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Think West In India's Foreign Policy; By Ambassador (Retd) M. Ganapathi

C3S Paper No. 0056/2016 

(The following speech on ‘Think West In India’s Foreign Policy’ was delivered by Ambassador (Retd) M. Ganapathi at the Central University of Kerala, Kasaragod on April 11, 2016 in the lecture organised under the Distinguished Lecture Series of the PD Division of the Ministry External Affairs, Government of India.)

Good afternoon, friends!

May I begin by offering my sincere, heartfelt condolences to the families of the bereaved due to the unfortunate tragedy yesterday at Paravur’s Puttingal Devi Temple in Kollam District.  I also wish a speedy recovery to all those injured.  My heart goes out to those affected by this unnecessary and unwanted tragedy. The prayers of the entire country are with the people of Paravur, Kollam and Kerala.

I consider it a great honour to visit the Central University of Kerala in Kasaragod. This is my first visit to Northern Kerala and naturally my first to Kasaragod.

I am grateful to the Ministry of External Affairs for having asked me to visit your University to deliver this lecture today under the auspices of their Distinguished Lecture Series. And I thank Under Secretary Sqn. Ldr. Priya Joshi for working out the details with perfection.

I am thankful to Prof. M.S. John, Dean & Head of Department of International Relations for presiding over this meeting. My deep appreciation to Prof Uma Purushothaman for coordinating and overseeing the elements of my visit and for the excellent arrangements – It was a seamless movement when Prof Philip Reinhart handed over the baton to her – my thanks are also due to him. And I am delighted to interact with the students and scholars at your University.   I should add that it is a privilege to visit a University where one of my senior, distinguished colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service, Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan is a Visiting Professor.

While discussing the topic of my lecture with Prof Reinhart Philip, I had offered a slate of choices running through the entire gamut of India’s foreign policy to focussing on West Asia and the Indian Ocean.  I am pleased that he chose West Asia.  There has been considerable debate, discussion and write up on the Look East – Act East Dimension of India’s Foreign Policy.  This media and public overdrive has surprisingly not been evident towards our immediate neighbourhood to the West where our policy towards Pakistan has been the predominant refrain.

Think West

There has been some debate on the need for a Look West policy to mirror image our Look East, now, Act East policy. Look East derived its genesis during then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Shangri La Address in Singapore in 1994. While considerable attention has been focussed on developments in the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa regions because of significant national interest, there was no conceptualisation of a cogent and comprehensive policy outlook in that direction. In this context, the Shangri La moment arrived on March 2, 2016, when speaking at the first Raisina Dialogue, Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar noted that  “If the eastern front is building upon longstanding policy, the western one is relatively more recent conceptually…”. He went on to say “I can confidently predict that ‘Act East’ would be matched with ‘Think West’.”   And this spurred me to amend the topic of my interaction today from “Look West in India’s Foreign Policy” to “Think West in India’s Foreign Policy”.  And I hope in time to come, the “Think West” will reorient itself into a dynamic “Act West policy”.

And when I say West, I am going to focus on India’s Near West, if I might say so.  The subject of my talk will cover India’s relations with the Gulf and West Asia predominantly and briefly touch upon North Africa.   Europe and beyond would be the Far West from a similar perspective.  The term Middle East is perceived as a colonial legacy, perhaps coined by the American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan.  The Ministry of External Affairs sees the region as West Asia.

West Asia is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood.  Continued peace and stability in the region is of vital strategic interest to India. India’s interaction with the region has been evident from the days of recorded history.  The Trade winds had conjoined India and the Gulf States.  Not long before India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi had, in 1938, written on the subject of the Palestine question.   India’s first Prime Minister had not lost sight of this segment of India’s foreign policy while giving it shape and dimension.  And with every passing decade, while developments elsewhere had their own reverberations, relations with the region continued to evolve and consolidate.

The essence of India’s post Independence foreign policy was conceptualised by our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In the Constituent Assembly Debate on foreign policy he said “Ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and till that time, when India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate..”.   With Peninsula India surrounded by water on three sides, and your University situated as it is not far from the Arabian Sea, it would pertinent to again recall our first Prime Minister’s words when he emphasised that India’s independence and survival depended on India’s control of the Indian Ocean. In March 1958, Prime Minister Nehru said, “…. I ponder over our close links with the sea and how the sea has brought us together. From time immemorial the people of India have had very intimate connections with the sea. ……….. We cannot afford to be weak at sea … history has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at her mercy, and in the second, India’s very independence itself”.  This is the basic structure on which the fundamentals of our interaction with the Gulf/West Asian and North African Region (WANA) is built upon.

In my lecture today, I will touch upon some of the developments which are current in Gulf and WANA Region, the involvement of the Big Powers therein and thereafter concentrate on some aspects of our bilateral relations with the region and some specific countries.

The Big Powers

As the predominant pre-War Big Powers, Great Britain and France determined the course of developments in West Asia in the early part of the 20th Century.  The USA primarily, and the Soviet Union and its successor State, the Russian Federation thereafter played an important role in determining the outcome of events in the region. France, Britain and Germany support American endeavours.

The US involvement with the region is total.  It has involved itself with nearly every country in the region and has had responsibility for the current state of play therein.  It has tried to broker peace where there has been conflict and has been drawn deeper into the uncertain situation.  Despite the emergence of newer players and the unflattering comments from the US on some of the countries in the region and their policies and the distrust among its allies in West Asia as noted in the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic magazine  under the heading “The Obama Doctrine”, the USA will continue to remain the most important overseas player in West Asia. The situation in West Asia has also resonated extensively in the 2016 US Presidential debates and in the interviews and interactions of the contestants.

