If China’s engagement with Gulf countries has gathered much attention from Middle Eastern policy circles over the last five years, another parallel development has occurred in its shadow. Under the premiership of Narendra Modi, the Indian government is developing strategic ties with the Peninsula, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These ties go beyond the obvious economic motivations—such as India’s energy demands and the massive Indian diaspora in the region—to include security cooperation. As Modi enters his second term, there are reasons to believe this India-Gulf rapprochement, far from being temporary, may redefine the nexus between the Peninsula and South Asia for the near future.
The logic behind reinforcing Indian-Gulf relations seems initially evident. Although an old phenomenon, the presence of Indian workers in the Arabian Peninsula accelerated with the oil boom of the seventies. Today, about 8.5 millions of Indians reside in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and 55 percent of remittances into India comes from the Gulf. A common saying among the Indian diaspora in the Gulf is that Dubai is the fifth largest Indian city. Additionally, the secure flow of commodities through the waters of the Gulf is a genuine national interest for India: the latter imports about a third of its crude oil supply from the GCC. On the GCC side, investors view India’s economic growth as an opportunity for new projects, particularly infrastructure projects involving Gulf companies like the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) or DP World. An important security impetus is also driving this rapprochement. India has long perceived the Gulf as a “safe haven” for Indian organized crime. India’s most-wanted gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, had extended business ties in the Peninsula, and Pakistani terrorist groups that used it as a backyard for their operations.
Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to Delhi in 2006 spurred a first rapprochement. This visit paved the way to the signature of “The Delhi Declaration,” which intended to provide a strategic framework to the Indian-Saudi relationship. But despite the public announcements, the partnership remained dormant. The election of Narendra Modi in 2014, however, gave Indian-Gulf relations a new direction.
At the outset, Modi’s political background seemed at odds with the Arabian Peninsula: a fierce proponent of Hindu nationalism, Modi had an international reputation tarnished by his controversial mandate of Gujarat state’s chief minister during the communal riots of 2002 that led to the killing of hundreds of Muslims. But Gulf leaders, and in particular, those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, saw Modi differently. Modi’s security driven approach to addressing political Islam resonated with their own views. Speaking at a ceremony in Delhi last February, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman portrayed Modi as his “elder brother”. Likewise, Modi developed unprecedented ties with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin
Zayed, and even invited him as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day in 2017, an honor traditionally reserved to heads of state. As one former Western ambassador to Abu Dhabi said: “The realpolitik mindset and the strongman leadership style that Modi embodied truly fascinated the Saudi and Emirati princes.”
This mutual appreciation has translated into cooperation in critical domains, such as energy, security, and defense. In order to guarantee India’s strategic petroleum reserves, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) started working in 2018 on a seven-year contract to fill up storage tanks of 5.860 million barrels of crude oil in a facility in Mangalore. ADNOC is also involved with Saudi Aramco in a plan to build a 1.2 million barrel refinery in India’s Maharashtra state whose cost is estimated at $44 billion. The progress of these projects is particularly crucial in the context of US sanctions targeting countries importing oil from Iran. Prior to the current US administration’s rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran represented about 10 percent of Indian oil imports. In May 2018, under American pressure, Delhi officially suspended these purchases while both Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared they would supply additional barrels to India to compensate for this loss. This was the core message of the visit of UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to India in July 2019. Security cooperation between India and Gulf monarchies has also increased, especially with the UAE. Since 2013, Emirati authorities arrested numerous individuals tied to Indian organized crime and deported Indian members of terrorist cells. Military exchanges have also increased—both navies engaged in maritime security initiatives, and the Indian Military Academy recently started a training program for Emirati soldiers.
These examples highlight the steady growth of the bilateral cooperation. But more profoundly, decision makers in Abu Dhabi and Delhi share common views on their security priorities. Under the leadership of Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi sees Islamist movements—and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood—as its biggest threat, arguably more so than Iranian regional ambitions. This resonates directly with the views of Modi and of the architect of his foreign policy, Ajit Doval. A former intelligence operative, Doval has been Modi’s national security advisor since 2014. In this capacity, he has been leading a more assertive campaign against Islamist militancies targeting India, involving retaliatory strikes deep inside Pakistan. It is, therefore, no surprise that the UAE has continuously supported Indian policies, from the 2016 airstrikes across the Line of Control with Pakistan following the Uri attacks to the abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status. Indian-Gulf ties have consequences for the Gulf-Asian nexus, starting with Pakistan. Pakistan was historically the closest Asian partner of GCC countries, thanks to a large Pakistani labor force in the peninsula, the cultivation of a common religious identity, and the significant role Pakistani armed forces played in the building of Gulf militaries. However, Islamabad’s refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war in 2015 tainted Pakistani-Gulf cooperation.
Yet, this was not translated into a full realignment of Gulf countries in South Asia. Although it opened a window of opportunity for enhanced cooperation with India—a momentum that Indian Prime Minister Modi used effectively—the rift was not complete. The election of Imran Khan in 2018 as Pakistan’s Prime Minister led to a new start. Khan looked to the rulers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as much needed investors to help keep the economy afloat with a looming IMF bailout. In the end, the real challenge for India-Gulf relations will not come from Pakistan, but from China. The GCC-India rapprochement coincided with China’s burgeoning ties in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, China’s logic is different: Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the main driver of the new Gulf-China relationship. India, on the other hand, opposed the BRI, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are eager to position themselves as pivotal actors for China in the region. So far, the Gulf countries were able to cultivate ties with both sides. But if the India-China regional competition escalates and turns into a zero-sum game, this will become a litmus test: third parties like Saudi Arabia or the UAE may be confronted with an inextricable dilemma.
Jean-Loup Samaan is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies attached to the UAE National Defense College. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the UAE National Defense College, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, nor any government.