Distinguished Lectures

Looking West: India's relations with West Asia

  • Amb (Retd) Jitendra Nath Misra

    By: Amb (Retd) Jitendra Nath Misra
    Venue: Central University of Kerala
    Date: October 10, 2019

Professor (Dr.) John S. Moolakkattu,
Professor (Dr.) P.C. Prasanna Kumar,
Professor Reinhart Philip,
Dr. Uma Purushothaman,
And friends,

I would like to thank the Department of International Relations and Politics, Central University of Kerala, for inviting me for this lecture. Thank you for your warm hospitality. I would also like to thank the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for sponsoring my visit here, and Squadron Leader Priya Joshi for her excellent support.

India has ties to West Asia since millennia. The Indus Valley civilization had trade links with Dilmun (modern Bahrain). In the 6th century BCE, Punjab was part of the Persian empire. In the 3rd century BCE, Egypt’s Ptolemy II and the Mauryan emperors Chandragupta Maurya and Asoka exchanged ambassadors. Farsi was the language of the Mughal court, and India’s official language until 1835. This connection continues.

Look West Policy

Unlike our Look East Policy, there was, for a long time, lack of a cogent and comprehensive policy outlook towards the west.

In a shift in thinking at the first Raisina Dialogue on March the 2nd, 2016, Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar noted: "If the eastern front is building upon longstanding policy, the western one is relatively more recent conceptually…” He went on to say, "I can confidently predict that ‘Act East’ would be matched with ‘Think West’.”

I am going to focus on India’s Near West, meaning the Gulf predominantly, and beyond.

West Asia is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood. Continued peace and stability in the region is of vital strategic interest to India.

Prime Minister Nehru emphasised that India’s independence and survival depended on its control of the Indian Ocean. In March, 1958, he said, "I ponder over our close links with the sea and how the sea has brought us together. From time immemorial the people of India have had very intimate connections with the sea … We cannot afford to be weak at sea ... history has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India's seaborne trade at her mercy, and in the second, India's very independence itself.”

The seas are fundamental building blocks of our relations with the Gulf and West Asia.

It is not a cliché that our ties with the Gulf are historic, and we have been engaged all through. The diaspora makes a significant contribution to this, bringing Indian popular culture to the Gulf.

I suggest that, just as the Arab influence on Indian civilization is significant, India too radiates influence over the Arabs. History and geography create a bonding that requires better appreciation.

On the one hand, the Arabs brought Islam to India, through both the maritime route, arriving at Kerala, and the continental route, via Sind.

On the other, India marked its presence in the Gulf. Ramkumar, founder of Numisbing, says in the Khaleej Times newspaper that the currency used in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar up to 1957 was the Indian rupee. Gwadar, on Pakistan’s Makran coast, was in Oman’s possession until 1958. This means India had a direct land border with an Arab country up to 1947.

Why is West Asia So Important for India?

Post- independence India has strategic interests in West Asia. The Gulf states supply the bulk of India’s oil and natural gas, host large diasporas, promote trade and investment, and engage in security and intelligence co- operation.

Oil and gas
The Gulf- West Asia- North Africa region meets a major share of India’s energy needs – contributing over 60 per cent of India’s total imports of crude oil and over 85 per cent of India’s LNG requirements.

Saudi Arabia is India’s largest supplier of crude oil, meeting 20 per cent of India’s needs, valued at US $ 21.8 billion in 2014- 2015.

Diaspora and Remittances
The Indian Community

There are around 8 to 9 million Indians in West Asia. The numbers include 2.6 million in Saudi Arabia (in November, 2019), 2.5 million in the United Arab Emirates, 800,000 in Kuwait, 700,000 each in Qatar and Oman, and 400,000 in Bahrain.

These include managers, doctors, technicians, engineers, IT experts, chartered accountants, bankers, workers, and domestic help. In most of these countries Indians hold the number one rank in the number of expatriates. They are India’s goodwill ambassadors.

A vast majority of the Indian community hails from Kerala, others being from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Being from Kerala, you would appreciate what it means to have a large expatriate community from your state in the Gulf.

The Saudi government acknowledges the role of the Indian community in Saudi Arabia. The Joint Statement issued during Prime Minister Modi’s visit in 2016 notes: "The two leaders lauded the valuable role of the Indian community in Saudi Arabia and its contribution to the progress and development of both India and Saudi Arabia.”

This community is law- abiding. The Emir of Qatar "expressed appreciation for the role and contribution of the Indian community towards the development of Qatar” and "noted with satisfaction that Indians in Qatar were highly respected for their peaceful and hard-working nature.”


This community has a significant impact upon the Indian economy, through inward remittances.

According to a UN report on international migration, in 2017, inward remittances from the Gulf into India were 38 billion U.S. dollars.

Considering that total inward remittances into India in 2016 were 62.7 billion U.S. dollars, 3 per cent of India’s GDP, the impact of Gulf remittances on the Indian economy is significant.