The Soviet Union had been an important ally of the forces not allied with the USA.  Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the influence of the Russian Federation has been somewhat muted but Russia is and important power broker in the region. This became evident in Syria recently.

China was always happy to stay on the sidelines and react as needed to support the winning side.   It has sought to enhance its presence and role in the region.  This was effected through economic means supplemented by political methids. The visit by President Xi Jinping to the region in January 2016 reflects this Chinese ambition. President Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran – the three important powers in the region to walk a fine balance between Sunni, Arab and Shia adherents.  He became the first overseas leader to visit Iran after the lifting of sanctions by the Western powers against Iran.  While in Egypt, President Xi spoke on the future of China-Arab relations in a major speech at the Arab League. The Chinese administration had earlier brought out an Arab Policy Paper. Xi Jinping emphasised “the principle of fairness and justice” for the Palestinians and spoke in favour of “a new mechanism to promote peace on the Middle East question”. He suggested a “1+2+3 cooperation pattern” between China and the Arabs which included “energy cooperation as one priority; infrastructure development and trade and investment facilitation as two key areas; and nuclear energy, aviation satellite and new energy as the three high-tech areas for breakthrough”. As expected he spent much time elaborating on the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR) emphasising its significance in private conversations and public addresses.  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thanked China for its “enduring support to Iran” adding “Iranians had never trusted the West.” With the first container train service between Yiwu in China and Tehran commencing its operations in early February 2016, OBOR received a fillip.

Nearly 100 years ago, the fate and destiny of the people in the region surrounding the Gulf/West Asia as we know today was decided upon by the colonial powers.  The McMahon-Hussein Agreement of October 1915 created more complications in the region’s history, and geography, with misleading offers and broken promises. The secret May 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France partitioning the Ottoman Empire was a result of colonial greed at a cost to the local population.  And the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 offered only perceived hope and a promise to the Arabs and Jews of a homeland.  And these agreements have led to the catastrophic developments as we see in the region today.

The Palestinian issue still continues to haunt the region.  This unsettled question has led to newer contradictions in the interplay of forces and Powers.  The Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s had its own impact on the ebb and flow of relations between States.  The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was an unfortunate and unnecessary adventure – the cost of which is still being played out.

Recent developments

The Arab Spring in the early part of the commencement of the second decade of the 21st Century created more hope but ended in much despair for most of the countries affected.  Barring Tunisia, none of the countries have shown any inclination in ushering democratic traditions. However, rumblings of discontent are beginning to be heard in Tunisia. Libya is in turmoil. The ouster of the autocratic Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by Western NATO forces in 2011 was aimed at providing calmness and sanity to Libya.  This has however not happened and Libya has seen a division of its country with three separate administrations trying to govern it. Terrorism has strongly entrenched itself there creating more instability within Libya and the neighbouring countries.  Egypt is still to overcome its dalliance with a non-military administration. President Mohamed Morsi was not able to deliver – this led to his ouster with reversion of administration into military hands. The difficult situation within Egypt is slowly normalising but difficulties persist.  Syria is on the boil.  The Gulf Kingdoms were in a quandary when the winds of change started to engulf the region.  Yemen has had no relief with its internal strife and resultant airstrikes against the country by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia.  Turkey has seen the rise of a strong Islamic regime taking it away from the Ataturk’s vision.  The Kurdish ghost refuses to dissapear with reverberations in Sulaymanyia, Kirkuk and Diyarbakir.  And all this has led to the terrorist genie being led out of the bottle – it was Al Qaeda to start with and now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which is wreaking havoc and mayhem not only in the lands where they originated but in countries far and wide – as witnessed recently in Brussels and earlier in Paris and Beirut. To compound the tragedy, there has been a large-scale migration of people from the affected regions to Europe – with members within the European Union conflicting and contradicting each other. While the land has had its unsafe areas, the waters have seen their own inherent problems over piracy.  Finally, the Sunni-Shia divide and debate will continue on.  The Iranian reaction to the death of cleric Nemer-al-Nemer and the Saudi response thereto further aggravated this sectarian divide.  And national Governments and proxies have ensured that the dust does not settle down and the pot continues to boil over.

Iraq and Syria

Iraq regrettably has not seen peace since 1990. Saddam Hussain’s misadventure in invading Kuwait has spun a complex web of instability and chaos in that ancient land.  The Shia-Sunni divide in the country has become more pronounced.  Former Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki did not engender confidence in his Government’s impartiality.  The current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi does seem to have somewhat greater acceptance than al-Maliki.   However, with the economy in shambles and the security situation still unstable, al-Abadi’s difficulties will remain. A large section of the Sunni population in Iraq still has reservations in the Shia-led Government.  The Iraqi Government will also have to take the fight to the ISIL in the North.  The second largest Iraqi City, Mosul is under ISIL occupation since 2014.  India has expressed its firm support to Iraq in its fight against international terrorism and efforts to preserve its unity and territorial integrity.

