Special: India, with its strategic partnerships, is a sweet spot in the Middle East, says Ambassador Anil Trigunayat



He served as Ambassador of India to Jordan and Libya, and High Commissioner to Malta. As a visiting fellow he also conducted research work on ‘WTO and Regional Trading Blocs’ at Oxford University. Currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), Anil Trigunayat is one of India’s leading experts on the Middle East and its politics.

As a keen observer of the Middle East over the years, what is your assessment of the current situation in Gaza?

The situation in Gaza seems beyond redemption with the humanitarian crisis getting worse by the hour. What we have witnessed in this war is the disruption in the détente between Arab countries and Israel. The indiscriminate killing of civilians has reignited the Palestinian issue and the Arab street in its favour and against any normalization as wanted by Hamas in its terror attacks of October 7 last year. Disproportionate responses by Israeli defence forces, particularly during Netanyahu regime, have not yielded their desired outcome of destroying Hamas; in turn they have nurtured Hamas to split the Palestinians, besides defiance of international law and human rights. This will have a lasting impact .Like any war, all sides are losers but in this one, the US might be the biggest loser.

Your new book, ‘West Asian Dynamics and India’s Strategic Imperative’, has just been released. Please explain what you mean by India’s strategic imperative here?

The Middle East is India’s civilizational extended neighbourhood. It can be loosely defined by three Es – energy security, since we import more than half of our oil and gas supplies from the region; economy and investments; and expatriates who comprise over 9 million Indians living in the region and remitting over $ 50bn to India and whose welfare is a primary concern for India. Therefore, any volatility in the region will have a direct impact on India’s core interests. Hence stability and security of the Gulf countries, in particular, is of utmost importance and a priority for Indian foreign and security policy.

Where do you place Israel today in the political scene of the Middle East? They are on good terms with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for instance, but what about their discord with Iran?

Israel and Iran have an existential competition and conflict which has often been below the threshold as Tel Aviv – a nuclear power – wants to keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear parity with them. Their relationship with the UAE and a few other countries in the Arab world such as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan was a good achievement by Trump in the form of Abraham Accords. US President Biden wanted to expand it by including Saudi Arabia to ensure security of Israel and create a Sunni-Jew arc to counter Iran, and eventually China and Russia. But they missed the most crucial Palestinian issue, and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. This proved the fragility of such rapprochement with fundamental and core issues not being addressed.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has been instrumental in taking India’s relations with the Gulf forward. How much has his role contributed to the upward trajectory we see today in the India-Gulf ties?

Well, I am really happy with PM Modi’s extensive outreach to the region. The fact that he has visited the UAE six times, says it all. He is also the first PM of India to visit Palestine and Israel. The relationship, especially with the Gulf countries, continues to be strategic from a transactional point of view, even as we are heading for the first time in our regional and sub-regional approaches with I2U2 (India-Israel-UAE-USA) and IMEC (India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor). I would go a step further and say that perhaps the Act West Policy of Modi and his government is the crown in his foreign policy achievements.

Where is the US in the Middle East today? Has its role in the region today decreased and do you feel state actors like China and Russia are trying to fill that gap?

After an ignominious withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, and its focus on the Indo-Pacific in the context of Sino-US contestation have created an impression in the minds of Arab leaders that the US is either not willing to provide the fool-proof security umbrella or was not as much interested in the region. Hence they started adopting a strategic autonomy stance and an Act East Policy focussing on their markets like China, India, Japan and South Korea. Also, the US has emerged as the biggest oil producer and is giving them a competition. China is very well entrenched in the region but has not shown any inclination to assume the US role. Russia has gained in importance by being bent on supporting Assad, much to the dislike of Arabs. But they are appreciative of Russia’s unwavering stand which they find missing in their traditional ally in Washington. This is also reflected in their memberships in BRICS and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Hence for the moment everything is in a flux and the outcome of Russia-Ukraine/ West war might throw up an entirely different scenario.

Can India fill that gap? (follows from the above question)

India today is a sweet spot in the region with excellent relations and strategic partnerships. There is a greater trust in India’s capabilities especially in defence and security areas, which has begun to expand a great deal. But I doubt if India will be able to fill the gap that the US might create at this time. But we must enhance our footprint and strategic choices and stakes in the region. However, in concert with other like-minded regional powers, there is a possibility of having collaborative efforts in the security domain. We should also not forget our dynamic with China, which is going to be a challenge for India in every geography.

Please give us a gist of your new book and what students of international relations can look for in it?

Well, the book is a compilation of a dozen articles of mine, and opinion pieces and speeches on the Middle East at various fora. It will give an overview and the intricacies of politics in the Middle East, which is complex, volatile and evolving. My mentor, Ambassador K. Raghunath, who was Foreign Secretary, has written the foreword and overview, which will be an attraction to international relations enthusiasts. I have dedicated this book to them and civil services aspirants. I hope it will be of some help to them. – The writer is Executive Editor of Nrifocus.com



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