The Way Forward in West Asia


Narendra Modi’s pragmatic style of governance will bring fresh nuances to India’s ‘Look West’ policy. But this new approach will not be without challenges and obstacles in the region, insists Azadeh Pourzand

Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won the general election 2014 with a landslide victory, marking a new era for India’s emergence in the world. The largest democracy on earth now has a chance to revitalise itself both domestically and internationally.1

West Asia and North Africa (WANA), otherwise known as Middle East North Africa (MENA), watched the election dynamics and results closely. Given its huge economic and political interests, the region has always monitored India’s politics in order to ensure predictability and continuity in its affairs with India. However, this time around, the countries of the region watched the election results with much nervousness.

Modi’s vows of economic reforms triggered a spark of enthusiasm among the governments of WANA and its wealthy business communities who wish to further their affairs with a more efficient and business friendly India. The West Asian response to its extended neighbour’s historic general election has been one with bittersweet sentiments and speculations.

Positive Response from State Officials

Many WANA state officials congratulated Modi on his landslide victory. In doing so, most expressed enthusiasm to deepen ties with India under the new leadership.

Modi’s supporter and India’s friend, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first to congratulate Modi.2 Israel’s regional adversaries followed quickly. Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Naser bin Khalifa Al Thani, also congratulated Modi.3

In an interview with a Tehran-based news agency, the Iranian ambassador to New Delhi expressed enthusiasm over victory of the BJP.

“BJP’s record demonstrates that whenever sufficiently domestically powerful, it has had good relations with Iran”, he maintained. 4

The BJP had congratulated Hassan Rouhani for his victory in June 2013, expressing enthusiasm for the strengthening of moderate voices in the country.5 Similarly, the Turkish ambassador to India also hoped that bilateral engagement with Turkey would further grow.6

Mixed Reactions in Regional and Local Media

The region’s media reflected a more eclectic response to Modi’s national and international emergence. Some of them, however, are sceptical of the new leadership in India.

Emphasising that Modi was not the best choice for the job, an Arab news portal, Akhbarak, wrote that election results reflected India’s frustration with the Congress party’s ineffective leadership. While highlighting that Modi’s victory had rallied up markets, an Egyptian platform, Shorouk News, stated that expectations from Modi were likely to be unrealistic.7

Conservative Muslim platforms of the region expressed cynicism about the newly-elected Indian prime minister. An Arabic news website, Al-Mayadeen, wrote that there was now fear in India’s intellectual circles as Modi would encourage ‘cultural fanaticism’. 8

A conservative Iranian news website, Tribune, expressed worries about Narendra Modi. This publication further warned that the Israeli PM Netanyahu was in fact among the first to congratulate Modi’s victory.9

Similarly, a Saudi website, Riyadh Vision, highlighted Modi’s alleged anti-Muslim past and wrote, “Here is a leader who presided over what an Indian writer has called ‘a carefully planned genocide’ of Muslims in Gujarat where he has been chief minister for 13 years”.

Despite its blunt negative statements about Modi’s alleged past, the same website also expressed hope that “Modi will reach out to minorities, especially Muslims, and his political opponents and prove all his critics wrong.”10

Others seem to have a more optimistic view of Modi’s election. Emphasising that India has had close economic ties with West Asia (Middle East) since the days of the British rule, the Managing Director of Al Sharq Newspaper in Doha wrote, “Modi knows this fact and he would not do anything to jeopardise this relationship”.11

In an analytical piece in the Journal of Turkish Weekly, Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu maintained that India’s domestic politics could be destabilised in the short-term.

However, he further wrote, “tensions can be alleviated in time due to substantial economic reform and the promise of international cooperation becoming all the more salient in the eyes of young, dynamic policy-makers who are luckily common among the ranks of the BJP-led coalition”.12

The key to these divisive reactions is that even when fearful and resentful of Modi’s alleged past, the region’s commentators seem to immediately express hope about his focus on the economy and its implications for the region.

Change for WANA under Modi’s Leadership

The countries of the WANA region have significant economic and political interests in India and the role that it can play beyond its borders.

India’s ‘Look West’ policy, put in place since 2005, has deepened the country’s engagement and strategic importance in the region.13 But it has not succeeded as much as India’s ‘Look East’ policy in Southeast Asia.

Modi’s vision also seems more geared towards the neighbourhood to the east of India where he has built strong economic, commercial and diplomatic relations during his tenure in Gujarat. Meanwhile, his pragmatism and vision for economic reforms and inflow of investments, as well as the country’s dependence on the region, will lead him to focus on strengthening the country’s ‘Look West’ policy. He is, therefore, likely to expand economic and commercial ties with the WANA region, India’s most significant supplier of energy, accounting for 70 percent of India’s crude oil and gas requirements.

Even though Narendra Modi has been generally vague about his foreign policy, certain speculations can be made. Matters such as energy, trade, the safety of Indian expatriates in the GCC region and beyond, friendship with Israel, Iran and maintaining stability in the region are of bipartisan value for India.

While there is general consensus that Modi’s India will focus more on economic diplomacy than political affairs, given WANA’s political fragility, he will have to play a delicate role in pursuing India’s economic interests in the region.