Syria has become a more difficult case.  President Bashar al-Assad had been a popular leader.  However, in the wake of the Arab Spring, what started as a civil unrest in Syria in 2011 snowballed into a widespread rebellion against the Government, with active support of the Western powers – the US, France and the UK and some of the Gulf States notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar besides Turkey.  The anti-Assad Forces rallied to the call under the banner of Free Syrian Army – entirely propped up by the West.  Russia and Iran supported President Assad. The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254 on December 18, 2015 to indicate a path towards restoring normalcy in Syria.  However, differences between the powers concerned and the Syrian adversaries continued.  On February 11, 2016, the International Syria Support Group, comprising of all concerned and interested parties, “reaffirmed their readiness to carry out all commitments set forth in the (UN) resolution, including to: ensure a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition based on the Geneva Communiqué in its entirety; press for the end of any indiscriminate use of weapons; support and accelerate the agreement and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire; facilitate immediate humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas and the release of any arbitrarily detained persons; and fight terrorism”.  The ceasefire needed a further enabling support through an agreement and announcement by the co-Chair, the USA and the Russian Federation on February 27, 2016.   Russia’s sudden entry onto the Syrian action stage in September 2015 helped the Assad regime in its war against terror and stopped the opposition forces in their tracks.  It also helped the Syrian forces to reatke the ancient and Heritage City of Pamyra. President Putin’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of Russian forces in March 2016 was equally dramatic. The ceasefire has held.  The next meeting of the protagonists is scheduled for April 11, 2016, ie today, under the Geneva III process.

India has expressed deep concern over the developments in Syria.  It has expressed its reservations on a forced regime change and supported a UN-backed, Syrian-led comprehensive political settlement taking into account the aspirations of the Syrian people. India has felt that there can be no military solution to the crisis. India participated in Geneva-II process.  It has contributed financially towards humanitarian assistance and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.

The nature of developments in Syria and Iraq would have an important bearing on the efforts of the international community to neutralise and eliminate the ISIL.

The ISIL announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in October 2014.  Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been part of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and was subsequently expelled from the organisation. The ISIL renamed itself as the ‘Islamic State’. It controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria.  It is well bankrolled with monies from ransoms and oil sales. The unleashing of the monster that is the ISIL has had global ramifications.  This terrorist organistion is strongly entrenched in Iraq and Syria and other parts of Nothern Africa. It has adherents to its ideology in Europe and its agenda has attracted many in Europe to take to arms in Syria and elsewhere.

At a news conference in September 2014, President Obama declared “The bottom line is this, our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy (Islamic State) so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States”.  The Western forces have been joined by Russia in attacking the ISIL.  However, the entire process of eliminating this menace is going to be a long haul.  What is called for is concerted joint action by the international community in destroying this scourge. The malefic influence of ISIS was visible not long ago in Paris, Beirut and Brussels.

The concerted joint action calls for intelligence sharing, effective counter terrorism measures, containing flow of foreign terrorist fighters in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2178 of September 2014, cutting off of funding for the organisation and moving towards the early adoption of the India-proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the UN.

The efforts of the ISIL to recruit Indian nationals has only met with limited success. There are reportedly a handful of Indians with the IS.  The Government of India has upgraded measures through better intelligence sharing with its international partners, enhancing cyber security and promoting liaison and effective coordination between the Centre and the State Governments.


A recent significant development in the region of West Asia was the agreement between Iran and E3/EU+3 on Iran’s nuclear activities – The E3/EU+3 included France, the UK, Germany, the EU, the USA, the Russian Federation and China.  Following the successful conclusion of the talks and the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2231 on July 20, 2015 endorsing the JCPOA.  The document confirmed that Iran had taken a series of nuclear related actions allowing for the lifting of much of the secondary sanctions relating to the nuclear programme.  However, the secondary sanctions relating to missile programme, human rights and terrorism remain in place.  Besides, primary sanctions remain, wherein no US individual or entity can trade with Iran and US Dollar transactions through the US financial system are still not possible.

While the Iran – E3/EU-3 Agreement was generally welcomed by the international community, Israel and some of the Gulf States expressed serious apprehension and concern. These countries reacted to say that the Agreement could undermine peace and stability in the region.

India welcomed the announcement of lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran on January 17, 2016 calling it a milestone representing “a significant success for patient diplomacy” which signalled “a new chapter of peace and prosperity”.  The Ministry of External Affairs statement went on to note “India looked forward to further developing its longstanding, close and mutually beneficial economic cooperation with Iran, including in the spheres of energy and regional connectivity”.

Iran is our nearest neighbour bordering SAARC.  India-Iran relations are centuries old and civilisational. Nearly all Indian Prime Ministers have visited Iran.   Presidential visits from Iran have also taken place. There had been a lot of reportage following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia that Iran has been omitted from the calendar of visits.  This would be an incorrect assumption.  A Prime Ministerial visit to Iran could very much be in the works.  Then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had visited Tehran in August 2012 to attend the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit and had met Iranian leaders.  The last Iranian Presidential visit to India had been by President Ali Ahmedinejad in April 2008. Prime Minister Modi and President Hassan Rouhani met each other on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit Meeting in Ufa, Russia in July 2015.  Iranian Foreign Minister Mr Javad Zarif visited India in February 2014 and in August 2015.   External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had a brief interaction with Mr Javad Zarif in Islamabad in December 2015. Other Ministerial level exchanges have regularly taken place between India and Iran besides consultations between officials on various issues of mutual interest. On a political plane, discussions with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan are of considerable importance.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to visit Tehran on April 16, 2016, ie, later this week for the 18th Session of the Joint Commission Meeting (JCM), seen as the most important bilateral mechanism for dialogue with Iran. The last JCM was held in India in December 2015. Six sectoral Committees service the Joint Commission Meeting. There are various Joint Working Groups including those on Trade; Infrastructure (Railways); and Energy Cooperation.  The mechanism of Foreign Office Consultations provides anchor to various high level and sectoral dialogues.

India-Iran bilateral trade during FY 2014-15 was US$ 13.13 billion.  India’s imports totalled US$ 8.96 billion with exports totalling US$ 4.17 billion in 2014-15.  Discussions are underway between India and Iran for a Preferential Trade Agreement. With international banking channels gradually becoming non-existent and with fall in crude oil supplies, the economic sanctions on Iran had an adverse effect on bilateral trade.

