerns that refugees arriving from neighboring Myanmar could soon outnumber them, leading to their marginalization.
The violence in Manipur reflects how India’s communal fault lines extend far beyond religious divisions. India is known for its ethnic diversity and the long-standing tolerance that has allowed so many different groups to coexist. But tensions often emerge—and especially in Manipur and other areas home to many poor and marginalized communities.
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Under the Radar
Last Saturday, a mob in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lynched a cleric, Nigar Alam, who was accused of blasphemy. Alam was speaking at a public meeting organized by Khan’s PTI and enraged the crowd when he reportedly said he respected a local political figure like he respects the Prophet Muhammad. Police locked Alam inside a store to protect him from the mob, but people managed to drag him outside, where he was beaten to death.
Unsurprisingly, given the sensitivity of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, no PTI leader has spoken publicly about the tragedy. Blasphemy allegations are frequent in the country. A few weeks ago, a Chinese citizen working on a dam project was accused of blasphemy and briefly arrested before being released. Religious minorities and other marginalized communities are especially vulnerable to such allegations.
What makes Alam’s case unusual is that he was a religious figure—a reminder that no one is immune from blasphemy allegations that can quickly become death sentences in Pakistan.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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