Delhi: In what was an exceptionally busy month, high-level delegations from five Middle Eastern countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Iran — visited New Delhi in the midst of a particularly nasty campaign for national elections.
Irrespective of which party emerged victorious, senior government officials focused on what really mattered, namely the booming economy that, inter-alia, required additional investments and access to secure long-term energy sources.
Both were readily available in the Gulf region, where an estimated 6.5 million Indians live and work, making this human presence the most significant Indian deployment outside the sub-continent.
According to the World Bank, the 6.5 million workers remitted an excess of $70 billion (Dh257.1 billion) to their home country in 2012, possibly one of the largest such transfers ever recorded. Moreover, India’s total trade with the Middle East in 2012-13 stood at $206 billion, of which more than half were for oil imports to an energy hungry country that is experiencing a significant economic boom. Even if Delhi expanded its reach all the way to the Americas and sought energy imports from a variety of sources, the Gulf region remained vital for India’s long-term energy security.
Still, what preoccupied Indian officials, including President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice-President Dr Mohammad Hamid Ansari, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was the pace with which the country ought to be involved in the region.
Although most Gulf Arab leaders wished to see a far more proactive India, there was and continues to be reluctance from Delhi’s part to adopt more assertive positions, for fear that such planks might arouse suspicions. This key feature is so sensitive that few Indian leaders are willing to speak on the record, which require that national security interests in the region — still the source of two-thirds of all hydrocarbon imports — be handled with quiet diplomacy.
Whether this well-established pattern will continue to be effective in the future or whether Delhi may be called upon to redefine its strategy towards the region is what senior leaders worry about.
Inasmuch as economic questions dominated Indian-GCC relations, Delhi welcomed recent GCC pledges to substantially increase their investments throughout the sub-continent, above and beyond the recent exponential growth. In fact, GCC investments into India went from $223 million in 2005 to $2.7 trillion in January 2012.
According to a high-ranking Indian official, the topic of foreign direct investment was the top question discussed with the Saudi heir apparent, Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, who favoured such increases.
Towards that end, Delhi pledged to improve its bureaucratic maze that hindered such foreign investments in the past, and was considering legislation to relax existing restrictions.
Still, what prevented such investments in the past was India’s aloofness to engage in high-level diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, among others, where security matters dominated most bilateral concerns.
Recent visitors emphasised that secure India-GCC energy cooperation necessitated advanced cooperation on military matters and though conservative Arab Gulf countries continued to perceive their security architecture to be US-centric, many were anxious to supplement this iron-clad commitment with close GCC-India ties.
It remains to be determined whether India is ready to assume fresh security responsibilities in the Gulf area, though the rise of new actors in the regional balance of power present Delhi with fresh opportunities, something that senior officials are amply conscious of. Consequently, it falls on the next Indian prime minister to decide on the pace to follow, as Delhi translates its awareness into more effective policies.