Cooperation in the energy sector with Iran acquires importance as it holds the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves and possesses the world’s second largest natural gas reserves.  Iran has traditionally been an important source of crude oil for India. The international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme had its impact on supplies.  Resolution of issues relating to oil payments and banking issues are under consideration of the two countries.  India is keen to transform the current ‘buyer-seller’ relationship in crude oil into a genuine energy partnership.  However, Iran’s legal framework in the energy sector is still evolving.  The ONGC Videsh-led consortium’s interest in the development of the Farzad B gasfield was a topic of discussion during Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan’s visit to Tehran last week – early reports indicate not much progress was made.

India has considerable interest in the development of the infrastructure sector in Iran.  This will provide the much required connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India has concluded an MoU for the development of Chahbahar Port in Iran, which will include development by India of two dedicated berths as container and multipurpose terminals. The agreement on Chahbahar between India, Iran and Afghanistan is near finalisation.

India has been associated with the International North-South Transport Corridor.  This involves transhipment facilities through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas onwards to the Iranian Caspian Sea port of Anzhali and thereafter to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Other infrastructure related activities under discussion include the Chahbahar-Zahedan link, the India-Afghanistan-Iran Trilateral Transit Agreement and the Ashgabat Agreement – signed by five countries – initially between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman and Qatar in April 2011; with Qatar withdrawing in 2013, Kazakhstan came on board in 2015. It aims to establish a new international transport and transit corridor linking the Central Asian countries and Iranian and Omani ports.

The Government of India gave its approval on April 6, 2016 for increasing the quantum of funds from US$150 million to US$ 450 million under the framework agreement between the Exim Bank of India and a consortium of Iranian banks led by the Central Bank of Iran for financing the purchase of goods and services. The proposal provides for domiciling two contracts for export of steel rails for the Chabahar Port Development.

Iran does not boast of a sizeable Indian community as the other Gulf countries.  There are only around 100-odd Indian families in Tehran and a handful in Zahedan.  There are around 1000 Indian students in Qom pursuing theological studies. The number of Iranian students in India is fairly large numbering around 8000 students.

Gulf-West Asia-North Africa

India’s relations with West Asia are historical, even civilisational.  There is a mutuality of interest on how India and each of its partners approach their bilateral relationship.  There has been excellent political understanding with these countries.  Differences have at times cropped up but these have not been allowed to come in the way of development of mutually beneficial cooperation.  The GCC countries and those in West Asia and North Africa are India’s largest trading partners – two-way trade between India and the region was over US$ 180 billion in 2014-15.  The region meets a major share of India’s energy needs – contributing to over 60% of India’s total imports of crude oil and over 85% of India’s LNG needs. Most of these countries boast of significant Sovereign Wealth Funds.  The Government has been aware of the need to create an opportunity to attract those funds in the form of FDI.  The other important component determining the strength of the bilateral partnership between India and the region is the presence of a large Indian community, particularly in the Gulf countries, numbering nearly 8 million. The community has worked very hard not only towards contributing to the development and growth in their countries of stay but in also providing for the Indian economy through remittances of over US$ 40 billion annually.  With instabilty affecting a significant part of the region and terrorism becoming a regional and global scourge, the welfare, safety and security of the Indian community acquires an important dimension in our foreign policy.

The GCC countries adopted a ‘Look East’ policy to focus on India and China and other countries to their East. This provides an opportunity to impart greater dynamism in the scope and content of India’s relations with the GCC countries.  The most important pillar of cooperation with the GCC is economic cooperation.  Bilateral trade in 2014-15 between India and the group was US$ 133.73 billion with India’s exports at US$49.3 billion and imports at US$ 84.43 billion. There is significant investment from the Gulf countries in India.  Indian project export and investment in the countries of the region is also considerable.  CII is the partner institution from India for the India-GCC Industrial Forum. An India-GCC Framework Agreement on trade is in place.   Negotiations are ongoing for an India-GCC Free Trade Agreement.

India should consider itself as an attractive destination for investment of the Sovereign Wealth Funds owned by the GCC States.  With Sovereign Wealth Funds of around US$ 2.8 trillion (UAE US$ 1,214.8 billion; Saudi Arabia US$ 673.9 billion; Kuwait US$ 592 billion; Qatar US$ 256 billion; Bahrain US$ 11.1 billion; Oman US$ 6 billion – figures from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute); the GCC countries could be asked to participate in various initiatives of the Government of India as “Start Up India”, “Make in India”, “Smart City”, “Digital India” and “Clean India”.   At the same time, the Government should convince its interlocutors of the attractiveness of the various steps taken by it to improve the Ease of Doing Business as also its efforts to simplify and rationalise existing rules and in relaxing FDI norms in key areas. Some apprehension had recently been expressed that due to the fall in oil prices, there had been a decrease in the inflow into the Sovereign Wealth Funds.

Cooperation bilaterally and multilaterally through the Indian Ocean Regional Forum and other institutions such as Indian Ocean Naval Symposium has added value to our ability to reach across the Indian Ocean area to these countries.

The Prime Minister’s ideas of Mausam (after the Trade Winds which had been the source of livelihood and partnership in the years gone by) and SAGAR Mala (Security And Growth for All in the Region) are notable steps aimed at not only bringing the region and India closer economically but also towards providing security and safety at sea.

Bilaterally, relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the most important among the GCC countries.

