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India’s place in the Middle East
The Middle East and Persian Gulf region has, over recent years and months, experienced events and developments that have changed the pattern of alliances and strategic interests to a large extent. Let’s remember that, for a historical moment, an effective alliance against the so-called “Islamic State” (“ISIS”), composed among others of American, Turkish, Iranian, Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian forces of both the regime and the anti-Assad opposition, had led a relatively successful war against that terrorist organization of Saudi origin. The presence of US troops on the ground, however, started to be reduced already while Obama was in office. This trend continued under the current US Administration, which did not bother to honor their obligations towards Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish fighters. The operative alliance for the extinction of the “ISIS”, existentially important for the survival of Syrians and Kurds, was cancelled by US-President Trump on shortest notice and unscrupulously, cementing thus the poor reputation of America’s loyalty towards allies. America’s partial withdrawal from Syria certainly was one of the relevant factors for the re-establishment of Assad’s rule over Syria. But it also helped Turkey, Russia and Iran to strengthen their military foothold in Syria.
The US withdrawal from Iraq, slowly but steadily, made also other governments in the region understand that they had to start planning their future without the reassurance of American strategic interest in the region. The most vulnerable in the region with this respect are certainly the Arab monarchies around the Persian Gulf. The new pattern of alliances for the defense of strategic interests is shaping a new regional order. On the one hand you find an axis composed of Turkey, Qatar and Iran, opposing it you find the amazing new grouping composed of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis may continue to refrain from recognizing Israel’s claims over Palestinian lands and Jerusalem, which has to do with their special role as Guardians of the Holy Muslim places of Mecca and Medina. But Saudi Arabia, too, depends on a powerful support against Iran. With this respect, the place of the US is increasingly being taken over by Israel. Israel’s military might, still with the US as a supporter in the background, is becoming the regional power making the essential difference.
More and more, the leadership of Gulf Arab monarchies recognize Israel as the indispensable regional military hegemon. This is of historic importance, because it illustrates the abandonment of the Palestinian cause, which, for decades, had been uniting Arabs all over the region against Israel. It may be a strong assumption that Arab people “in the streets” do not adhere to their rulers’ strategic choice, but currently that aspect remains irrelevant for the strategic equation.
In this recent development, Palestinians are the one losers. The other loser, for the time being, is Iran. Its share in common interests with Turkey and Qatar is only partial. Against Gulf monarchies, Turkey would be of no avail for the defense of Iran interests in the Gulf. Under US sanctions, Iran’s economy is paying a heavy price, which in return is shaping Iran’s domestic politics in a direction of a replacement of the current Rohani administration by a rebirth of Revolutionary Guards in government. Next year, Iran is holding regular presidential elections.
US sanctions on Iran have one more impact: Europeans through their national governments i.a. of France, Germany, Italy and even the United Kingdom are being prevented from realizing the big hopes, which the so-called Nuclear Deal of 2015 had triggered for economic cooperation and trade.
Against this background, the moves of two regional outsiders, China and India, deserve a closer look.
China, although adhering to the Nuclear Deal and, thus, supporting Iran, still refrains from taking advantage too excessively of its new-gained influence. The most redoubtable competitor of the US as a global superpower, who could powerfully step in as an alternative buyer of energy and as a supplier of much needed high-technology products, seems to carefully restrain from hurting US and Western “feelings” too much. But it is, nevertheless, consolidating its position in the region. It is developing its support for the construction of strategic railway-lines running through Iran as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is even about to substitute India in Chabahar, the South-Eastern Iranian deep-sea port, which is India’s cornerstone of its own International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), linking the Subcontinent through Iran with Russia.
And that’s where our scepticism comes in. India, with its old legacy of Persian Gulf involvement, with a large ex-pat community in the Arab Gulf States, with a vital interest not to abandon its historic and somehow “natural” control over the Indian Ocean, seems at a loss to counter the drive of China’s surge as an inter-regional hegemon. The Covid-19 pandemic is dramatically depriving India’s Government of the means to match China’s surge wherever strategic tools are essential. India, today, is unable to carry on the much-needed modernisation of its naval forces. India is losing out to China’s growing power projection capacities on land and on sea. Soon it will be missing in strategic concepts of other world powers aiming at containing China. This is one of the more visible impacts of the pandemic, and one day, it will prove to be of a historic dimension. Look at the Persian Gulf region and you will see India’s retreat from global politics.
30 October 2020 / Philippe Welti