Modi Looks West

India's Unlikely Relationship with the Middle East

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows his ink-marked finger to his supporters after casting his vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of India's general election in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 30, 2014. Amit Dave / Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is perhaps an unlikely candidate to take the nation’s relationship with the Middle East into a new era. When first elected, he faced questions of whether he, a Hindu nationalist who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when the state saw India’s worst anti-Muslim riots since independence, could change the nation’s policy toward the Middle East for the better. These questions are all the more relevant, given that changing geopolitical currents are making the Middle East more strategically important to India than ever before. A relative decline in U.S. interest and involvement leaves room for other budding great powers to enter. Fortunately, Modi can use two trump cards that will have a greater impact than his domestic baggage, namely India’s image and diaspora.


India is driven by an acute self-awareness of its own history as one of the world's oldest and greatest civilizations. As a result, its desire to become a great power is at the forefront of New Delhi’s foreign policy. India's aspirations began under former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership of the third world, but by the 1990s, India was left wanting more. That was apparent during Modi’s visit to the United States, where he spoke about learning lessons from the United States to become a strong global power.

Increasing prosperity and reducing poverty are essential if India is to become a great power. For this, the Middle East has long played a key role. Trade between India and the region totaled around $187 billion in 2013–14, making the Middle East India’s biggest trading partner. The economies of India and many Middle Eastern countries are complementary. India is acutely energy thirsty and has labor to spare; many Middle Eastern states are in desperate need of labor and are more than happy to sell their energy output to regional and international partners. Today, the Gulf region alone hosts seven million Indians who contribute approximately $40 billion

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