Saudi Arabia

India and Saudi Arabia found themselves on the opposite side of the political divide during the Cold War for various perceived reasons, despite enjoying cordial and friendly relations.  The end of the Cold War and developments post-9/11, with its attendant consequences has led to extra warmth in bilateral relations.  Then King Abdullah visited India in 2006 – the first since the visit of King Saud in 1955. Then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh in 2010, first since Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1982.   The 2006 and 2010 visits led to the adoption of the “Delhi Declaration” and the “Riyadh Declaration” giving fresh momentum and impetus to bilateral relations.  The “Riyadh Declaration” ushered in a New Era of Strategic Partnership.  The Declaration noted, “Keeping in view the development of relations between the two countries, and the potential for their further growth” the Saudi King and the Prime Minister “decided to raise their cooperation to a strategic partnership covering security, economic, defence and political areas”.

The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia from April 2-3, 2016 was a singular success. The leaders “underlined the close and friendly bilateral ties, deep-rooted in shared history and sustained and nourished through growing economic partnership, multi-faceted cooperation and vibrant people to people contacts”. The discussions between the Prime Minister and the King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud “enabled better understanding and appreciation of each other’s concerns and perspectives, recognising the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian subcontinent”.  Defence and security cooperation was an important subject in the discussions.  The two countries agreed to enhance cooperation to strengthen maritime security in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean regions, vital for the security and prosperity of both countries. The Prime Minister and the Saudi King “expressed strong condemnation of the phenomenon of terrorism” and “called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice”.  The Sides also agreed to promote cooperation in cyber security, “including prevention of use of cyber space for terrorism, radicalisation and for disturbing social harmony”.  Cooperation in counter-terrorism measures has gained appreciation with the deportation of Abu Jundal in 2013.  These points in the Joint Statement go far beyond those in the earlier Declarations with a clear and unambiguous message to those concerned.

Saudi Arabia is India’s 4th largest trading partner with bilateral trade at US$ 39.26 billion in 2014-15. Exports were valued at US$ 11.16 billion and imports at US$ 28.1 billion. During Mr. Modi’s visit, the two counties agreed upon the need to further strengthen economic ties, particularly through diversification of non-oil trade.  The Saudi side appreciated the various initiatives taken by the Government of India towards India’s economic development, particularly in the investment field.  The Saudi side expressed its interest in investing in infrastructure development in India.

The importance of energy security as a key pillar of the strategic partnership was reiterated during the discussions.  Saudi Arabia is India’s largest supplier (around 20%) of crude oil to India valued at US$ 21.8 billion in 2014-15.  The two sides have agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, Saudi Arabia and in third countries.

Indians form the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia numbering around 3 million.  The Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit notes “The two leaders lauded the valuable role of the Indian community in Saudi Arabia and its contribution to the progress and development of both India and Saudi Arabia”. An Agreement on Labour Cooperation for recruitment of General Category Workers was signed during the visit. Both sides welcomed the establishment of a Joint Working Group on Consular issues under the umbrella of the India-Saudi Arabia Joint Commission to discuss consular issues on a regular basis.

United Arab Emirates

India and the UAE enjoy exceptionally close and friendly relations.  These have been more or less problem-free and harmonious.  Then President Pratibha Patil visited the UAE in 2012.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United Arab Emirates in August 2015, the first since Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s visit to the UAE in 1981.  The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was in India in February 2016.

The Joint Statement issued on conclusion of Prime Minister Modi’s visit noted “The visit of an Indian Prime Minister to UAE after 34 years marks the beginning of a new and comprehensive strategic partnership between India and UAE in a world of multiple transitions and changing opportunities and challenges”. It was agreed during the visit to “elevate the India-UAE relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” and to establish a Strategic Security Dialogue between the two Governments. India and the UAE have similarity of views on most political issues.

India-UAE bilateral trade was valued at US$ 59.15 billion in 2014-15.  UAE is our 3rd largest trading partner after China and the USA.  It was agreed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit that both sides would resolve to work together to substantially increase trade by 60% over the next five years.  The UAE side was briefed on various economic initiatives of the Government of India as also on the steps taken towards improving the Ease of Doing Business and efforts to simplify and rationalise existing rules and relax foreign direct investment caps in key areas. The UAE was invited to partner in various projects in the infrastructure sector and those creating mega industrial manufacturing corridors, including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.  A UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, with the aim of reaching a target of US$ 75 billion to support investment in India’s plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks is expected to be established.

Cooperation in the energy sector is an important pillar of India-UAE economic relationship.  The UAE is the 6th largest supplier of crude oil to India. India and the UAE have decided to go beyond a buyer-seller relationship.  The two sides agreed to promote strategic partnership in the energy sector, including through UAE’s participation in India in the development of strategic petroleum reserves, upstream and downstream petroleum sectors, and collaboration in third countries.

Cooperation in security and defence is an important element in India-UAE bilateral relations.   Both countries have agreed to strengthen their strategic partnership by continuing to work closely together on a range of security issues, particularly on counter-terrorism, maritime security and cyber-security, while re-affirming their respect for the “bedrock principles of national sovereignty and non-interference”.  In the area of defence cooperation, the two sides renewed their commitment to strengthening the existing cooperation in training, joint exercises, and participation in defence exhibitions, as well as in identifying opportunities to cooperate on the production of defence equipment in India.

The leaders of India and UAE strongly condemned extremism and terrorism in all of their forms and manifestations, irrespective of who the perpetrators are and of their motivations. They reiterated that any justification for terrorism and any link between extremism or terrorism and religion should be strongly rejected by the international community. They reiterated their condemnation for efforts, including by states, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries, or to use terrorism as instrument of state policy. They further deplored efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian colour to political issues and pointed out the responsibility of all states to control the activities of the so-called ‘non-state actors’, and to cut all support to terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states.  They also deplored the use of double standards in addressing the menace of international terrorism and agreed to strengthen cooperation in combating terrorism both at the bilateral level and within the multilateral system. The message conveyed is naturally clear.

