Middle East and India Pakistan Ties


Traditional, cultural, and economic ties between the South Asian countries and the Gulf region have existed for several centuries now. While the Gulf region has to offer substantial economic advantages to both the major powers of South Asia; Pakistan and India, it also has the potential to make positive interventions in the bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan. Under its “Look West Policy”, India has consistently strategized its foreign policy footprint towards the Middle East and adopted a rational approach to achieving its objectives. Frequent state-level bilateral visits and extensive economic cooperation have harmonized Indo-Arab thinking to cooperate in the areas of trade and investment, defense, and security-related issues. Pakistan, on the other hand, has strong religious, historical, political, trade, and security links with the Gulf region. Furthermore, Pakistan’s recent decisions on the foreign policy front such as supporting Iran’s nuclear deal; neutrality in the Qatar diplomatic crisis; and declining Saudi Arabia’s request for troops in the Yemen war have provided an impetus to India-GCC countries cooperation, compelling the Gulf leadership to think beyond Pakistan for their interests.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has tremendous significance for India. India has a vital stake in the geopolitics of the Gulf region. As a collective entity, the GCC has been increasingly determining the economic, political, and security policies of its member States and the Gulf countries are moving ahead rapidly with their economic integration efforts. India’s historical ties with GCC states, coupled with increasing imports of oil and gas, growing trade and investment opportunities, providing a large market to the GCC exports, and the presence of a large Indian diaspora in the region, are of vital interest to India. India’s economic linkages with the GCC steadily increased during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, especially due to growth in oil imports. As it is clearly claimed that a pattern of interdependence and coordination is emerging between India and the GCC due to their central role in the current political and strategic discourse.

Currently, the Gulf region accounts for 12.98% of India’s total exports, while it shares 13.76% of its total imports. During 2020-21, India’s exports to GCC were USD 28.06 billion. The bilateral trade during the same period was USD 87.36 billion. The trade increased to USD 84.96 billion in 2017-18, from USD 7.8 billion during 2003-04. UAE and Saudi Arabia are the largest shareholders of total imports to India from the Gulf region.

It is also noteworthy that one of India’s major foreign policies in the post-Cold War era has been to counter a rising China. Both are attempting to create their respective spheres of influence in the Gulf region. India considers the Chinese rise in the Gulf region a challenge to its economic and strategic interests since it can impact India’s economic share in the region. With regards to it, the trade between China and GCC countries exceeded USD 171 billion in 2017. Moreover, China is also pursuing the Gulf region for signing Free Trade Agreements. In this regard, the GCC-China Business Forum and GCC-China Strategic Dialogue are strategic forums for the institutionalization of bilateral trade and investment. With this, it is more likely that Indian economic interests will be affected since each is competing for cheaper oil agreements and export of non-oil goods such as labor-intensive goods like textile, iron, steel, rice, wheat, kitchen items, household articles, and electronics. Indian strategists also consider China a challenge to their energy and maritime security. This is apparent from the Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2004 and Indi’s Maritime Strategy of 2015, which highlights Beijing as a major security threat to India’s maritime security. Therefore, the Indian Navy has been extensively engaging with naval forces of Arab countries through regular exercises in order to ensure its active presence in the region. Hence, China has emerged as another motivating factor behind India’s evolving relationship with the Gulf.

The GCC countries have in the past expressed concern over the hostility between India and Pakistan and have urged the two countries to resolve the conflict amicably. Historically, in 1999, at the height of the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, the GCC foreign ministers issued a joint statement which opined that the “GCC called on the two neighboring countries to resort to reason and prudence in solving the problems between them by peaceful means, avoiding force and the inevitable human and material losses for both sides.” The statement praised Pakistan’s principle position and called on the UN to intervene to end the fighting and by enhancing the UN Military observer force now in Kashmir. Moreover, in the recent past, Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in reducing the hostility between the two nuclear powers in the post-Pulwama period.

Due to geopolitical shifts in the Middle East and South Asia, Pakistan and the GCC states are investing heavily in their defense sector. Pakistan is striving to achieve indigenization and improve sales of small and heavy artilleries. It can be done by seeking GCC’s investment in its armament programs and joint research and development (R&D) in military hardware. Pakistan should invite other GCC states to invest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This will help the government in not only meeting the shortfall in investment, but will also deflect international pressure on the project. Therefore, by revitalizing trade with all the GCC countries, improving and expanding the system of remittances while maintaining neutrality on all fronts, Pakistan can provide an alternative to the Gulf markets. It will also help steer its economy during the turbulent times and could gain immense economic benefits out of the Gulf region.

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