By Seema Guha
As the Sunni-Shia conflict in West Asia escalates and threatens to engulf the energy rich region, India and many other countries are caught in a bind over which side to support. Some have made their choice clear. France and most Western democracies back the Sunni states: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Jordon. US, a friend of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, had backed the Sunni’s. But with the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, and the opening it offers to American business and industry is now making the US much more circumspect.
Pakistan, a Sunni state with close links with Saudi Arabia, angered Riyadh by refusing to join the coalition in the war against Shia’s in Yemen. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif particularly has a huge debt to repay to Saudi Arabia. During the bloodless coup in 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf ousted the then PM from power and sent him to jail, it was the Saudis who got the general to agree to let Sharif live in exile.
India has maintained good relations with both, Iran and the Arab world and also has the deftness to move through this maze with clever diplomacy. It has done so over the years with Palestine and Israel and hopes to continue being friends with both the Arab world and Iran and pursue its own national interests.
What has helped India in its balancing act has been its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of these countries. It has always kept a safe distance from the sectarian groups, preferring to do business with those in power.
"India’s policy in the region remains rooted in our traditional long-standing ties with the region and is non-prescriptive and non-judgmental. Despite ever changing political environment, our bilateral relations with virtually all countries of the region have been progressing structurally and we have managed to insulate our core interests from the negative fall-out of regional developments,’’ Anil Wadhwa, Secretary East, in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said in a recent speech at the IDSA.
He also explained that while India acknowledged that popular aspirations has to be determined by the people without any interference from outside. He also took on those who have criticized India for its "old order neutrality" saying this cannot be seen as absence of policy. In the last couple of years both the UPA government as well as the new NDA coalition is paying much attention to the region. New Delhi has been seeking for investments and business from the oil and gas rich nations here and pushing for closer economic and political ties with West Asia.
It has been hoping to attract the massive sovereign funds that many of these nations have for funds required to build India’s creaking infrastructure: ports, railways, roads. India’s economic engagement with West Asia stands at USD189 billion per annum, according to the 2013-2014 figures.
Political engagements have also helped India in getting back wanted terrorists from the Gulf countries, something which was not possible a decade ago. But today with the rise of Islamic State, co-operation and intelligence sharing with countries in the region is vital. Though funds and arms from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Sunni powers went to fuel opposition against Syria’s Bashar Al Asad, who is backed by Iran, has indirectly helped create the monster called Islamic State, it has now turned to bite the hands of those who once supported it.
Today, the Sunni rulers are as opposed to Islamic State as the rest of the world and are bent to fight the menace. The fact that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Bahrain for a meeting of the Arab India Cooperation Forum speaks volumes of the progress ties with the region has made. Counter terror co-operation is high on Swaraj’s agenda, "Our meeting here today represents a real turning point in our ties with the Arab world. Today we seek to give new shape, direction and energy to our centuries old relations. Today we have the opportunity of translating the vision of India-Arab solidarity into concrete avenues of cooperation,’’ she said at the first ministerial meeting of the group held in Manama on Sunday — an event attended by 22 Arab countries. "Ever since our government assumed office in May 2014, we have paid special attention to our ties with the Arab world,’’ she added.
But it is not just the Arab world that India is wooing; on 28 December, the 18th India-Iran Joint Commission meeting was held in Delhi. Ali Tayebina, Iran’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance co-chaired the session with Swaraj. With sanctions against Iran lifted, following the agreement between Tehran and Washington opportunities will be opening up in that country. India is well aware of that and will push for deals. India is already engaged with Iran to build the Chabahar port, which will be a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The progress of the project has been extremely slow mainly because Iran was under the sanctions regime. India is also hoping that both its private and public sector companies can get an opening in the Chabahar port and free trade zone that Iran has been planning.
Delhi is also committed to build the railway link between Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad. All these projects will get fillip with the lifting of sanctions. Iran-India and Russia had in the past worked closely together in Afghanistan and Chabahar was a result of that collaboration. India got in because Pakistan had refused to give access to Indian goods through its territory. New Delhi hopes to pick up on what had to be left undone because of the sanctions and will have to be prepared for much more competition from major players. Chinese President Xi Jinping this week was in West Asia, visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. Xi is hoping to ramp up business in the region.
India has the same hope. Delhi is hoping that it does not get singed by the Sunni-Shia conflict in West Asia and continue to have fruitful relations with both sides.