An Indian woman displays the photograph of her brother, an Indian worker who was kidnapped in Iraq, in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, June 2014.
Munish Sharma / Courtesy Reuters

Shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in May 2014, his government faced its first foreign policy crisis. Just weeks after his inauguration, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured 41 Indian construction workers in Mosul and 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, producing one of India’s worst-ever hostage crises.

This was not the first time that New Delhi had been rocked by events 2,000 miles away. In 1990, for example, India had to evacuate over 110,000 citizens from the Middle East during the first Gulf War -- an operation that required just under 500 flights over a period of two months. Faced with turbulence it could neither prevent nor influence, but which threatened the lives of Indian citizens and the country’s economy, New Delhi carried out similar airlifts from Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014. 

The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has long been tied to that of India. As Salman Khurshid, then India’s foreign minister, noted in 2013, the Persian Gulf, which supplies two-thirds of India’s oil and gas, is the country’s largest trading partner -- more important than the 28 countries of the European Union combined. Despite its stake in the region, however, India has remained passive in the face of crises. It appears wary of taking on a more assertive diplomatic or military role -- more likely to evacuate citizens than send more in to grapple with the Middle East’s problems.

AT ARMS LENGTH

Over the past decade, New Delhi has reacted to turmoil in the Middle East with interest but little else. In 2003, for example, according to the historian Rudra Chaudhuri, New Delhi briefly considered deploying its 6th Infantry Division to northern Iraq -- a contingent that would have been the second largest in the country, behind only that of the United States. New Delhi ultimately dismissed this possibility, however, in the absence of a supportive resolution from the United Nations. Although New Delhi appeared eager to advance the U.S.-Indian relationship by committing troops, it would not do so at the cost of its historical commitment to multilateralism and to what Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister at the time, called an “honest nonaligned policy.”

New Delhi remained committed to nonalignment in 2011, when it opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. India abstained from voting on UN Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya, calling the situation there an “internal affair,” and hewing closely to the Russian and Chinese position. India’s permanent representative to the United Nations complained that “the pro-interventionist powers did not ever try to bring about a peaceful end to the crisis.”

New Delhi has viewed subsequent uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere similarly. Like China and Russia, India voted against UN resolutions in February and July 2012 that called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. It also abstained from voting on a harsher resolution in July 2013, arguing that it could not support “effecting regime change by sleight of hand,” and opposed the United States’ proposed punitive missile strikes. Indeed, India’s foreign ministry continues to assert on its website that “India and Syria enjoy friendly political relations based on historic and civilizational ties.”

WHAT’S AT STAKE

What explains India’s reluctance to involve itself in the Middle East? In part, New Delhi is wary of supporting popular uprisings that it views as causing regional instability and disruptions in the global energy market. The Indian government heavily subsidizes public sector domestic oil companies and products -- New Delhi has spent 1.4 percent of India’s GDP on fuel subsidies since 2008 -- and is therefore particularly vulnerable to market volatility, especially if the Indian rupee falls relative to the U.S. dollar.

India has another vested interest in the Middle East’s status quo: remittances. Given the substantial population of Indian citizens in the Middle East -- Libya was home to some 18,000 in 2011, for example, and Iraq to 10,000 this year -- it is no surprise that the region provides India with its highest remittances. In 2012, for example, India received $69 billion in remittances, of which $30 billion came from the Gulf States, including $15 billion from the United Arab Emirates and $8 billion from Saudi Arabia. Instability, in the form of Western interventions, domestic unrest, and the like, threatens this cash flow.

In addition to these economic concerns, New Delhi has deeper ideological reasons for its opposition to intervention in the Middle East. Indian policymakers tend to view recent Western intervention in the Middle East as comparable to the U.S.-funded and Pakistan-led effort to support opposition forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. In the Indian view, it was the West’s intervention that primed Afghanistan for the growth and spread of radical Islam. Suhasini Haidar, strategic & diplomatic affairs editor of the Indian newspaper The Hindu, summarized the feelings of many Indians in a July 2014 op-ed: “Each of the countries today at the center of the world’s concerns over extremism is, in fact, a country that has seen direct or indirect Western intervention, not Western absence -- Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq.” Moreover, India is particularly wary of Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting ultra-conservative Islamists, a caution compounded by India’s pragmatic relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. 

These beliefs explain why, during Modi’s first official visit to Washington in September, he ruled out India joining the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which includes Saudi Arabia but excludes Iran. It also helps explain why India has not supported opposition forces in Syria: Like Moscow and Tehran, New Delhi sees the Assad government as an authoritarian but secular regime that has been attacked by fundamentalists armed and funded by the West, and believes the civil war will lead to long-term disorder, further extremism, or both. 

A LARGER ROLE? 

For now, India appears unlikely to broaden its role in the Middle East. At the Geneva II peace talks in early 2014, for example, India appeared unwilling to use its influence over the Assad regime to help broker an end to the Syrian civil war. Unlike countries such as Turkey that revel in the pomp of mediation, India sees advantage in obscurity: Why invite global scrutiny of its position on a sectarian civil war, the argument goes, when the prospects of success are so low and the likelihood of alienating one side so high?

 In September, an article in the Hindustan Times newspaper suggested that, in the wake of the spread of ISIS, New Delhi would consider offering “material and financial” support to the Kurdistan Regional Government. “India has traditionally been wary of taking steps that can be seen as support for separatist elements in Iraq,” a senior Indian official is quoted as saying. “But in light of the changing geopolitics of the region, we need to hedge our bets with all key players.” But there has been little follow-up from the Indian government, and it remains unclear what commitments, if any, will be made. 

India has too much on its regional plate -- an increasingly violent border with Pakistan, growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, and a fragile Afghanistan -- to devote serious resources to the Middle East. But a nation that seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has so many economic and security interests at stake in the Middle East could benefit from a larger role. Any future military role, however, would have to be predicated on a robust UN-authorised multilateral framework, something that is likely to prove elusive.

New Delhi could nevertheless leverage its unusual position -- positive relations with both Iran and Israel, for instance -- to play an important role in regional diplomacy. A larger and more diverse Indian diplomatic and intelligence footprint in the region would also help India protect its citizens and understand the complex mosaic of regional players in a place like northern Iraq. And, as Russian and Chinese interest in the Middle East grows, Western powers should welcome a broader and deeper Indian role.

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  • SHASHANK JOSHI is Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a PhD Candidate at the Department of Government, Harvard University.
  • More By Shashank Joshi