After attending G7 Summit in Germany, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a day-long visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on June 28. Also, soon, in mid-July, India, Israel, the US, and the UAE will be participating with the US in the summit of I2U2, where I2 stands for India and Israel, and U2 for the UAE and the US. Also known as the Middle Eastern Quad, it is an economic grouping floated primarily by the US to counter China’s growing footprint in the Middle East, precisely when the US is receding from the region to pivot to the Asia-Pacific and counter Chinese hegemony there. Amid all this, India occupies a fairly unique position.
Also, soon, in mid-July, India, Israel, the US, and the UAE will be participating with the US in the summit of I2U2, also known as the Middle Eastern Quad.
As per SIPRI data, India is Israel’s largest arms buyer. Besides, a range of joint production has been taking place during the last few years.
The UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner and a major strategic partner since 2017. Ties, dating back well over a millennium, have become almost legendary.
In the grouping, India is the only country that has refused to take sides in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. On the contrary, it has been sourcing energy and coal supplies from Russia at discounted rates.
India alone has good relations with Iran. From its vantage position, it will have to carefully calibrate its relations with both Iran and the I2U2.
India-Israel Relations are Growing Deeper
Two recent official visits from Israel to India testify to the wide-ranging collaboration that is ongoing between the two countries.
The first visit was of Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz. He came after a scheduled visit by Prime Minister Naftali Bennet had to be cancelled after he got COVID-19.
During the visit, the minister exchanged a 'Letter of Intent’ with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, on enhancing cooperation in the field of Futuristic Defence Technologies.
The two countries agreed to work together on next-generation drones, co-production of military hardware and Research and Development in future technologies and defence co-production. India's Defence Research and Development Organisation and Israel's Directorate of Defence Research and Development had last November entered a Bilateral Innovation Agreement to jointly develop next-generation technologies and products such as drones, robotics, artificial intelligence and unhackable quantum computing. Defence cooperation between the two countries was further institutionalised during Gantz’s visit, with the adoption by both sides of the India-Israel Vision on Defence Cooperation.
Agriculture, Water, Defence: Pillars of India-Israel Cooperation
India’s defence and military cooperation with Israel has increased exponentially over the past decade. As per SIPRI data, India is Israel’s largest arms buyer. Besides, a range of joint production has been taking place during the last few years.
The second visit was that of Eynat Shlein, the head of MASHAV, Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She toured India for a week to further strengthen the Israel-India strategic partnership and development cooperation in the fields of agriculture and water, the two most “significant pillars” of growing relations between the two countries.
Israel has its largest development projects with India. There are currently 29 fully-active Indo-Israeli Centers of Excellence in different parts of India, benefiting millions of Indian farmers. Thirteen more such centres are in the pipeline and will gradually be expanded into 'Villages of Excellence' in partnership with local state governments, which will further prove beneficial for larger populations.
'Sky Is the Limit'
"One of the main highlights of this visit was the signing of a joint declaration between the State of Israel and the Irrigation and Water Resources Department, Government of Haryana, India in the field of integrated water resources management and capacity building. As part of this joint declaration, MASHAV will share knowledge, capacity building and Israeli technologies for the development of Haryana in the water management sector," said the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.
From missiles to water, Indo-Israeli cooperation is all-encompassing; as former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had famously said, the sky is the limit. This is indeed a unique partnership and is poised to go even further within the framework of the Middle Eastern Quad, the new grouping of India, Israel, the UAE, and the US.
Shortly before these visits, Israel was in the headlines for signing a free trade agreement with the UAE, whose pragmatic leader Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed had shaken up regional geopolitics when his country became the first Gulf state and only the third Arab state to normalise relations with Israel in 2020. On its heels, Bahrain, a Gulf kingdom, Morocco, an Arab kingdom, and Sudan normalised relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Muslim world, is expected to soon follow suit.
This is the first agreement of its kind that Israel signed with an Arab country. It envisions stepping up non-oil trade to about $10 billion in the next five years. Just before this agreement, the UAE had entered into its first-ever similar agreement with India, signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which is intended and expected to take bilateral trade to $100 billion. Already, the UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner and a major strategic partner since 2017. Ties, dating back well over a millennium, have become almost legendary, encompassing almost every field, from migration to economics, energy to food security, business to counter-terrorism, and defence to security.
The UAE aims to turn into an economic hub and stimulate a post-COVID economic recovery, in which India and Israel play an important role. The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 paved the way for the UAE’s diplomatic engagement with Israel, and India’s tightrope walk, balancing between its Arab allies and cooperation with Israel, has significantly eased. Even more, it has reaped dividends – last year India, Israel and the UAE signed their maiden trilateral agreement, whereby an Israel-based company, Ecoppia, will be producing an innovative robotic solar cleaning technology in India for a landmark project in the UAE. The company’s manufacturing base is in India, and its global projects span 2,700 MW.
The Upcoming 'I2U2' Summit
The foreign ministers of the 'I2U2' had met virtually during the visit of the Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar to Israel last year. Discussions had centred around improving trade ties, cooperating in the region’s maritime security, synergising efforts for global public health, and joint infrastructure projects focused on transportation and technology.
This year, the leaders of the four countries will be meeting virtually during President Joe Biden’s Middle East trip to take the grouping forward. According to a White House official, “Some of these new partnerships reach beyond the Middle East, and in this regard, the President will hold a virtual summit with the I2U2 heads of state for discussions of the food security crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs. The President looks forward to this unique engagement with Prime Minister Bennett of Israel, with Prime Minister Modi of India, and President Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. “
In the grouping, India occupies a unique position. Its economy is poised to become a $5 trillion economy. It is the only country that has resolutely refused to take sides in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. On the contrary, it has been sourcing energy and coal supplies from Russia at discounted rates, in spite of the US and the EU applying significant pressure on India to condemn Russia.
The UAE has also refused to side with NATO, while Israel has only partly done so. The meeting, moreover, will be coming in the wake of stalled negotiations between the US and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme.
The Iran Factor
The administration of President Joe Biden slapped new sanctions on Iran recently. Israel, a bitter foe of Iran, is dead against any new deal, while the UAE would also like to see no deal. At the same time, the UAE has significant economic and trade engagement with Iran. India alone has good relations with Iran. In spite of the recent raucous over ‘blasphemy’ in India, the Iranian Foreign Minister visited Delhi as scheduled, agreeing to take bilateral relations forward. Soon after, freight made its first arrival from Russia to India via Iran, using the much-touted International North-South Transport Corridor.
From its vantage position then, India will have to carefully calibrate its relations with both Iran and the I2U2. Given the economic potential of all involved, and at a time when the Indian economy is being rewired, India has much to gain from this new Quad.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)