The author is former foreign secretary of India
The first fortnight of August witnessed an interesting initiative by the government of India to restore warmth and expand cooperation with the Arab countries of the Gulf and west Asia. This has been a timely exercise given some distances which have developed between India and these Arab countries over the last 12 years. Events which created these distances are worth recalling. During the Kuwait War, the primary concern of the government of India about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was to safeguard the large Indian community living in Iraq and Kuwait as well as in other Arab countries.
Iraq being supportive of India on the issue of Kashmir, and the substantive economic and energy-related cooperation between India and Iraq were also factors which influenced India’s reactions at that time. Then the foreign minister, I. K. Gujral, went to Iraq and Kuwait. His advice to the Indians living in Kuwait was to adjust to Iraqi authority in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Gujral, in his discussions with Saddam Hussein, instead of being firm and critical, temporized.
The V.P. Singh government focussed on the short-term issue of the physical well-being of the expatriate Indians rather than on the broader strategic and political implications of Iraq’s military aggression and the response of the international community to it under the leadership of the United States of America. A consequence was that most of the Arab countries became alienated from India. Some amends were made during the tenure of P.V. Narasimha Rao as prime minister; but these moves did not make a full impact because the Narasimha Rao government, with the legitimate interests of India in view, decided to open formal and full-fledged diplomatic, political and economic relations with Israel. When faced with criticism from the Arab countries, the government of India responded by asking them why they apply dual standards of judgment on the question of relations with Israel.
While they continued to have very close relations with the US, the staunchest ally of Israel, some of them, like Egypt, had full-fledged relations with Israel; why is it that they took umbrage of India establishing similar relations with Israel' The Arab nations had no cogent and logical answer to this query. But this decision also created reticences between Indian and some of the Arab countries, reticences which gained support amongst Arab governments in the context of the steady expansion of Indo-Israeli political, economic and defence cooperation.
These distances increased with the advent to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi. Certain statements made by the deputy prime minister, L. K. Advani, and the former external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, during their visits to Israel between the years 2000 and 2001 did not help matters. The implied criticism of the previous Congress governments of India in these statements for not having full formal relations with Israel on account of their alleged interest in preserving the Muslim vote-banks in India, did not go down well with Arab governments. The trend of distances was further compounded by the fallout of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the communal violence by which Muslims were affected over the last three and a half years in India.
The hesitation amongst the Arab countries to support India fully on the Kashmir issue also contributed to this process. Despite all this, Singh tried to restore the balance by reaching out to Arab countries during the last 18 months, the high point of which was his very fruitful official visit to Saudi Arabia in the middle of last year.
While there is no need for India to be apologetic or on the defensive about its expanding relations with Israel, given India’s national interests, the importance of the Arab countries of the Gulf and west Asia in India’s foreign policy is substantive and cannot be ignored. Nearly 15 per cent of India’s citizens are Muslims. They have spiritual, emotional and cultural affinities with the peoples of the Arab countries. India has a long historical connection with Arab lands, stretching from Algeria and Morocco, to the countries of the Gulf, over nearly a period of 1200 years. Some of these connections pre-date the emergence of Islam in the Arabian peninsula.
India’s culture and languages have been deeply influenced by interaction with the Arabs. There are more material and immediate interests permeating Indo-Arab relations beyond the above truisms. Arab countries form an important segment of the membership of the United Nations and other multilateral fora whose support is important to Indian matters discussed there. Between 60 to 70 per cent of India’s energy resources imports come from the Arab countries. The large expatriate skilled and un-skilled Indian population employed in various Arab countries, stretching from Libya to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, apart from contributing to Indo-Arab economic relations, are a major source of foreign exchange earnings for India; all the major land, sea and air routes for trade, travel and tourism from India to eastern and northern Africa to west Europe and then on towards north America traverse the Arab countries. Continuing cooperation with Arab countries has growth potential in terms of energy, investments, transfer of technologies, goods and services which are and which will remain of benefit to India.
The logic of these Indian interests seems to be fading away from India’s foreign policy. It is in this context that the initiative to improve relations with Arab countries was undertaken by India in the first half of August. The continuing crisis in west Asia resulting from the military stand-off between Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization, preparations by the US and its allies to launch another attack on Iraq as part of their campaign against cross-border terrorism, and the internal centrifugal pressures affecting various Arab countries, all lent immediacy to the undertaking of the initiative mentioned.
The most important event was the invitation extended to Farouq al Shara, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Syria, to come to India. He visited New Delhi from the 12 to the 14 of August. He met the foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, Advani and the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, utilizing the opportunity to have wide-ranging discussions on the regional security environment, the west Asia crisis, and the unilaterally punitive orientations of the US in some aspects of its anti-terrorist campaign, particularly in Iraq. Shara’s discussions of the west Asia crisis are of importance because Syria is a key player for forging any long-term compromise on the Palestinian issue. Along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syria is the most influential country in the region in many respects.
Indian leaders were able to convey in detail India’s regional concerns, its worries about cross-border terrorism and Pakistan’s India policies. Apart from influencing the Syrian government, Syria knowing about Indian interests and concerns will enable Syria to hopefully influence the deliberations at the Organization of the Islamic Conference meetings and conferences. Shara’s visit was the first high-level visit from Syria at the foreign minister’s level after the president, Hafez Assad, passed from the scene. India’s endeavour was to establish contacts with the emerging power-structure in Syria.
The second significant ingredient in the initiative was the hosting of a tea reception by the foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, for all the Arab ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions in New Delhi, in the first week of August. This is the event which took place, perhaps after a gap of nearly two decades. In my interaction and discussions with Arab heads of missions, their continuing refrain was that compared to heads of missions of important Western powers, their access to the highest levels of the Indian government was very limited and infrequent. They also complained that they did not get briefings even if they were few and far between at the political levels of the government of India.
Yashwant Sinha’s hosting this reception was an important and timely step. The reception was not a social or politically cosmetic occasion. The information available to me indicates that there was an exchange of views between the ambassadors and Sinha on substantive issues of topical interest related to the problems affecting India’s relations with the Arab countries in the political, economic and security spheres. The most important part of these discussions was Sinha briefing the ambassadors about the current state of Indo-US relations and the initiatives being taken by India to restore democracy and normal governance in Jammu and Kashmir.
He briefed the ambassadors in detail about India’s concerns regarding cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. The most significant part of Sinha’s discussions with Arab ambassadors was his conveying India’s reservations and opposition to the invasion of Iraq which is being planned by the US, despite general opposition from the international community and particularly, despite opposition from some major powers and their allies like France and Germany. Sinha also conveyed that despite the importance which India attaches to its relations with Israel, this consideration would not dilute India’s support for the fulfilment of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people in any manner.
Sinha also conveyed India’s strong reservations and concerns about the punitive military actions of Israel in recent months. He also made the point that India’s critical response to Israeli military operations is balanced by India’s equal opposition to suicide attacks and terrorist bombings, regardless of justifications being put out by some Arab militant groups.
In overall terms, this process of restoring a closer interaction with the Arab countries was a necessary move given the most recent developments in India’s regional security environment and the critical developments in west Asia. The current initiative could also be the basis on which Arab governments would come to a rational and practical understanding of India’s relations with Israel and the US on the one hand, and the continuing importance that India attaches to relations with Arab countries on the other.