India has persistently engaged with this important West Asian country. Indeed, it has called the region West Asia, and not Middle East, taking the colonial sting out.
Given its hostile ties with Pakistan, India has managed to dehyphenate its relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where three million Indians each contribute to those economies.
The number of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia rose from 34,500 in 1975 to 1.2 million in 1999, and 2.96 million last year. This comprised almost half of the 7.3 million Indians in the Gulf who altogether, despite the slump in international oil prices, sent US$36 billion (RM158.4 billion) in 2015, 52 per cent of the total remittances to India annually.
India’s economic growth and its increasing demand for energy made it a major buyer of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil and petroleum products. Economic factors resulted in the first visit by a Saudi monarch to India in five decades in 2006. King Abdullah had recalled deep historical ties and that he looked upon India as his “second home”.
Amidst shared concerns, there is also sharing of resources as Indian universities and hospitals open up to people from West Asia. It has not been easy but post-cold war, India stopped viewing West Asia through the prism of its issues with Pakistan (which the latter continues), stopped the strong rhetoric denouncing other countries’policies, and abandoned defensive, reactive policy approaches.
India also started consciously courting the United States that deeply influences the region and began to reach out to all West Asians on the basis of mutual benefit.
In particularly audacious diplomatic moves in December 1991, India reversed its earlier vote in the United Nations that had equated Zionism with racism.
But only after personally obtaining Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat’s full concurrence, Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, disregarding strong domestic criticism.
The relationship has flourished and now, Modi is set to be the first Indian premier to visit Israel later this year. Israel is already the third largest supplier of defence hardware and software.
Scholarly Narasimha Rao got on well with Iran’s president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. As then Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati frequently met Rao, the foundation for a broadbased and mutually advantageous bilateral relationship that evolved survived long years of American sanctions on Iran.
India has managed to keep all of these diverse relationships on a positive track despite political obstacles.
Since the turmoil in West Asia gathered force in 2011, India has stuck to the principle that regime change through foreign intervention constitutes a violation of international norms and law.
It has assiduously avoided taking sides in any of the region’s rivalries or conflicts. Yet, it has supported all efforts to defeat the Islamic State as well as UN diplomatic initiatives aimed at negotiated settlement of conflicts.
Positive momentum in India’s relations with its West Asian counterparts has been sustained despite the political turmoil and violence that has convulsed the region.
Modi’s visits to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar between August 2015 and June last year took place amid wars in Syria and Yemen, in which these countries were deeply involved.
Despite sharply differing perceptions regarding the current conflicts in West Asia between India and these countries, the leaders have not allowed this to affect their bilateral relations.
The watershed came with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries strongly and unequivocally condemned, though without explicitly naming, Pakistan.
Since then, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have provided excellent and expanding anti-terrorism cooperation, some of it away from media glare, by repatriating Indians wanted for terrorist activities within India.
Ranjit Gupta, retired Indian diplomat and West Asia analyst, says: “no major power has the kind of people-to-people sociocultural compatibility and socioeconomic interdependence with countries of the Gulf, particularly with GCC countries that India has. Except for continuing OIC activism, mainly on Kashmir, there are no bilaterally contentious political issues between India and the GCC countries”.
Proud of being the world’s largest democracy, India does not believe in the business of foreign countries imposing forms of government on other countries.
Indeed, India believes that GCC Sheikhdoms, Gupta says, “are a factor of stability, fully in keeping with the customs, ethos and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula”.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looking on as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a visitor’s book in New Delhi during his two-day visit to India recently.