Why India Straddles the Iranian-Saudi Divide, in Foreign Affairs

India’s historical commitment to nonalignment has brought it close to competing states such as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, observe the Atlantic Council’s Bharath Gopalaswamy and Amir Handjani in Foreign Affairs. “Given that the rivalry among those three states could eventually lead to war—endangering India’s interests in the Middle East, where it sources most of its energy and where millions of Indian emigrants live—New Delhi must carefully navigate the growing divide in the Persian Gulf,” the authors argue. “If it does so successfully, it can avoid getting entangled in regional tensions and consolidate its position as a key player in the Middle East.”

Gopalaswamy and Handjani examine India’s dilemma: how to reconcile its deep interests in Iran with its deep interests in the Saudi-aligned Gulf States. India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] rose from $5.5 billion in 2005 to $137.7 billion in 2014-15, making the GCC India’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, while India’s trade with Iran totaled $16 billion in 2014.

The authors note that, “India’s massive diaspora in the Gulf is another reason that it cannot afford a conflagration in the Middle East. Some 5.5 million Indians live in the six countries of the GCC. Between 2015 and 2016, they sent nearly $36 billion of their earnings home as remittances.” They point out that, “India still gets most of its energy imports from the GCC countries, drawing some 750,000 barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia alone.”

Gopalaswamy and Handjani conclude, “As New Delhi seeks a leading role in Asia in the decades ahead, it will continue to develop its ties with Israel—and to turn to the wider Middle East as [a] source of energy and trade. To do so successfully, India will have to strengthen its traditional partnerships with Iran and the GCC even as it forges a new bond with Jerusalem. With luck and careful diplomacy, it can do all three. In the Middle East, it is on this basis that India will seek to realize its vision of becoming a pragmatic, durable world power.”

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