The two countries agreed to establish an Annual Policy Dialogue to discuss issues related to peace and security in their region, and to strengthen their dialogue on regional security issues of mutual interest. The UAE has been extremely cooperative in the deportation of those facing charges in India.

UAE leaders have expressed appreciation for the role and contribution of the around 2.5 million strong Indian community in the UAE towards UAE’s development, noting that Indian citizens in the UAE were “highly respected for their peaceful and hard-working ethics”. The India-UAE Joint Labour Committee oversees labour related issues.


India’s relations with Qatar have been friendly.  The visit of the Emir of Qatar in March 2015 was a success.  Then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Qatar in November 2008. Political relations between the two countries have been exceptionally close. During the Emir’s visit, both sides “discussed ways and means to build a forward-looking partnership by further broadening and deepening the bilateral engagement and by better leveraging the existing complementarities between the two countries in key areas of mutual interest”. Bilateral trade with Qatar was US$ 15.66 billion in 2014–15 with exports at US$ 1.05 billion and imports US$ 14.60 billion. Qatar continues to be the largest source of natural gas imports by India – supplying over 80% of India’s gas imports. Strengthening cooperation in combating terrorism was an important element during the discussions given Qatar’s pro-active identification with developments in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.  Both sides have stressed the need for closer cooperation in the area of security and counter-terrorism through regular dialogue, sharing of information, intelligence and assessments and training of personnel.

Qatar is home to nearly 700,000 Indians. The Emir “expressed appreciation for the role and contribution of the Indian community towards the development of Qatar” and “noted with satisfaction that Indians in Qatar were highly respected for their peaceful and hard-working nature”.


India relations with Kuwait have been close, warm and friendly.  The British had administered Kuwait as a part of the Bombay Presidency and the Indian Rupee had been legal tender until 1964. The relationship suffered somewhat following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussain.  India’s primary concern in evacuating its nationals by using the good offices of the Iraqi Government had been misunderstood by Kuwaitis.  But with passage of time and greater appreciation of India’s position, bilateral relations have been restored to their even keel.  The Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah visited India in June 2006. Vice President Shri Hamid Ansari visited Kuwait in 2009. The Kuwaitis have, however, been keen for a Prime Ministerial visit from India – the last visit had been that by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1981.

Bilateral trade touched with Kuwait touched US$ 15.58 billion in 2014-15 with exports valued at US$ 1.2 billion and imports US$ 13.38 billion. Kuwait has shown interest in investing in India through the Kuwait Investment Authority.  Kuwait was the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to India in 2014-15.  Discussions have also taken place between the two countries on cooperation in further downstream activities.

The strength of the Indian community in Kuwait is over 800,000.  It has been the community of first preference. Kuwaiti authorities expect the community to cross the one million mark in the very near future.  A majority of the community is employed in the construction or the domestic sector.


Oman has been an important interlocutor in the Gulf region.  Then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Oman in November 2008 when the two countries agreed to raise their partnership to a strategic level.  Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said’s visit to India is awaited – he is to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.

The most significant economic project in Oman is the US$ 969 million, Oman India Fertiliser Company (OMIFCO), India’s largest Joint Venture abroad – the project was formally inaugurated in January 2006. The project provides for a long-term buy-back agreement under which India imports the entire production of 1.6 MTs of granulated urea and 0.255 MTs of ammonia.

The Indian community in Oman numbers around 700,000 and they have been more than welcome in Oman.


India relations with Bahrain are close and friendly. Commercial cooperation is not significant, given Bahrain’s size and location.  However, there is considerable presence of Indian financial institutions taking advantage of Bahrain’s fairly liberal monetary and financial policy.

There are over 400,000 members of the Indian community in Bahrain.

With a 70% population consisting of adherents to the Shia faith, Bahrain was among the countries seriously affected by the Arab Spring in the Gulf region. The protests were brought under control with Saudi and UAE military support. Undercurrents of discord and dissonance however continue to prevail.


India relations with Yemen are deep rooted and historical. The Bombay Presidency administered Aden and the Indian Rupee was the official currency.  The number of Indian nationals in Yemen was nearly 100,000 at its peak.  At the same time, thousands of people of Yemeni origin, migrated to India and settled down mainly in Hyderabad. With the civil war having broken out in Yemen since the early part of this decade, the strength of the Indian community had come down to around 5000.  With the commencement of air action by Saudi Arabia in March 2015, 4640 Indian nationals were evacuated through Operation Rahat.  Only a handful of them remain.

What started as political unrest in Yemen against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Ansar Allah Group or the Houthis, with Shia affiliations, escalated into an insurgency and thereafter rebellion against the successor administration of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.  The rapid successes of the Houthis in early 2015 led Saudi Arabia and a group of Gulf and Arab States, with Western support, to intervene in March 2015 through “Operation Decisive Storm”.  The Saudi aerial strikes led to large-scale loss of life and property.  In end-April 2015, the Saudis announced the conclusion of military operations and commencement of political process through “Operation Restoring Hope”.   In the absence of forward movement in the peace effort, Saudi and Arab action against Yemen had continued. Indications were that a UN-brokered ceasefire, meant to precede peace talks in the country seemed to be holding up as on date today (April 11) despite “pockets of violence”.

Iran, which has been supporting the Houthis, has been asked to desist from sending arms and ammunition to the Houthi forces.  Saudi Arabia had requested Pakistan to join the coalition forces; the Pakistani Prime Minister had been keen to positively respond to the Saudi request but the Pakistani Parliament had on April 10, 2015 asked its Government “to decline the Saudi request” and “maintain a neutral, diplomatic stance”.

