The idea that the Gulf countries might have some interest, let alone a role, in South Asian security would sound quite improbable for most Indian ears. The significant activism of the Gulf countries to help defuse the current tensions between India and Pakistan has been evident of this fact.

Historical security relationship –

  • The security of the Indian Subcontinent and the Gulf region have always been inter-linked.
  • Independent India has tended to underestimate the importance of this strategic intimacy with the Gulf, thanks to Delhi’s entrenched ideological approach to the Middle East.
  • In the colonial era, undivided India loomed large over the Gulf. During that era, the Raj offered security protection, a framework for commerce and some administrative support.
  • The Gulf and other locations in the Middle East were critical links in the larger architecture of Great Britain’s Imperial defence system in the eastern hemisphere centred on undivided India.
  • The armies of India had to embark on repeated expeditionary operations in the Gulf and the Middle East through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Indian army played a key role in the Middle Eastern theatre in both the World Wars.

Post-independence scenario –

  • After Independence, India pulled out of any security role in the Gulf and the Middle East.
  • Pakistan became a member of short-lived regional military alliance called the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). Its regional members included Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
  • While India aligned with the nationalist and non-aligned governments like Egypt, Pakistan embraced conservative and pro-Western regimes.
  • While CENTO did not survive, it provided the basis for Pakistan’s external and internal security cooperation with a number of countries in the Gulf region.
  • As the Arab nationalist regimes steadily weakened in relation to the regional conservatives, India steadily lost political ground to Pakistan in the 1970s.
  • Matters got worse in the 1980s as India remained silent on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Gulf regimes joined Pakistan in promoting jihad against the Soviet Union.
  • While India’s energy and economic dependence on the Gulf grew, its political vulnerability was shockingly visible when Delhi’s lone friend in the region, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait and annexed it in 1990. India seemed unable to navigate the rapidly changing Middle East with its old slogans.

Rebuilding of relationship –

  • Paradoxically, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998 and the Kargil crisis in the summer of 1999, opened the possibilities for restructuring South Asia’s relations with the Gulf.
  • The strategic dialogue between Jaswant Singh and the US Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott during 1998-2000 opened an influential new channel to the Gulf.
  • The US mobilised Saudi Arabia during the Kargil War to encourage Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to accept the Indian demand to pull Pakistan’s army back to the Line of Control. Sharif, fearful of the army chief Pervez Musharraf, wanted an American cover.
  • After Kargil, India brought a new self-confidence and intensity to the engagement with the Gulf and the Middle East. Jaswant Singh was the first Indian foreign minister to ever visit Saudi Arabia in late 2000 underlined how far Delhi and Riyadh had drifted in the decades before.

Conclusion –

The bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia that steadily improved in the UPA decade, acquired a fresh momentum under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Two decades ago, Jaswant Singh sought to lift the Pakistan constraint on the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. Today the House of Saud is becoming a valuable partner for Delhi in promoting regional security in the Subcontinent and beyond.

SourceThe Indian Express