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India’s Israel relations, the Middle East and China

India began to enter the Middle East in major ways in the early 1970’s, at the same time as China, and for exactly the same reason: their joint, fast growing need for Middle Eastern energy.5 Until recently India’s Middle East policies were not linked to its relationship with China. Now it is probable that Modi’s quest for great power status and concern about China’s growing footprint around India and in the Middle East are adding impetus to India’s own interest and involvement in what Indians like to call “West Asia”.

Historically no foreign country was better placed to have close relations with the Middle East. The two regions are in geographic proximity with easy land and sea connections. Trade and cultural relations between the antique Indus civilization and Mesopotamia
existed four thousand years ago and were never interrupted until pre-modern times. The expansion of Islam from North Africa and the Middle East into the Indian sub-continent beginning in the 8th century created the world’s largest cultural and economic trading zone almost until the discovery of America. The links between the two regions became more tenuous when the British Empire began to rule both the Middle East and India. However, ironically, the freedom struggle against Britain by both the ME and India created new bonds between them as seen in India’s friendship with the Arab world until very recently. Oil and gas imports are the new factor that has drawn India into the Middle East. Approximately two thirds of India’s crude oil imports come from there, with the main supplies provided by Saudi Arabia, followed more recently not by Iran, but by Nigeria and Angola, an interesting development. Unless India can further diversify its sources, it is predicted that its fast growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil will reach 90% of its total oil imports by 2030. India’s energy needs have led to an enormous increase in the trade, economic, investment and personal links with the Middle East. The mutual trade between the two sides is near to 200 Billion Dollars, approximately three times as much as India’s trade with China. The most visible aspect of this economic link is the presence of at least seven million Indian workers in the Middle East, most of them in the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries. The majority are manual workers, but an increasing number also occupy professional positions in the health, electricity, telecom etc. sectors.

The United Arab Emirates alone (UAE) hosts approximately 2.8 million Indian workers, a large proportion of India’s work force in the Gulf (there are only an estimated 300 000 Chinese in the UAE). These Indians constitute 40 to 50 percent of the UAE’s total work force. There are about 500 weekly flights between the UAE and India. Indian workers have become indispensable to many Arab Gulf states. The latter prefer Indians to other Arabs, Pakistanis or Chinese. One reason are cultural and emotional commonalities – similarities in physical appearance, dress, food, patterns of behavior, language etc. which are not shared by other foreigners. A fear of political troubles might explain the relative absence of Arab workers from oil-poor countries. The perceived need to protect energy supplies has led India to greatly increase its political and military links with all Muslim Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also Iran. Another, more traditional reason for India’s outreach to the Arab world was a wish to contain Middle Eastern solidarity with Muslim Pakistan with which India has fought three wars. Shiite Iran is important to India because it is a gateway to Central Asia and a counterweight to hostile Sunni Pakistan and Afghanistan. Additionally India is home to the world’s second largest Shiite population after Iran itself and the Persian language, art and music have deeply influenced Indian culture.

[5] See Shalom Salomon Wald and Arielle Kandel, India, Israel and the Jewish People, With a Foreword by H.E.
President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem, The Jewish People Policy Institute, 2017, 49 ff.