Trade and Investment

Taken together, GCC member states, along with the countries of the West Asian and North African region are India’s largest trading partner. Two-way trade between India and the region was over 180 billion U.S. dollars in 2014-15.

According to Indian Ministry of Commerce data for July, 2018, trade with the Gulf in 2017- 2018 was over 123 billion U.S. dollars, the UAE alone accounting for U.S. dollars 50 billion.

In 2008, the UAE had overtaken China to become our biggest trading partner, as thousands of Indian companies established their presence in their Special Economic Zones.

Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner, trade being 28 billion U.S. dollars, after peaking at 39.26 billion U.S. dollars in 2014-15.

According to Indian Ministry of Commerce data, trade with Kuwait in 2017- 2018 was 8.5 billion U.S. dollars.


The UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund aims at a target of 75 billion U.S. dollars to support investment in India's infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks.

Saudi Aramco has a 20 per cent share in Reliance Industries’ oil business, with an investment of 15 billion U.S. dollars.

The GCC’s Look East Policy

India’s Look West Policy has been complemented by the GCC member states’ "Look East” policy, with a focus on India and China, and other countries to their East.

The Questions

What the data shows is that our relations with the Gulf states are significant and substantial. But they are under- appreciated. This cannot remain a quiet persuasion, forever and more. My whole purpose in illustrating this lecture with figures is to demonstrate how vitally important these relationships are.

Going forward, our relations with West Asia throw open several questions.

Consider India’s relations with the Gulf, Iran and Israel. Does the approach to them properly address Indian interests? Does India pursue a policy of balances? Should any of the three states receive more or less attention? I offer no answers, and leave it for you to make judgments.

India’s View On Gulf Versus Iran

Iran and the Gulf Arab states are rivals for India’s attention. C. Raja Mohan argues that strategic passivity towards the Gulf and a proactive policy towards Iran has limited India’s ambition and influence. This assertion, in my view, needs more research.

Intra- Arab Disputes and India

Clearer is the fact that India has walked a tight rope in intra- Arab disputes, carefully weighing its interests. In October, 2018, the late External Affairs Minister, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, visited Qatar, amid a Qatar- Saudi Arabia row. This was recognition of Qatar’s importance to India’s energy security, being India’s largest LNG supplier. Qatar is also a key supplier of crude oil to India. The diplomatic and trade embargo imposed on Qatar by some Arab countries has not adversely affected, and should not affect, India’s trade and energy ties with Qatar, or any other Gulf country. India enjoys close and cordial relations with all these countries.

In other words, India’s interests and concerns in the Gulf are not concentrated on a particular country.

Seeking Multiple Engagements

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power, Arab governments were a little concerned about a possible Indian tilt towards Israel. This concern was soon dispelled. The Prime Minister very well understood the importance of relations with West Asia as a whole, including Israel. He made his approach clear at Westminster, UK, on April 18, 2018: "What prevented Indian Prime Ministers from going to Israel. Yes, I will go to Israel and I will even go to Palestine. I will further cooperate with Saudi Arabia and for the energy needs of India I will also engage with Iran.”

Relations with the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia have actually shown significant improvement under Prime Minister Modi’s guidance.


Developments in political ties with the UAE after Prime Minister Modi came to office in 2014 are particularly noteworthy.

In August, 2015, he made his first visit to the UAE. This was also the first visit by a prime minister since that of the late Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi, in 1981.

Prime Minister Modi followed this up by two more visits in February , 2018 and August , 2019. During the latter visit the UAE gave its highest civilian award, the "Order of Zayed,” to the Prime Minister.

The late External Affairs Minister, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, spoke as the "Guest of Honour " at the Organisation of Islamic Co- operation’s 46th Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi from March the 1st to the 2nd, 2019. The UAE had invited the "friendly country of India as the guest of honour in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component.”

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was the Chief guest on Republic Day 2017. During this visit the relationship was upgraded to a "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” The Joint Statement with the UAE was an exceptional document as it forbade Pakistan to use UAE territory for anti-India activities.

The UAE has responded with support for Jammu and Kashmir’s re- organization. Its ambassador to India, Ahmed Al Banna, said: "We expect that the changes would improve social justice and security and confidence of the people in the local governance and will encourage further stability and peace.”

Other gulf states have shown quiet understanding of Jammu and Kashmir’s re- organization.

As part of its policy of promoting plurality and tolerance, in 2015 the UAE government provided land to build a temple in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has extradited fugitive economic offenders like Michel and others to India wanted in the Augusta helicopter case.

For the first time, joint naval exercises were held in 2018, and defence, intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation are acquiring greater salience.

In 2018, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit, MoUs were signed in railways, energy, financial services and manpower. For the first time, an MoU between an Indian consortium (OVL, BPRL and IOCL) and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company was signed, allowing for the acquisition of 10 per cent participating interest in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakhum Concession. This is significant, as India has traditionally had only a buyer- seller relationship with the UAE.

Other Visits to the Gulf and West Asia

Prime Minister Modi also made visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, and to Israel in 2017. He visited Palestine in 2019.