The Government of India reiterated its commitment to a stable, peaceful and democratic Yemen and urged all parties in the conflict to resolve their differences amicably and abide by the relevant UN resolution, the terms of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference.


The oldest unsettled issue in West Asia is the Palestinian question where no immediate end seems to be in sight. India has been consistent in extending its strong support to the Palestinian cause. India’s position has been unequivocal in its support for a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue, leading to a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel, as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and the relevant UNSC Resolutions.

India has called on both Israel and Palestine to resume the stalled peace process. It has asked Israel to dismantle its settlements  and expressed reservation on the setting up of new settlements in East Jeruslaem. India has articulated strong support for the Palestine cause at various international fora and at international, regional and bilateral levels. India has contributed towards the budgetary, economic and developmental assistance to Palestine.  During the course of his visit to West Asia in October 2015, President Shri Pranab Mukherjee became the first ever Head of State from any country to have stayed overnight in Ramallah.  This was deeply appreciated by the Palestinian leadership.  Palestine was the first destination of External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the West Asia region.


Israel is an important partner of India.  Political relations are excellent.  Economic cooperation is significant. Trade between India and Israel is US$ 5.5 billion. Opportunities for further cooperation exist in the areas of IT, solar energy, dairy development, water management, horticulture, animal husbandry and agriculture.

President Shri Pranab Mukherji paid a State Visit to Israel in October 2015, the first highest level visit from India to the State of Israel, thus historic.  During his visit, the President briefed the Israeli side on the various initiatives of the Government in providing for greater opportunities in attracting investment into India.

The External Affairs Minister was in Israel in January 2016.  The possibility of a Prime Ministerial visit to Israel later in the year is a distinct possibility.

The key area of cooperation between India and Israel is in the area of defence and security.  Important areas of interaction include counter terrorism and extremism, cyber security, among others.  These are comprehensive and mutually beneficial.


President Pranab Mukherjee visited Jordan after visiting Palestine and Israel.  The President and King Abdullah II explored possibilities of opening up new synergies in different areas of mutual interest including counter terrorism, defence, IT, and energy. The two leaders also inaugurated the US$ 860 million project of Jordan-India Fertiliser Co., a joint venture to produce phosphoric acid for export to India.

India-Arab League

India’s interaction with the Arab group as a whole received a major filip with the holding of the First Ministerial Meeting of the Arab-India Cooperation Forum in Manama, Bahrain in January 2016.  This was seen to represent “a real turning point” in India’s relations with the Arab world.  The Meeting noted that India-Arab ties now cover a whole host of sectors, beyond facing the common challenge of terrorism.  The areas of interest were seen to be in the fields of trade and investment, energy and security, culture and Diaspora. The Arab world is collectively India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade crossing US$ 180 billion. Energy is an important component in the matrix of cooperation with 60% of India’s crude oil imports and 85% of gas imports emanating from West Asia. The Maghreb region is a major source of phosphates and other fertilisers contributing significantly towards India’s food security. The new and emerging areas of India’s cooperation include agricultural research, dry land farming, irrigation and environmental protection.

The Manama Declaration and the Executive Programme for 2016-17 adopted at the end of the meeting reflected the mutuality of interests of India and the Arab world in regional and global developments of importance.   The Executive Programme of the Arab-Indian Co-operation Forum for the years 2016 and 2017 dealt with ideas for cooperation in the political, economic, energy, environmental protection, human resource development, culture and education, media, social development and health areas.

North Africa

Nearly all the Heads of State or Government from North Africa visited New Delhi in October 2015 to participate in the 3rd India Africa Forum Summit.  The President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the King Mohammed VI of Morocco were among the most sought after guests.


India’s relations with Egypt owes most of its warmth and proximity due to the close friendship between India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – they were among the co-founders of the non-aligned movement. The External Affairs Minister visited Egypt in August 2015.

The Indian community

The Indian community remains the preferred community in the countries of Gulf and West Asia due to their expertise, sense of discipline, law abiding and peace loving nature. The contribution made by the Indian community to the development of the region is well acknowledged. There are around 8 million Indians in West Asia.  Of these around 3 million are in Saudi Arabia, around 2.5 million in the UAE, 800,000 in Kuwait, around 700,000 each in Qatar and Oman and around 400,000 in Bahrain.  A majority of the Indians are employed in the private sector viz the construction sector and the domestic household sector. The trust in the community is not only restricted to the domestic and construction sector but extends extensively to professionals also, be they managers, doctors, technicians, engineers, IT experts, chartered accountants, bankers, finance managers among others.

The remittances sent home by Indian nationals from West Asia is around US$ 40 billion annually.

With the lifting of the Government of India advisory against travel of Indians to Iraq – in place from 2004 until mid-2010 – the number of Indian workers in Iraq has seen a steady increase.  Most of them seem to gravitate towards the Kurdistan region, which is more developed and peaceful. The number of Indians in that region is around 15,000.

A vast majority of the Indian community hails from Kerala with others being drawn from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.  CBSE affiliated schools allow Indian children to keep in touch with the education system of their peers in India.

The problems faced by the Indian workers in the Gulf countries include those of exploitation by unscrupulous recruiting agents in India and in their country of stay, non-payment of wages, retention of their passports by employers, ill-treatment by their employers – particularly of domestic workers with most affected being female domestic workers, very difficult working conditions, the living environment, foisting of false cases against them, among others.

The localisation of work permits (Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia, Kuwaitisation etc), drop in oil prices, the economic downturn particularly in the construction sector, stricter action against illegal workers, hiring of workers at lower wages from other countries and last but not least the unstable and unsettled situation in the region has certainly impacted on the lives and livelihood of the Indian community in the region.

