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  Opinion   Columnists  17 Jul 2023  Syed Ata Hasnain | West Asia gaining strategic significance for New Delhi

Syed Ata Hasnain | West Asia gaining strategic significance for New Delhi

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Jul 18, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Jul 18, 2023, 12:10 am IST

India is a major stakeholder in West Asia through its diaspora, remittances and growing economic relations, besides the energy linkages.

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi being seen off by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as he concludes his visit to UAE, in Abu Dhabi, Saturday, July 15, 2023. (PTI Photo)
  Prime Minister Narendra Modi being seen off by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as he concludes his visit to UAE, in Abu Dhabi, Saturday, July 15, 2023. (PTI Photo)

It’s after fairly a long time that I attended a half-day seminar on West Asia, a region till recently in the focus of the world but now seemingly less spoken about.  In 2015, we had wars raging in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, with the Islamic State (Daesh) taking over the reins of ambition to establish its proverbial Islamic Caliphate. The confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia was threatening to go beyond just a proxy war. Qatar was isolated, with some nations establishing a blockade against it. The implosion of Syria through its civil war and the presence of the Islamic State in northern Syria and Iraq had led to a refugee crisis with a beeline of displaced people heading to Europe, especially through Turkey and Greece. Iraq also had an internecine Shia-Sunni confrontation on its streets. While Israel’s relations with the Arabs continued to improve, the same was not the case with Iran. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation remained the core conflict and blew up once in a while. That is a bagful for a region.

With the end of the Covid-19 pandemic and the early developments of a new world order, much focus has shifted to Ukraine and its war with Russia. The global cycle of terror which began after 1979 appears to be tapering off, with a reduction in high-profile terrorist activity and weakening of networks. It was in West Asia, Afghanistan-Pakistan region and parts of Europe that global terror’s activities were earlier much more pronounced; in Af-Pak the intensity is still very high. The anticipated shift of international focus was to the Indo-Pacific, where the US-China contest has been held back for long but the dynamics seem to suggest that the first testing of waters in the kinetic domain could well begin in the near future. The other area of attention of the strategic community appears to be Central Asia, as culled out of the larger Eurasian landmass. This is the area of the Great Game of the early twentieth century and the New Great Game of the twenty-first century. Global terror has its eyes on this area, which is populous and rich in minerals, awaiting exploitation of both human and mineral resources. The focus of the strategic energy scene seems to have diluted from West Asia and shifted to Russia. India’s bulk of energy resources are currently being sourced from Russia.

So, in the midst of shifting strategic attention, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to pay his fifth visit to the United Arab Emirates on his way home from France. The ministry of external affairs obviously thinks otherwise about West Asia’s perceived dwindling strategic significance. Notice that the Prime Minister also visited Egypt on his way back from Washington. A deeper than peripheral look at the recent developments in West Asia appear to suggest that it may be premature to conclude that its strategic significance has in any way reduced. The MEA is not wrong.

In the last six months developments of a strategic nature have been rife in this region. It began with China’s first serious entry into the strategic affairs of the region. Things moved at breakneck speed with the visit of China’s Xi Jinping’s to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in February 2023. Then came the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal brokered by China, in March 2023; that is within three months of the visit of Xi Jinping. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran perceive China as a more neutral mediator and China views itself as a reliable friend of both nations. In fact, China is the largest trading partner for the two countries, a major source of foreign currency for Iran, and has strategic relationships with both Riyadh and Tehran. Most analysts ascribe this Chinese intrusion into West Asia to US arrogance and its refusal to assess how far forward China had moved in the maturing of its diplomacy. A window of opportunity was grabbed, although many analysts believe that China’s ability to understand Islamic politics and sectarian dynamics remains highly questionable. For China, keeping West Asia in ferment to offset US focus and pivot to the Indo-Pacific, is a core objective. The US is not going to redeploy to Afghanistan in a long time, although it remains concerned about it. The Ukraine war will dilute in intensity; it is West Asia with tapering conflicts which could rekindle.

There are some positive trends too, in fact quite a few. The Saudi-Iran conflict seems somewhat arrested, at least temporarily. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Sultan’s quest to introduce some liberal practices in the kingdom, and make the nation free from dependence on energy as the main source of its economy, is real, and there is an air of expectancy about it. The recent visit of Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Karim al-Issa, secretary-general of Muslim World League, to India bears particular significance. What was thus far heard in India, in terms of the change in tone and tenor of Islam in Saudi Arabia, could be judged by the words of Dr al-Issa. He was convincing and genuine in all the interactions he had in India, mostly multi-faith events. If Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the holiest Islamic shrines, changes its outlook to a more modern interpretation of Islam, will it be natural for the rest of the faith to follow. There is no compulsion on that and much will depend on the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the clergy within.

What India is doing is the right thing. It’s a major stakeholder in West Asia through its diaspora, remittances and growing economic relations, besides the energy linkages. This also dilutes Pakistan’s strategic communication against India. The UAE has emerged as a pivotal partner for India. The agreement to promote the use of local currencies for mutual transactions may be the trend-setter for such eventual understanding with many more nations. The comfort level established in this relationship works well for outreach to many others. Besides, this is good for inter-faith ties too, as efforts of the diehard followers of Political Islam to create schisms in society through divisive ways can be curbed to a large extent. What we need is more mutual exchange visits between think tank representatives and personalities like Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Karim al-Issa also visiting and speaking to either end.

Tags: abu dhabi, prime minister narendra modi, united arab emirates (uae)