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India Has Become a Middle Eastern Power

It’s time to take New Delhi’s projection of power in the region seriously.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Feb. 20, 2019. Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

A decade ago, I went to India on a three-week speaking tour that took me to New Delhi, Lucknow, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, and Hyderabad. The idea behind the trip, which the U.S. State Department sponsored, was to foster an exchange of ideas about the Middle East with officials in the Indian government, academics, students, and journalists. From the perspective of the diplomats who invited me, it was a great opportunity for Indians to understand a nonofficial U.S. perspective on a part of the world that was likely to loom large for New Delhi in the future. I had a wonderful trip, but I came back skeptical about a future Indian role in the Middle East.

A decade ago, I went to India on a three-week speaking tour that took me to New Delhi, Lucknow, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, and Hyderabad. The idea behind the trip, which the U.S. State Department sponsored, was to foster an exchange of ideas about the Middle East with officials in the Indian government, academics, students, and journalists. From the perspective of the diplomats who invited me, it was a great opportunity for Indians to understand a nonofficial U.S. perspective on a part of the world that was likely to loom large for New Delhi in the future. I had a wonderful trip, but I came back skeptical about a future Indian role in the Middle East.

India and Middle Eastern countries were already intertwined in various ways, of course. There were budding military and technology ties between India and Israel. One could not travel in the Persian Gulf region without noticing that guest workers from the Indian state of Kerala provided the labor that made many of the Gulf countries run. India also imported a lot of oil from the Middle East. Yet after my conversations with officials, diplomats, generals, and analysts, it struck me that Indians did not want to play a larger role in Middle East.

In the 10 years since my trip, however, things have changed. While U.S. officials and analysts are obsessed with every diplomatic move Beijing makes and eye Chinese investment in the Middle East with suspicion, Washington is overlooking one of the most interesting geopolitical developments in the region in years: the emergence of India as a major player in the Middle East.

India-Israel ties are perhaps the most well-developed of New Delhi’s relations in the region. Although India recognized Israel in 1950, the two countries did not establish normal diplomatic ties until 1992. Since that time, but especially in recent years, they have deepened their ties. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first Indian leader to visit Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to India the following year.

Beyond the pomp of these visits, India-Israel ties have rapidly developed in a variety of fields, notably high tech and defense. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel was among India’s top three arms suppliers in 2021, and recent Indian news reports indicate that the two countries are exploring the coproduction of weapons systems. Also in the past, India’s business community shied away from investing in Israel, given the country’s small market and controversial politics (to many in India), but that may be changing. In 2022, the Adani Group and an Israeli partner won a tender for Haifa Port for $1.2 billion. There are also ongoing negotiations for an India-Israel Free Trade Agreement. Of course, the India-Israel relationship is complicated. India remains steadfast in its support for the Palestinians; has friendly ties with Iran, from which New Delhi has purchased significant amounts of oil; and Indian elites tend to see Israel through the prism of their country’s own colonial experience.

When it comes to the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aggressively seeking ways to expand relations with India. It is a significant shift because both countries, but particularly the latter, have long aligned with Pakistan. The pivot to India stems in part from a common interest in containing Islamist extremism, but much of the pull is economic. The Emiratis and Saudis see opportunities in a country of 1.4 billion people that is less than a four-hour flight away. So far, the results are positive. In the first 11 months of the UAE-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which entered into force in May 2022, non-oil trade between the two countries reached $45 billion, which was an almost 7 percent increase above the previous year. The Indians and Emiratis have also developed their ties through what in Washington is called I2U2—a grouping of Israel, India, the UAE, and the United States—which seeks to leverage the combined technological know-how and private capital to address alternative energy, agriculture, trade, infrastructure development, and more.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is India’s second-largest supplier of oil and gas, wants to augment the energy relationship further by adding renewables into the mix. In April, the Indian new site Siasat.com reported that Riyadh and New Delhi were discussing a plan to link India’s energy grid to the kingdom (and the UAE) via undersea cables. It is unclear whether such an ambitious project will ever come to fruition, but those talks indicate that the Indian and Saudi governments are looking for ways to add to the existing $43 billion in trade between the two countries.

Finally, there is Egypt, where Modi recently concluded a two-day visit. By all measures, it was an episode in the ongoing Egyptian-Indian love fest, coming about six months after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the guest of honor at India’s 74th Republic Day celebration—his third visit to New Delhi since assuming power. Unlike with Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, trade between India and Egypt is relatively modest, worth about $6 billion. The Egyptian authorities, whose economic mismanagement has created a debt crisis and 30 percent inflation, are seeking help from India. In mid-June, Reuters reported that New Delhi was considering extending a line of credit to Egypt, which would repay its debt in the form of fertilizer and natural gas. There is also talk of trade in rupees because the Egyptians are short of dollars. Yet Egypt’s multiple economic difficulties are not the only issues driving the burgeoning relationship. Like the Chinese, the Indians regard Egypt as a gateway through which to send their goods to Africa and Europe.

It is tempting for U.S. policymakers and analysts to view India’s growing role in the region through the prism of great-power competition with China. At a level of abstraction, playing the “India card” seems like a wise move in the new great game. The Indian and Chinese governments have a history of enmity, border disputes, and even armed conflict. An additional counterweight to Beijing in the Middle East would be helpful as the Biden administration shifts from de-emphasizing the region to regarding it as an area of opportunity to contain China. And Modi’s visit to Washington in late June was also a love fest, including a state dinner and address to a joint session of Congress.

For all the positive vibes of U.S.-India relations, it seems unlikely that New Delhi wants to be the strategic partner that Washington imagines. The kind of relationship some in Washington seem to have in mind is not a natural place for India, which has long guarded against entangling itself with the United States, most recently on Russia’s war in Ukraine. New Delhi has condemned the Russian invasion but has not voted to condemn Moscow in the United Nations and is a prodigious procurer of Russian arms and oil. And when it comes to the Middle East, India diverges sharply from the United States (and Israel) on Iran. Washington should temper its expectations about what the expansion of India’s economic and security ties to the Middle East means. It is unlikely that India will line up with the United States, but it is also unlikely that New Delhi will undercut Washington as both Beijing and Moscow have done.

The evolution of India’s place in the Middle East reflects the changing international order and the willingness—perhaps even eagerness—of countries in the region to benefit from the new multipolarity. There is little that the United States can do about this development and may even in a paradoxical way benefit from it. If the United States’ Middle Eastern partners are looking for an alternative to Washington, it is better that New Delhi is among the choices. The United States may no longer be the undisputed big dog in the region, but as long as India expands its presence in the Middle East, neither Russia nor China can assume that role.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: Americas Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, will be published in June 2024. Twitter: @stevenacook

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