US magazine Foreign Policy article highlights India’s emergence as ‘major player’ in Middle East

New Delhi: Indians regard Egypt as a gateway through which to send their goods to Africa and Europe

BY | Sunday, 2 July, 2023

An article in Foreign Policy, a noted US magazine focused on global affairs, has cited the emergence of India as a “major player” in the Middle East as one of the most interesting geopolitical developments in the region in years.

The write-up highlighted New Delhi’s deep and growing ties with major countries in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to assert that the evolution of India’s place reflects the changing international order and the willingness — perhaps even eagerness — of these nations 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, its author Steven A Cook has argued.

“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 US 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,” he asserted.

The author recalled his visit to India around a decade ago to state what had struck him then that Indians did not want to play a larger role in the Middle East.

In the 10 years since his trip, however, things have changed, he said.

“While US 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,” Cook wrote.

When it comes to the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aggressively seeking ways to expand relations with India, the article said.

It is a significant shift because both countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long aligned with Pakistan, it says, noting that the pivot to India stems in part from a common interest in containing Islamist extremism but much of the pull is economic.

It highlighted the growing economic ties between India and the two countries to make the point.

On India’s strong ties with Israel, it said they are perhaps the most well-developed of New Delhi’s relations in the region.

These ties have rapidly developed in a variety of fields, notably high tech and defence after Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian head of government to visit Israel in 2017 and his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu returned the honour a year later.

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), Cook says, adding this may be changing.

In 2022, the Adani Group and an Israeli partner won a tender for Haifa Port for USD 1.2 billion, and there are also ongoing negotiations for an India-Israel Free Trade Agreement, it said.

“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,” the article added.

Referring to Modi’s recent two-day visit to Egypt, it said by all measures, this 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 honour at India’s 74th Republic Day celebration — his third visit to New Delhi since assuming power.

Like the Chinese, the Indians regard Egypt as a gateway through which to send their goods to Africa and Europe, the article added.

It is tempting for US policymakers and analysts, the author wrote, to view India’s growing role in the region through the prism of great-power competition with China.

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, the piece said.

“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,” it said.

Cook argued that for all the positive vibes of the US-India relations, it seems unlikely that New Delhi wants to be the strategic partner that Washington imagines.

When it comes to the Middle East, India diverges sharply from the United States and Israel on Iran, and Washington should temper its expectations about what the expansion of India’s economic and security ties to the Middle East means, the article said.

“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,” it said.

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

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