Can India Become a Bigger Regional Power with New Middle East Quad?
America’s slow and steady withdrawal from the region has changed equations.
On Monday, 18 October, the US, India, the UAE and Israel held their first quadrilateral foreign ministers meeting. This followed the meeting between S. Jaishankar and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, during Jaishankar's ongoing visit to Israel. This is Jaishankar's third visit to Israel since becoming External Affairs Minister but the first after the new administration of Prime Minister Naftali Bennet took charge.
Significantly, the meeting also followed the beginning of air exercises Blue Flag on Sunday in Israel, in which the Indian Air Force's Mirage 2000 squadron is also participating, along with the US and seven other countries.
“A fruitful first meeting with Israeli APM and FM @YairLapid, UAE FM @ABZayed and US Secretary of State @SecBlinken this evening. Discussed working together more closely on economic growth and global issues. Agreed on expeditious follow-up,” Jaishankar said on Twitter following the meeting.
In a statement, the State Department said the meeting focused on expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia.
The Abraham Accords
In an earlier column, I had written about how the Abraham Accords were beneficial to India. After long doing the delicate balancing act between its relations with Israel on the one hand and the Arab countries on the other, the normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE and a number of other Arab countries has opened the gates to trilateral cooperation between India, Israel and the UAE.
It was the US under the Trump administration that facilitated the Abraham Accords. It had been a particular diplomatic triumph for Donald Trump, whose advisor and son-in-law Jared Kuschner had invested a great amount of effort to set in motion a new "peace process" in the Middle East.
Yet, the accords were also in a large part a response to and a result of a steady US withdrawal from the region. Since the Carter Doctrine of 1980, the US had been the primary security provider of the Gulf region. But its increasing pivot to the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese expansionism has simultaneously resulted in a slow but steady withdrawal from the Middle East.
The Obama administration's willingness to engage with Iran - Israel’s arch-rival in the region, and also a threat to the UAE - in a nuclear deal, and the US reluctance to intervene in the manner its Gulf allies required in places like Yemen and Syria meant that both Israel and the Gulf states began the diversification of their strategic partnerships and to carve out their own security architecture in the region. India, a nuclear power, with its strong military, huge economy, its modern technologies, and enormous labour pool, became a natural partner.
Just a Matter of Time
Israel has also been for long cultivating relations with India. It is also well-known that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) had played a significant role in making American technology available to India as well as to broker the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. Defence and security deals between India and Israel amount to more than a billion USD on average.
Israel has also been looking to normalise ties with the Arab and the Muslim world.
In this context, India's engagement with the region was just a matter of course. India looks to the Middle East as an extended neighbourhood. Some of its largest trade partners are in the region.
The UAE is India's second-largest trade partner. The Indian diaspora is the largest expat community in the UAE and many other Gulf countries.
India has elevated ties with both Israel and the UAE to strategic ones. The visit of Army chief Gen MM Naravane to the UAE and Saudi Arabia last December has given a major fillip to defence cooperation between India and her Gulf partners. India has also participated in military exercises with both Israel and the UAE, and of course with the US.
The original Quad, initiated as a counter to China in the Indo-Pacific, has demonstrated that it would not become a military bloc but would co-operate in creating alternative supply chains, vaccine production, and technological cooperation.
The geopolitical context in the Middle East is a little different. Both Israel and the UAE have excellent relations with China. However, the Chinese courting of Iran, especially its much-hyped $400 billion deal with Iran last year, offers both these countries an incentive to seek alternative partnerships. While for India Iran does not pose any threat, China and its embrace of Pakistan does.
India's Role Will Only Increase
The US still remains the most important strategic and defence partner for both Israel and the UAE, and an important strategic and defence partner for India. The India-UAE-Israel partnership has the potential to emerge as a formidable bloc in technology, space, defence, maritime cooperation, cyberspace, 5G, and COVID-19 vaccines. All three countries have long coastlines and can offer an alternative transport route to China’s Belt and Road Initiative while ensuring maritime security and protecting sea lines of communication.
And for all of them, radical Islam remains a major threat.
But while the US is geographically far from places like Afghanistan and Iraq, India, Israel and the UAE are left to face the music of American intervention or disengagement, as the case might be, in the region.
Therein lies the difference. The new Middle Eastern “Quad” is, hence, the beginning of a major geopolitical alignment between Asia and the Middle East, or the “Indo-Abrahamic”, as the new configuration is increasingly being called. And India's role in it is only set to increase.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely published 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.)
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