Given its growing security interests in the region, India has moved to craft stronger military ties and security cooperation with the Gulf countries and Israel in particular. In recent years, both sides have attempted to transcend these constraints. When Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia faced widespread international opprobrium due to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Modi literally embraced the embattled leader. Any votes or statements on the Israel-Palestine struggle and any commentary on the human rights records of countries in the region can quickly place India in the middle of the messy regional rivalries it hopes to avoid.
Our analysis shows the of Middle Eastern officials visiting India for state visits has likewise increased, as have cabinet-level trips overall. And the proposed Sage pipeline it hopes to develop tly with Oman and Iran will enable India to import natural gas more cheaply and efficiently, thereby heightening its energy security.
It secured a waiver from the Obama administration to continue energy trade with Iran. The ties between the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East are long-standing. In contrast, his predecessor Manmohan Singh conducted only 4 state visits Iran, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia during his 10 years in office.
The investment flows are not in one direction either. Furthermore, India has worked to develop t partnerships with energy companies in the Middle East to explore, refine, and store energy. Asian economies like India are quickly replacing Western economies as the primary markets for Mideast energy.
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To rectify these challenges, India has looked to Iran, in particular, to develop a strategic foothold in the Middle East. Several of its partners are active rivals of one another and are entangled in complicated partnerships with other global players namely the United States, Russia, and China.
India is positioning itself as a partner for the UAE in its attempts to wean the economy off its reliance on oil. India is also trying to gain rights from Israel to explore a natural gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is why, after making a historic first state visit to Israel inModi made sure to visit to Palestine in Moreover, India often has to comment and vote in international fora on human rights, peace, and security issues in the region, which can be a lose-lose proposition when one is trying to please competing friends.
Similarly, Middle Eastern countries, worried about U. As a result, today India engages more countries in the Middle East on a wider range of topics and at a more substantive level than it ever has in the past. India is also one of the top suppliers of petroleum to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Under Modi, India is not only increasing the pace of diplomatic engagement with the Middle East, with a greater frequency of bilateral visits, but also sending more senior officials to the region.
This could involve commenting on sensitive border disputes, or taking sides in a future crisis or in votes in multilateral forums like the United Nations. We have entered a new stage in India-Middle East relations, one that will come with its own set of challenges and uncertainties for India, the Middle East, and the rest of the international community.
While Saudi Arabia has been its most consistent source of oil over time, India is diversifying its suppliers from the region and beyond Russia and Mexico. The flurry of diplomatic visits back-and-forth by Indian and Middle Eastern officials reveals just how much diplomatic effort has been expended to solidify these relations. India sees maritime command over this geography as critical to its objective of safeguarding itself and its neighborhood and securing the energy and trade flows that fuel its economy.
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The most acute security interest for India is the safety of its diaspora community in a region rife with conflict. India is also heavily reliant on natural gas from the Middle East. The Indian strategic and military communities increasingly view the Indian Ocean region as a core theater. Chief among these and a central pillar of the relationship has been arms sales. And given the problems the China-Pakistan partnership has already created for India, policymakers in New Delhi are loath to see China establish new footholds in the Indian Ocean that would leave it surrounded by more Chinese partners.
International crises have forced India to evacuate citizens from the Middle East on multiple occasions : from Kuwait inLebanon inLibya inand Yemen in These difficult and expensive experiences crystallized how important it is for India to build stronger political and military partnerships with countries in the region so that it can quickly and smoothly extract its citizens during emergencies. Today, the relationship is durable across several areas — from robust defense sales to cooperation in areas such as agriculture, water, innovation and technology, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, and more.
India maneuvered to maintain oil imports from Iran and strengthen its diplomatic engagement with the country in spite of international sanctions on Iran.
Second, as India has raised its global ambitions, policymakers and security officials in New Delhi have come to see the Indian Ocean region as a critical sphere of influence, one where China has increasingly encroached. The port, which became operational ingives China a strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea, near the Gulf of Oman, and then the Persian Gulf. Cultural and commercial flows between the two regions date back to the Silk Road and maritime trade between ancient civilizations; they reached another apex when the British Raj nearly unified control over the Indian Ocean and the vast landmass of Asia above it.
