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India and the Persian Gulf: a region of growing competition with Pakistan
The Persian Gulf has become a key priority of Prime Minister Modi’s active outreach in the country’s foreign relations. With that, India joins its arch-enemy Pakistan as competitor in a region of growing importance for both. The competition is strategic and economic and will, in the long run, change the power equation between the countries of the region, in particular the fundamental antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, the Arab Gulf countries, are dominant suppliers of energy to India and to Pakistan. With their oil and gas income they are also economically powerful trading partners and, by employing Indian migrant labour force, provide more than half of India’s foreign exchange remittance. PM Modi has, over the last two years, deepened and diversified India’s relationship with the Gulf region by adding a growing engagement in the defence and security field. The most notable increase of defence and naval cooperation is with Oman at the entrance to the Gulf. With Iran, too, India had always had good relations, which had only been limited, on the insistence of the USA, during the international nuclear dispute. Since the conclusion of the Nuclear Treaty between Iran and six world powers, relations have rapidly improved between India and Iran. India will again, and now on a higher level, observe balanced relationships with the antagonising camps at the Northern and Southern shores of the Persian Gulf. India sends the largest foreign labour community to the Arab Gulf states, but remains aware of the Sunni-Shia divide among its own Muslim community at home and will therefore abstain from taking sides between Sunni Arabs and Shia Iran. India has most recently signed a tripartite agreement with Iran and Afghanistan with the objective of developing the South-Eastern Iranian port of Chabahar, the strategic purpose being to establish a transport corridor through Eastern Iran to Afghanistan and ultimately Central Asian countries. This large infrastructural project with an eminent trade and strategic dimension serves to circumvent Pakistan, who has denied India access to Afghanistan through Pakistan. India and Pakistan have, in addition to their decade-old direct confrontation over Kashmir, competing interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. With the Chabahar port project, India has succeeded in substantially improving its strategic position in the Gulf. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan with its Sunni majority population has, on its part, a more obvious interest to maintain strong ties with Arab Gulf states. Similar to India, Pakistan profits from a threefold interest: energy supply from the Gulf, trade and other economic interests and expatriate remittances. Respective statistic figures may be smaller than those of India, but they represent higher relative shares for Pakistan’s economy and make Pakistan, therefore, more dependent on the Gulf. As India is now pursuing a more active Gulf strategy, it is not only developing a new regional focus, but adds a new dimension to its perennial confrontation with archenemy Pakistan along the Line-of-control running through Kashmir and on the mutual nuclear deterrence. India is now confronting Pakistan also in the Gulf region. Due to their domestic vulnerability against their internal Sunni-Shia sensitivity, both countries will continue to refrain from taking sides between the fundamental antagonists Iran and Saudi Arabia but they have both become players and possible stakeholders in the region’s problems. India may just be one more outside power taking an interest in how the conflict-ridden Middle East will find peace and stability before starting to repair the immense damages and to engage in a new development. With Pakistan in a comparable situation, however, the two dominant giants of the Subcontinent find themselves again with their old conflicting interests on a new battleground.
17th October 2016 / Philippe Welti
(Source: IISS Strategic Comments Volume 22, Comment 25, September 2016)