A growing partnership

A growing partnership

India's trade and energy security is inextricably linked to the security of the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.

In another sign of India’s changing defence priorities, four Indian naval ships -- ‘Mysore’, ‘Tarkash’, ‘Tabar’ and ‘Aditya’ -- that form part of the Indian Navy’s western fleet under the Western Naval Command based at Mumbai have been visiting various Gulf states for the past few weeks.

After making separate visits to Qatar and Kuwait, the four ships have now converged in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where they will be conducting naval exercises. From the UAE, this naval task force will go to Oman. This month long deployment is aimed at bolstering bilateral ties and reinforcing cooperation in maritime security between India and Gulf states.

The Indian Navy has been providing training and hydrographic support to several navies in the region and the involvement of Indian Naval ships in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia since October 2008 has further strengthened bilateral ties and taken interaction with other regional navies to another level. The latest visit also underlines Indian Navy’s growing ability to operate far beyond Indian shores and operate on maritime security issues with other regional navies.

In the last few years India’s policy towards the Gulf region has often been viewed through the prism of India-Iran relations. The international community and the west in particular has been obsessed with New Delhi’s ties with Tehran and has tended to ignore India’s much more substantive engagement with the Arab Gulf states. Notwithstanding all the hype surrounding India’s ties with Iran, they remain largely under-developed even as the significant stakes that India has in the Arab Gulf often go unnoticed. New Delhi has been giving serious attention to the Arab states in the Gulf for some time now. When the Indian prime minister visited Saudi Arabia in 2010, he was not only responding to the Saudi King’s visit to India in 2006 but was also underscoring that when it came to the Gulf, Iran would not be the focus of Indian foreign policy.

The Saudi King had visited India in 2006 with much fanfare. It was also a signal to the broader Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) community to build stronger partnership with India. India’s engagements with the GCC states have gathered momentum in the last few years even though India-Iran ties have continued to hog all the limelight. India’s desire to secure energy supplies as well as to consolidate economic and trade relations and the ‘Look East’ policy of the Gulf States has allowed the two to carve a much more substantive relationship than in the past.

While India is not a Muslim-majority country, it still hosts the second-largest Muslim population in the world, a constituency that remains interested in Saudi Arabia as the site of the holy shrines at Mecca and Medina. Indians are the largest expatriate community in the GCC states, numbering around 4 to 5 million. Indian expatriate labour constitutes around 30 per cent of the total population of the UAE and they have significant presence in Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar.

Huge resources

The economic dimension of India’s Gulf policy has become more pronounced in recent years. As a group, the GCC is India’s second largest trading partner. It is the largest single origin of imports into India and the second largest destination for exports from India. Bilateral trade between India and the GCC is expected to rise above $25 billion this year. The global financial meltdown and recessionary trends in the US and Europe is prompting India to turn to Gulf states sitting on huge resources looking for investment opportunities. India is hoping that major GCC states such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman would participate in India’s planned expansion of infrastructure. The Gulf states meanwhile are interested in human resource from India to develop sectors as varied as information technology, construction, transportation and services.

With a growing economy, meeting its rapidly increasing demand for energy in one the biggest challenges facing India. Burgeoning population, coupled with rapid economic growth and industrialization has propelled India into becoming the world’s fifth largest energy consumer in the world. Energy is clearly the driving force in Gulf-India relations. Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India’s booming economy, and India is now the fourth largest recipient of Saudi oil after China, the United States, and Japan. India’s crude oil imports from the Saudi kingdom will likely double in the next twenty years.

India’s trade and energy security is inextricably linked to the security of the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. With this in mind, Indian Navy is regularly visiting Gulf ports and training with regional states. In recent years, the Indian Navy has made port calls and undertaken a series of naval exercises with a number of Gulf states thereby lending its hand to Indian diplomacy in expanding India’s reach in the region. India is cultivating close security ties with major GCC countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain with the focus shifting from naval ship visits and training exchange programmes to possible joint development and manufacture of sophisticated military hardware.

Tehran’s nuclear drive is raising anxiety in the Gulf about a resurgent Iran. During his visit prime minister Manmohan Singh joined the Saudi King in asking Tehran “to remove regional and international doubts about its nuclear weapons programme.” The security consequences of a rising Iran are hugely significant for the Arab Gulf states even as India has made it clear that a nuclear Iran is not in Indian interests either.

As the regional balance of power between Arabia and Persia threatens to unravel with multiple crises looming in the region from Syria and Egypt to Bahrain, Indian Navy’s latest overtures to its Gulf partners is clear sign that India would like to protect its interests in the region and has underlined India’s desire to see the extant balance of power in the region stabilise. Given India’s growing stakes in the Gulf, it is not surprising.