The Haj pilgrimage is another important component in our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. During Haj 2015, around 136,000 Indians visited Saudi Arabia to perform Haj. Approximately 300,000 Indians perform Umrah every year.

A smaller number of Indians adhering to the Shia faith visit the Holy sites of Najaf and Karbala in Iran.

The unsettled situation in the region has created its own perils for the Indian community in the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa. In the early part of this Century, kidnappings of Indian citizens from Iraq had been evident.  The Government of India had decided to discourage community members visiting Iraq through the issuance of suitable advisories. Our Embassy in Kuwait had actively worked towards release of those affected.  The arrival on the scene of the ISIL has brought in new threats.

A group of 46 nurses were held hostage in Iraq by the ISIL in July 2014. They were released later that month and were able to return home safely.  The whereabouts of 39 Indian hostages from Punjab remains unclear – Arab Governments have indicated that they are alive and the Ministry of External Affairs continues to be seized of the matter.  The kidnapping in Aden of Father Tom Uzhunnalil by ISIL on March 4, 2016 has brought to the fore the dangers faced by our nationals in the troubled region. There were reports of the ISIL planning to crucify him on Good Friday.  However, these reports seem to have been belied and the External Affairs Minister has said that reports indicate that Father Tom Uzhunnalil is safe and that efforts are underway to secure his release.  The latest victim in the region happens to be Regi Joseph, who was abducted by Libyan militia outside Tripoli.

Rescue operations/evacuations

The Government of India, through the Ministry of External Affairs, has been involved in major rescue operations of its citizens overseas, particularly in the Gulf-WANA region.   The biggest of these was the rescue of nearly 120,000 nationals from Kuwait after Iraq had invaded that country. The Government of India arranged 488 flights from August to October 1990 during the Gulf War to evacuate the affected Indian nationals through Amman.  The operations of Air India and Indian Airlines had been called the longest air bridge and rescue operation in history. A movie on the subject Airlift was released earlier this year.  While Airlift is a well made movie, it juggles and misrepresents facts to fictionalise the course of events with Box Office considerations.

The breakdown of the situation in Lebanon in 2006 following the military conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah led to “Operation Safe Homecoming”.  The Indian Navy conducted one of its earliest and largest evacuation operation by assisting a total of 2,280 people including 1,764 Indians, besides those from South Asian and other countries. “Operation Sukoon” was launched by the Government to rescue stranded Indians from the civil war in Libya in 2011. Nearly 18,000 Indian nationals were rescued through operations conducted by the Indian Navy and Air India. 4,500 Indian national including 750 nurses were evacuated from Libya in July 2014.  The most recent successful evacuation operation was “Operation Rahat” launched in April 2015 by the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy along with support from Air India to evacuate Indian and foreign nationals from Yemen following Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in that country. A total of 4,741 Indian citizens, along with 1,947 foreign nationals from 48 countries were evacuated.

India has worked closely with the local Governments and employers in the Gulf and WANA region to institutionalise steps and measures aimed at providing support and welfare to members of the Indian community.  Regular interaction with the community members by the concerned Embassies provides a platform to understand and appreciate the problems faced by the community towards their early resolution.  Bilateral Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with various host Governments have been entered into.  Indian Community Welfare Funds have been created besides setting up of safe houses to provide consular support to female domestic workers.


Some concern had been expressed in Kerala when the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs reverted to the Ministry of External Affairs in 2015.  These concerns are misplaced.  The Government of India’s decision was taken with a view to avoid overlap and confusion of responsibilities as the Embassies were in any case dealing with the community at the ground level.  The Government decision should create conditions for greater focus and attention towards the need and welfare of the community.


While many of our nationals have faced problems on land, piracy and hostage taking has affected many at sea.  Incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia have affected sea-lanes and human lives. There had even been reports that piracy had moved closer to the Indian coastline along the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea.  The Indian Coast Guard has continued to be vigilant.  India has also participated in anti-piracy patrolling and EZ surveillance with countries bilaterally and multilaterally.  Very recently, some of our nationals captured by Somali pirates were released.


To conclude, the interests of the Gulf and WANA countries and India intersect significantly.  India has accorded high priority in its policy of comprehensive engagement with these countries. And the response has been excellent and in equal measure from the other side.  However, much more could be done towards further consolidation and strengthening of these relations.  The opportunities exist and so do the challenges.   Given regional differences and inter-power play issues, we should ensure that we are not seen to be taking sides or biased in our interactions.   This would be the most sensible approach in the promotion and consolidation of our relations with the countries in the region.

In summing up, the thrust of India’s interaction with the Gulf and West Asia and North Africa region should include the following parameters:

  1. From a political perspective, given the historically close and proximate relationship, the need for regular visits at the highest levels to countries in the region needs no reiteration. Visits after 30-odd years do not do justice to relations with some of our important partners.  Consultations at the Ministerial and official level should not  be episodic, but frequent;

  2. Commercial and economic cooperation should be further broad based and conditions created to attract a greater level of investment from these countries as also look at project exports and appropriate investments into those countries;

  3. Leverage partnerships to provide for greater energy comfort levels and security. We should look at moving beyond buyer-seller relationship and strike partnerships in each other countries and in third countries in the energy sector;

  4. Stregthen defence and security related interaction. Develop an agenda of joint cooperation and exchange of information in combating extremism, terrorism, cyber terrorism and piracy;

  5. Carefully harness soft power approaches in the areas of education, culture and human resource development, medical tourism among others;

  6. With the Indian community being the preferred community of choice, ensure welfare and safety of the large Indian community in the countries of the region in close consultation with the host countries.

Thank you.  I will be glad to take any questions that you might have.

* * * * *

[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.]

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