Saudi Arabia

Prime Minister Modi visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, and received the kingdom’s highest civilian award. He is due to visit Saudi Arabia once again later in the month.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited India in February, 2019. He was accorded a "state visit” honour, and Saudi investments amounting to 100 billion U.S. dollars were announced.

Saudi Arabia has responded cautiously to Jammu and Kashmir’s re- organization.

In March, 2018, in a first, Saudi Arabia permitted Air India to use its air space to fly to Israel. The news website Aljazeera.com called this "a nod to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's influence in the region.” This certainly was an indication of how much ties had warmed.


Look at the map, and Iran is our near- neighbour. We have strong civilizational links, right from the Mauryan empire. We had a common border until 1947. Presidents and prime ministers have exchanged regular visits.

With the world’s fourth- largest proven oil reserves and second- largest natural gas reserves, Iran is important for India’s energy security. Sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme pose challenges in transforming a buyer- seller relationship in crude oil into a partnership over development of energy resources. Not surprisingly, India termed the announcement of lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in 2016 "a significant success for patient diplomacy.”

In 2012, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister, visited Iran. Prime Minister Modi visited Iran in 2016. From Iran, President Ali Ahmadinejad (2008) and President Dr. Hassan Rouhani (2018) have visited India. Ministerial and senior officials- level exchanges of visits have been regular. There is a dialogue on Afghanistan.

Trade in 2014-15 was 13.13 billion U.S. dollars. In 2018- 2019 it had increased to 17.03 billion U.S. dollars.

Chabahar Port and Connectivity

India has concluded an MoU for the development of Chabahar port in Iran, which will include development by India of two dedicated berths as container and multipurpose terminals. An agreement on this was signed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Tehran in May, 2016. Under the contract signed during this visit, India was committed to providing 150 million dollars’ credit for the first phase of the port. On April 6, 2016, the Government of India accorded approval for increasing the quantum of funds from 150 million U.S. dollars to 450 million U.S. dollars.


The OIC is a problem area in the relationship. Since the 1990s, at Pakistan’s instigation, the OIC has been issuing statements and resolutions against India year after year, which India has rejected outright.


In July, 2017, Prime Minister Modi paid the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in January, 2018. Israel is the third largest defence supplier after the U.S. and Russia, with a turnover exceeding 1 billion U.S. dollars. The two sides have co- operation in arid agricultural technologies, science and technology, start ups, cyber space and intelligence.

According to The Independent newspaper, in 2017 India was Israel’s largest customer for arms, paying 530 British pounds. Israel shows understanding of terrorism directed against India. During a visit in 2018 to India, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: " Indians and Israelis know too well the pain of terrorist attacks … We remember the horrific savagery of Mumbai. We grit our teeth, we fight back, we never give in.”


While developing the relationship with Israel, India is also mindful of relations with Palestine. Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Palestine -Ramallah on February 9, 2018.

What Of the Future?

What should India do to consolidate relations with the region? I suggest that we:

Make political- level visits more frequent. As already mentioned, there was a huge gap of 34 years (between 1981 and 2015) in visits by prime ministers to the UAE. Ministerial and official- level interactions should become more routine and predictable;

Make concerted efforts to attract investments from these countries;

Move beyond a buyer-seller relationship, and strike partnerships in partner countries, and in third countries, in the energy sector;

Strengthen defence and security- related interaction;

Develop an agenda of joint co- operation and exchange of information in combating extremism, terrorism, cyber terrorism and piracy;

Carefully harness soft power approaches in the areas of education, culture, human resource development and medical tourism, among others;

Ensure welfare and safety of the large Indian community in the region in close consultation with the host countries;

Avoid taking sides in disputes among partner countries;

Strengthen welfare measures for the Indian community. Bilateral memoranda of understanding have been concluded, and Indian Community Welfare Funds have been created;

Protect Indian nationals from exploitation;

Facilitate the spiritual lives of Indians. Haj and Umrah are important in this context;

Develop plans for the rapid evacuation of Indian nationals from West Asia during crises. Nearly 120,000 Indians were evacuated from Kuwait after Iraq’s 1990 invasion. The Government of India arranged 488 flights from August to October, 1990, during the Gulf War, to evacuate Indians through Amman. There was "Operation Safe Homecoming,” an evacuation of Indian nationals from Lebanon in 2006, "Operation Sukoon” in Libya in 2011, and "Operation Rahat” in Yemen in 2015.


We share political and security concerns, and need to pool in efforts for peace and stability in the Gulf, as well as the security of the maritime routes passing through the region. Common threats from terrorism and fundamentalism require joint action. Given the conflicts and volatility of the region, Indian diplomacy needs to approach West Asia with pragmatism, delicacy and sophistication. This is indeed happening. Our realists are pursuing multiple relationships with a range of partners, in a careful set of balances. The results are there before us.

Thank you very much for the honour accorded me.

Disclaimer :-The opinions/views expressed in the Lectures are author's own and do not represent the views of the Ministy of External Affairs.