The past four months have seen India accelerating its engagements with West Asia. Of all these engagements, the ones with the Arab countries have been more prominent with many high profile visits from India to the region.

Since September India has reached out to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Iran. There are three aspects to India’s engagements with the West Asian countries.

First is India’s growing proximity to the Arab countries. Since the past few years India has grown closer to the Arab countries. Although India had cordial relations with the Arab countries for decades, in recent times, India has sought to redefine these relations. Oil trade and remittances from Indian Diaspora in Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, formed the basis of Indian engagement with the Arab world. However India’s relations with the Arab countries are much more diversified with India strengthening defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE by entering into strategic partnerships with both.

Moreover, India’s closeness to the Arab countries has also caused the latter to distance itself from Pakistan. India’s diplomacy with the Arab world has been successful to a great extent with lack of international support to Pakistan from the Arab countries.

India has also been assertive in its diplomacy with the Muslim world in general. It is evident from the fact that in the rivalry between the Arab countries and Turkey, India has sided with the Arab countries while Turkey has supported Pakistan against India, especially on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Also India’s close relations with the Arab countries should be viewed from the point of view of India’s relations with the US and Israel. In the past two decades India’s relations with the US and Israel are growing strong. Both the countries are major defence partners of India. For a long time India had to balance its relations with Israel and the Arab world. But now the Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations (the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in this year) with Israel, India could expect to tread a more seamless path in West Asia.

On economic front, India is a preferred destination for investments for the Arab countries. Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trade partner and has pledged an investment of $100 billion in India in various sectors such as petrochemicals, infrastructure, manufacturing, refining and mining. Recently UAE has announced an investment of $7 billion in food corridor in India.

Second is India’s relations with Iran. While Iran is also an important country for India strategically and economically, the relations between both the countries have witnessed ups and downs in the past few years. Although India is involved in development of Chabahar Port in Iran which would have dual use of connecting to Central Asia and Eurasia as well as a deterrent to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, the United States’ relations with Iran have had an impact on India’s policies. With the United States imposing sanctions on Iran, India had stopped oil purchase from Iran. In the recent times as the United States, the Arab countries and Israel have hardened their stand against Iran, India’s engagements have reduced. While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar visited Iran in September and recently India held trilateral discussions with Iran and Uzbekistan on joint use of Chabahar Port, the pace of India’s engagements with Iran is slow as compared to that with the Arab countries.

Donald Trump’s entire term was marked by strong opposition to Iran. Under his presidency, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear Deal. It is now expected that under Joe Biden, the United States’ relations with Iran would see some improvement. India should hope for some acceleration in its relations with Iran.

Third, Afghanistan remains an area of concern in India’s outreach to Central Asia and beyond. With the Afghan peace process still going on and Pakistan’s increasing influence either directly or through the Taliban pose a challenge for India. The security in Afghanistan also remains the biggest impediment in India’s connectivity projects. The United States is set to reduce its defence forces stationed in Afghanistan although in a phased manner. But this development would further make security situation in Afghanistan uncertain.

Although stakes are high for India in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, at the moment India has focused on the Arab countries. For India, the Arab countries are an important source of investments, especially in the post-COVID economic recovery period. For the Arab countries, India offers an opportunity to diversify their economy thereby reducing dependence on oil trade. As far as outreach to Central Asia and Eurasia is concerned, India could focus on alternate routes through International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC) or the Ashgabat Agreement which implies a route through Iran and Turkmenistan instead of Iran and Afghanistan.

The existing geopolitical and more importantly economic circumstances have led India to pursue an energetic diplomatic outreach to the Arab countries more than the physical connectivity with Iran and Afghanistan.