How are India’s interests being impacted by turbulent events in the Middle East? How can India protect and promote its interests in a region witnessing its most dramatic re-shaping since the World War? These are critical questions for India’s thinkers to ponder over, and while considerable attention has been given to the tumultuous events themselves, relatively little discussion has occurred on their impact on India.
Mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt saw the overthrow of the Ben Ali and Mubarak presidencies. These were succeeded by a civil war in Libya that resulted in the overthrow of Col. Qaddafi, and public, and sometimes violent, protests in Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain, and rallies in Lebanon, Jordan, and Oman. In the midst of such dramatic upheaval, a new nation — South Sudan — was born into the “brotherhood” in July 2011. However, it appears that the impetus provided by these protests for transparency and accountability has lost momentum.
In Egypt, the military-security apparatus’ dominance in the political landscape has remained, despite Mr. Mubarak’s departure. Field Marshal Tantawi, a protege of Mr. Mubarak, has responded to continuing protests with force and has banned foreign observers in what could likely be the first free elections in Egypt.
A second phase of turbulence in the Middle East commenced with the revival of Turkey’s confrontation with Israel over its May 2010 raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla; Turkey demanded an apology from Israel over what Ankara saw as Israel’s unnecessary and excessive use of force aimed at blocking aid to Gaza. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to apologize, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and racketed up rhetoric against Tel Aviv; acts that earned it praise in Arab newspaper commentary.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has embarked on a transformation from being a Kemelist, status-quo power, to one that seeks a central, leadership role in the Muslim World. It is unsurprising then that Turkey is playing a pivotal role in the evolving political landscape in its neighborhood. While it has delivered stern messages to the al-Assad regime in Syria on its crackdown of civil liberties, it is engaged in discussions with the National Transitional Council in preparing the framework for a post-Qaddafi Libya.
To be sure, many of the subplots of the so-called “Arab Spring” have had a visible impact on India and its citizens. New Delhi has had to mount relief efforts in Egypt and Libya to evacuate its stranded citizens in these countries. Operation Safe Homecoming was India’s largest evacuation effort since the Gulf War and resulted in the repatriation of 18,000 citizens at a cost of Rs. 115 crore ($25 million), per government data.
India must also be concerned about the worsening political situation in the Persian Gulf. Continuing confrontation between the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain (backed politically and militarily by the GCC) and Shia forces, alleged to have Iran’s support, could arguably impact India more than any other country outside the Peninsula. Indeed, not only does it put India’s substantial energy and economic ties with Gulf states at risk, it also creates a precarious security situation for the approximately 5 million Indian citizens living in the Peninsula. Furthermore, the al-Khalifa regime turned to mercenaries recruited from the Pakistani army to quell the rebellion. Disturbing though a state-sanctioned Pakistan-sourced hit squad rampaging through the streets of Manama might be, the very presence of 300,000 Indian citizens in that country makes this an unacceptable situation for India. It is therefore imperative that India’s policy makers consider all options available for the protection and evacuation of its citizens in Bahrain, should the security situation further deteriorate.
In this context, it is important for India to start considering what role it should play in the Middle East and where its interests lie. In the past, New Delhi has had to walk the tightrope in balancing its ties with countries in the region. Following its “declaration of independence” in 1988, Palestine’s statehood was recognized by India, and reiterated when PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas officially applied for Palestinian membership to the UN. Since formally establishing relations with Israel in 1992, the Indo-Israeli relationship has grown dramatically, particularly in defence and counter-terrorism. But importantly, India does not see its burgeoning ties with Israel as being incompatible with expanding relationships with Arab countries.
India’s growing ties with Middle Eastern countries are a reflection of its growing stature on the world stage. How India chooses to engage with these and other countries will help define what sort of power India will be. In the past, India avoided criticism of Middle Eastern countries for a myriad of reasons. While this has proven to be a successful strategy, an emerging India will increasingly be challenged on what some might perceive as duplicitous positions.
For example, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticized the West for using force to bring about regime change in his speech at the UN General Assembly, he chose not to draw attention to the brutal suppression of human rights by regimes in the Middle East. While he steadfastly supported the right of the Palestinians to statehood, he refrained from drawing attention to the sub-conventional war imposed on Israel by state and non-state actors. Worse, while India chose to abstain from a UNSC vote condemning Syria’s human rights record, its ambassador, in an interview with CNN-IBN, virtually endorsed the al-Assad regime’s brutality by dismissing reports of the number of Syrians killed during the protests as “exaggerated.”
India has an interest in ensuring not only a stable Middle East, but also one where citizens have a stake in deciding their own future. As India emerges as an important actor on the world stage, it must use its goodwill and growing power to influence its friends in the Middle East, and must work with other countries in promoting shared ideals in the region. In this regard, the India-U.S. “West Asia Dialogue” launched in July 2011 is a welcome sign.
While India and the U.S. no doubt differ on the mechanics through which ideals ought to be achieved, both countries do broadly share the similar values and interests in the region. And if the India story has taught the world anything, it is that pluralistic democracy is indeed sustainable outside the peripheries of the West. India can use the experience it has gained in Afghanistan to build and strengthen democratic institutions in the Middle East. It can also help conduct elections in Egypt, having already done so in South Sudan (indeed, Indian assistance in Egypt’s polls appears to enjoy the support of both the U.S. and political parties in Egypt).
While the Middle East clamours for change, domestic and regional political considerations make some nations reluctant to accept overt assistance from “outside powers” like the West. However, India’s historic ties and the presence of millions of its expatriates in the region make it anything but an “outside power.” India is therefore uniquely suited to play an important role in the transformation of the Middle East. In doing so, India will not only be advancing its own national interests, but also those of the countries in the region.
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