As a result, their defense trade has quickened. Today, India has the second-largest refining capacity in Asia after China and the fourth-largest in the world. Modi has consistently expressed his aim to elevate ties with the Middle East, and his government has literally walked flown the talk. India doubled its exports of refined oil between and to become the sixth-largest exporter of refined petroleum in the world, and the third-largest in Asia. India views the Middle East as a key market for its growing refinery industry and is increasingly encouraging countries in the Middle East to invest in the sector.
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As they do so, they are also demanding a greater say and flexing their newfound political muscle. In addition, India has developed domestic oil storage facilities in partnership with countries such as the UAE to fortify its emergency oil reserve. Moreover, some friction has surrounded energy trade as well. There has also been cooperation to tly develop defense technology. While energy trade has made the Middle East into a key regional trade partner for India, several attempts have been made to grow and diversify commercial ties with the region.
Here Modi is looking to the oil-rich Gulf economies, encouraging them to see India not just as an energy market, but also as an investment destination and economic partner. Though India has generally attempted to steer clear of direct involvement in the security crises of the Middle East, it has played a role in multilateral efforts to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflict. Modi has challenged his Gulf counterparts to change that, and the initial response has been enthusiastic.
In anticipation of its ballooning energy needs and aware of its dependency on foreign oil, India has made proactive investments to enhance its domestic energy sector. InIndia ed its first strategic partnership in the region with Iran. Engagement has blossomed across the board: in economic and energy connections, diplomatic relations, security partnerships, and people-to-people and cultural ties.
India has sought to secure these partnerships despite facing international pushback at times. In addition, Indian companies have in multiple cases sought the right to explore Middle Eastern energy sources directly. The economic codependency between India and the Middle East is here to stay. As a result, India has moved deliberately to ramp up its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. InIndia and the UAE began the Desert Eagle exercise between their air forces; inthey conducted their first bilateral navel exercise Gulf Star.
Given that India is a top contributor to UN peace operations, its troops have found themselves in the region on multiple occasions. These factors have led India to closely monitor developments in the region, build stronger security partnerships with Middle Eastern nations, and bolster its military capabilities and maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. It followed suit with Oman in and Saudi Arabia in When Modi entered office inhe had not said much about the Middle East and there was little indication that the region would be a high priority.
Interestingly, some of this gold is initially smuggled into India from the Middle East. This bold t venture is emblematic of how India seeks to leverage Gulf investment to spur economic growth while allowing Gulf countries to diversify their energy economies. As India has emerged as a major economic force and global player, Indian policymakers have expanded their horizons, seeing the Middle East — which they conceptualize as West Asia — in strategic terms, perhaps for the first time. Given the scale of the energy trade, oil prices will continue to have a ificant impact on the tenor and power dynamics of these relationships.
The Indian government quickly added the UAE to its short list of potential strategic partners based on an assessment that Abu Dhabi was both willing and able to substantively assist India with its economic transformation.
India has also stuck with Iran over the past 10 years despite ificant diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community and the United States to contain its nuclear program. That said, energy trade still remains the anchor of India—Middle East economic relations. Iran is a prime example. The continuation of U. India has watched warily as China has increased its presence in the region and is now trying to catch up.
The only other countries already on that list were the United States and Japan. India did not develop this capacity to merely satisfy domestic demand but to become a major exporter of refined oil. These visits have led to a long list of bilateral agreements across a broad spectrum of issues ranging from energy and investment ties, military exchanges and counterterrorism cooperation, innovation and technology partnerships, education and skill development, to tourism and cultural exchange.
The energy relationship between India and the Middle East is growing and becoming increasingly multifaceted. And if India is inclined to take on a more prominent role, it may find it difficult to be a truly neutral player.
The Middle East is a critical source of global energy and the western bookend to the Indian Ocean region, which India considers its sphere of influence. Finally, Modi has pursued closer ties with Israel, a fellow democracy he hopes can aid India through innovation and technology. There are three primary drivers.
In the past dozen years, India has tried to diversify its military engagement in the region. The escalation of U. After the Trump administration reinstated sanctions against Iran, India initially obtained a waiver; however, once that waiver lapsed in MayIndia was forced to reduce its imports of Iranian crude. Israel became a key arms supplier to India after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its defense exports have reached new heights in recent years. These tensions reveal just how much is currently in transition.