Modi’s pragmatic style of governance will bring fresh nuances to India’s ‘Look West’ policy. But India’s new approach will not be without challenges and obstacles in the region.

Forging Stronger Friendships

Modi seems determined to expand and deepen India’s diplomatic, economic and security affairs with Israel. He will not damage India’s prospects with Israel.

Without shifting away from India’s pro-Palestine historic stance, changing which may prove too drastic for India’s well-being in the region, Modi is likely to focus on strengthening New Delhi’s affairs with Tel Aviv. Modi’s amity with Israel is deeply rooted in his tenure in Gujarat.

It is important to note that even before Modi’s emergence, India has been making some progress in balancing its friendship with Israel and the rest of the region. The extent to which he can pursue a stronger friendship with Israel without damaging India’s partnerships in the region remains to be seen.

Iran, a Shi’ite powerhouse in a Sunni majority region, will also remain a friend of India. In fact, Modi’s cabinet may step up diplomatic relations with Iran in deterring excessive Sunni influence over the condition of Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority of India’s large Muslim minority. Having expressed enthusiasm about the moderate cabinet in Tehran, BJP is likely to expand the depth and possible extent of New Delhi’s relations with Shi’ite Iran.

The focus of Iran-India trade is likely to remain on crude oil, although New Delhi has already cut its monthly Iranian crude import by 42 percent in April 2014, to bring down Tehran’s exports to a level that had well exceeded the allowed levels under an interim deal with the West.14

Despite the difficulties with Iran’s crude oil under Western-led sanctions against the country’s nuclear programme, Modi will have to continue imports from Tehran, at least in the foreseeable future.

Modi’s India will likely continue, and possibly boost, commercial deals with Iran. Further, under his leadership, the transit route to connect Afghanistan to Iran’s Chahbahar port may gather steam.15 Despite these prospects, Iran and India are likely to continue their disagreements over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, depending on the outcome of the current Geneva negotiations between Iran and world powers in the next few months.

Red Carpet for Investors

In deepening relations with Israel and possibly Iran, two foes that are also considered the region’s major threats, Modi’s pragmatic approach to commerce and business will do the trick. Modi is likely to do all he can to foster India’s ties with a region on which India hugely relies for energy, trade, investments and remittances.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with an appetite to invest in India, will enjoy Modi’s calculated efforts in bringing about what he calls ‘red carpet’ instead of ‘more red tape’ for investors. Modi’s ‘red carpet’ policy will facilitate much larger Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) from the GCC countries to India.

In fact, Saudi Minister of Commerce and Industry, Tawfiq Al Rabiah, recently urged the Indian government to impose some restrictions on taxes, particularly for FDI. Similarly, the UAE’s strategic petroleum reserves project to help India ensure energy security, the first phase of which was completed recently, will enter its next phase under Modi, who has vowed to relax investment restrictions in the country.16

If Modi’s economic reform turns into reality, commercial affairs with the region will flourish. India has significant investments in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the now war-torn Syria and GCC countries, covering petroleum and petro-chemicals, fertilisers, manufacturing and consumer goods, information technology and the financial services sector.17 If Modi’s promises prove realistic, these commercial affairs can only rise.18

Major Concerns

However, a few major concerns remain. The WANA region has undergone political turbulence and drastic shifts in recent years. Despite its interests in India, the region struggles with religious radicalism and political volatility.

One wrong move by Modi and his supporters can truly damage the prospects of the region. It can, in fact, trigger serious conflicts, deterring which will prove difficult, if not impossible. Similarly, India’s take on Pakistan is of major concern for the Muslim-majority region and West Asia’s state officials will monitor Modi’s every step very closely, especially in the early days of his governance.

Despite economic vows and pragmatism evident in Modi’s style of governance, the region has its doubts. The region, in particular the GCC, India’s most significant trading partner in West Asia, has considerable influence over the country’s large Sunni population. Iran, too, may increase its influence over Shi’ite populations, should any major tensions arise between the country’s Hindu-majority and Sunni Muslim minority.

The region will keep an eye on Prime Minister Modi’s approach towards Muslims, as well as any other concern that can endanger Muslims. If Modi manages to play an effective role of an Indian leader representing a religiously and ethnically diverse nation, as opposed to playing the Hindu nationalist card, he will secure India a historic commercial success in the region.

Lastly, India today enjoys a chance to make its democracy more known to the millions of youth in the WANA region who have demonstrated resilience and courage to achieve democratic rights in their home countries.

If Modi’s India manages to step up a regionally appropriate public and track II diplomacy, while ensuring the rights of its Muslim minority, the Indian democracy will emerge as an exemplary model for millions of youth in the region in search of democratic pursuits.

There is still much ignorance about contemporary India in the region that prevents ordinary people to see beyond its widespread poverty. A prosperous India, led by the newly elected prime minister, who rose from among ordinary Indian citizens thanks to the country’s democratic pillars, can indeed inspire millions in the region.

Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent resistance inspired millions of youth in West Asia and North Africa during the emergence of mass peaceful uprisings in the nascent stages of the region’s pursuit of democratic values. There is no reason why a revitalised Indian democracy cannot trigger economic and democratic aspirations for millions of youth in the country’s extended neighbourhood. This will now depend on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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