Divided and united by the sea: the strategic partnership between the Arab Gulf states and India is on the rise, underscored by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates and Oman (10-12 February). Human ties predate these current political partnerships. Since the Seventies, the Gulf monarchies have hosted a significant, cross-class Indian diaspora of underpaid workers and businessmen, numbering 3.3 million in the UAE and 1.2 million in Oman (International Migration Report 2017). In this alliance with a glorious past, the maritime component now plays a prominent role, given a highly-competitive geopolitical environment. “We are looking at this visit not just from the land perspective but also from a maritime perspective” declared the spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry, Raveesh Kumar.
In the last several years, Gulf-India relations have been driven by the same “oil/gas for investments” formula that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region pursues with China. The Gulf monarchies were engaged in planning post-oil economies, while the Asian democracy was climbing rank positions as an emerging power in a multipolar age. But Modi’s visit to Abu Dhabi (the second after August 2015) and Muscat (the first) have revealed new layers of alliance, oriented towards real partnership in almost all geostrategic domains: security, fighting against terrorism, military-to-military cooperation, and maritime interests.
In this framework, the UAE and the Arab Gulf states aim to enhance bilateral ties with New Delhi in order to limit Iran’s activism in the area (Chabahar port being the main example). In exchange, India is willing to counterbalance China’s economic and commercial penetration in the Gulf. On January 2017, the UAE and India signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, upgrading their relations with thirteen new Memorandum of Understandings (MoU).
Surely, each state power has its own ´geopolitical obsessions`: for Saudi Arabia, the enemy is Iran, while China is India’s main rival. Therefore, this alliance-making is driven by rising commercial-maritime interests and traditional security enmities to counter.
From a strictly military perspective, Oman and India agreed to hold joint military exercises (the Indian Navy already trains the Sultanate’s) and the UAE also announced joint naval exercises with New Delhi, following the Emirati-Indian joint air drills of Operation Desert Eagle II in May-June 2016. Oman and India signed for cooperation in coastal security through participation in defence exhibitions: India regularly participates in the biennial defence trade show International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in the UAE. For the Gulf monarchies, national military industry is a new challenge directly tied not only to economic diversification, but also to regional prestige: Emirati-Indian talks are open on combined production of defence equipment in India. Muscat and New Delhi decided to widen a previous defence agreement, also with an eye to maritime security: Indian military vessels will now be able to use al-Duqm port, on the Indian Ocean, with dry dock maintenance included in the agreement.
What’s interesting is that historically, China has been the main power financing the development of the Duqm port and its Special Economic Zone (SEZ), as in the case of the China-Oman Industrial Park, where China agreed to produce petrochemicals, cars and solar panels, and oil field supplies. With the goal of boosting bilateral trade and investments, president Modi invited Indian companies to invest in Oman’s port cities and related SEZ (not only al-Duqm, but also Sohar and Salalah).
As a matter of fact, a real “geopolitics of ports” is in the making in the Western Indian Ocean, driven both by the competition between China and India as well as by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Gulf. The “One Belt, One Road” Chinese initiative, an evolution of the former “string of pearls” strategy, paved the way for a ports race in the sub-region: India finances the construction of Chabahar in the Iranian region of Sistan-va-Baluchistan, while China does the same with Gwadar in Pakistan. Dubai, currently the main regional hub (Jebel ‘Ali), could be negatively affected by Gwadar’s development, as the Pakistani port could become the first sea gate for Central Asian and Chinese markets.
This is why the Emiratis have been enhancing commercial and maritime relations with India: New Delhi is a key Asian ally to counter-balance the China-Pakistan axis, maintaining open access to Central Asia and the Af-Pak region. For instance, India transported 1.1 million tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar. The Iranian diaspora in Dubai is well-integrated, in local business as well as in the political milieu; this should ease UAE’s commercial ties with Chabahar against Gwadar while consolidating India’s support for the Dubai hub, as the Jebel ʽAli free zone already hosts more than 800 Indian companies.
From a geopolitical point of view, India must preserve its balancing act vis-à-vis rival Gulf powers, as China already does. Not by chance, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was invited to New Delhi from February 15 to 17, a week following Modi’s tour in the Gulf monarchies (and exactly a month after the Israeli Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s visit in India).
In the Gulf-India rising partnership, symbols – sometimes legacies of syncretic cultures – are useful vectors for economic and security agreements. Rouhani addressed students and religious scholars at the 17th century mosque (masjid) of Makkah in Hyderabad, where he also visited the Qutub Shahi’s tombs (ancient rulers of Iranian heritage). In Abu Dhabi, Modi unveiled the model of the first Hindu temple of the city, expected to open by 2020 (Dubai already has a Hindu temple), and later visited the 100 year-old Shiva temple in Muscat. Indian workers’ remittances from the Gulf monarchies are economic pillars for New Delhi.
The emerging national identity of the United Arab Emirates is driven by the military factor, emphasized by the introduction of conscription in 2014. In Abu Dhabi, Narendra Modi visited the Wahat al-Karama (“The Oasis of Dignity”), a permanent tribute to the Emirati soldiers who lost their lives serving the nation. On January 2017, a unit of the UAE Armed Forces marched side by side with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi for the celebration of the Indian Republic Day, where the UAE were chief guests. The militaries were accompanied by an Emirati military band.
The partnership between the Arab Gulf states and India will grow in the medium-term, due to mutual interests and shared rivalries. The UAE aims to consolidate and defend Emirati ports’ role in the Western Indian Ocean, and Oman and Saudi Arabia are willing to attract foreign direct investments to help their “post-oil” national transformation plans. Additionally, Qatar must design new alignments to cope with the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian embargo. Doha established direct weekly services not only with Sohar and Salalah ports (Oman), but also with those of Mundra and Nhava Sheva (India) in order to bypass Dubai’s re-export. India wants to ´speak` and ´deal` with both the shores of the Arabian/Persian Gulf, thus supporting domestic reforms and regional ambitions: the Gulf has never been so “Indian”.
Credit: Prakash Singh / AFP