India’s expanding influence in the Islamic world has been a key feature of the country’s foreign policy in the last nine years
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five pillars of foreign policy: a) mutual respect, b) engagement, c) security, d) shared prosperity and e) cultural & civilizational linkages as enunciated under ‘Panchamrit’ framework, has led to India’s resurgence as a leading international player in the Islamic world. Prime Minister Modi has dedicated resources and energy in cultivating relationships with the Gulf nations than any of his predecessors. His efforts have succeeded in an overall change in opinion across the Muslim world, with India now perceived as an influential interlocutor in a conservative Muslim world. Energy needs and diaspora India’s ‘Link West’ policy has pushed Indian policymakers to a multifaceted engagement with the Gulf countries especially with countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. The traditional cornerstone of India's long-standing relationship with the Gulf nations has been energy import. However, in today’s complex geopolitical world, the military-security and defence cooperation along with broader economic cooperation ranging from export-import to technical collaborations, are growing steadily. At a time when the world is witnessing a churning at the geopolitical front with alignment and realignment among powers taking place with higher speed, it becomes strategically more important for a leading power like India to focus on countries in the Gulf region through bilateral and multilateral engagements----all this to make sure that there is adequate availability of energy supply lines for domestic consumption. India’s annual trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, rose from annual trade of $90 billion in 2020-21 to $154 billion in 2021-22 and $240 billion in 2022-23. The Gulf has also been important for a considerable number of Indian diaspora as a big source of remittance comes from Indians living in West Asia. Indian migrants make up a sizable proportion of the regional workforce in the Gulf. Presently, the Gulf countries are home to more than nine million Indians. With approximately $90 billion in remittances, India is the world's top recipient and if the diaspora relationship is cultivated and strengthened then this revenue can easily go up to $200 billion. Defence relations The upward rising trajectory in political relations, propelled predominantly by personal rapport and camaraderie between Prime Minister Modi and his counterparts in Muslim countries, particularly in the Gulf region, has facilitated the deepening of partnerships in the defence sector. Today, defence diplomacy is energizing India's bilateral relations with Muslim countries by increasing defence sector engagements such as joint military exercises, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity cooperation. In May, Indian and Saudi naval forces held the second edition of ‘Exercise Al Mohed Al-Hindi’ in the Persian Gulf off Al-Jubail. The decision to hold joint naval exercises was taken during the India-Saudi Arab summit in Riyadh in 2019, after which the first India Saudi Arabia war-games were conducted in August 2021. The first ever joint naval exercise heralded a new chapter in the bilateral defence partnership between the two countries. Riyadh started warming up its defence relations with India in 2014 when the two countries during Prime Minister Modi’s visit, signed a landmark MoU on defence cooperation. This led to joint military exercises between two nations and training of Saudi sailors and soldiers in Indian military training establishments. Following this the then Indian Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba visited the Kingdom in 2018 followed by General MM Naravane's Riyadh visit, the first by an Indian Army Chief. This visit raised the quality and level of bilateral defence cooperation. With the UAE, India’s defence relations have matured over the years. There have been regular high-level exchanges at the level of Service Chiefs, functional level exchanges and military education exchanges between the countries. The ships of the Navies of both countries have regularly made port calls enhancing bilateral defence co-operation. India and the UAE hold an Annual Defence Dialogue to discuss the security and defence cooperation issues between the two countries. In recent years, IAF participated in a bilateral exercise with the UAE counterparts in May 2016 and UAE Air Force Officers participated as Observers in the Trilateral Air Exercise on Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) theme held in March 2018. Two Indian Navy ships participated in the maiden IN-UAEN Bilateral Exercise in March 2018 named Gulf Star 1 and IN and Coast Guard have made a number of port calls to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, along with the associated PASSEX. Indian Naval ships have regularly been participating during IDEX/NAVDEX held in Abu Dhabi biennially. Three different delegations from the UAE visited the DefExpo 2018 in India in February 2018 led by UAE MoS for Defence Affairs, who later made an official visit to India in October 2018. A large delegation from MoD of UAE participated in Aero India at Bangalore in February 2019. Vice Chief of Air Staff, IAF along with a delegation attended 9th Dubai International Air Chiefs’ Conference and Dubai Air Show in November 2019. For the first time an Indian pavilion was set up at the Dubai Airshow with HAL, DRDO and BDL as the participating DPSUs. In addition, there are a number of delegation visits from both sides to each other’s Centres of Excellence. This year in February, UAE’s leading defence group EDGE signed a MoU with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference at Abu Dhabi for joint design and development of missile systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. Oman is India’s closest defense partner in the Gulf region and defense cooperation has emerged as a key pillar of the strategic partnership between India and Oman. Oman is the first Gulf country with which all the three wings of India’s defense forces hold joint exercises. In August 2022, a 13-day joint military exercise Al Najah IV was held in Rajasthan. It was the 4th edition of India-Oman military drill which took place at the Foreign Training Node of Mahajan Field Firing Ranges in Rajasthan. In recent years, both countries have cooperated to ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. There are also MoUs for Cooperation between Oman’s National Defence College (NDC) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) of India. Over the past few years, Indian Defence Secretary, Chief of Naval Staff and Chief of Air Staff have visited Oman with reciprocal visits to India by all three Omani Service Commanders, Secretary General of Defence among others. Further, Air Force and Navy of both nations undertake staff talks on a regular basis which has been the catalyst for new areas of cooperation. A large number of Omani Military personnel regularly subscribe to numerous courses offered under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) 2 scheme. In addition, other than the Defence Subject Matter Expert Exchange that regularly takes place Indian Navy has been deploying mobile training teams in Oman on an annual basis for training of Royal Navy of Oman (RNO) personnel Bonhomie with non-Gulf countries India’s deepening partnership with Muslim countries is not restricted just to the GCC. Ties with Palestine are very warm and cordial. India’s support for the Palestinian cause is an integral part of the nation’s foreign policy. In 1974, India became the first Non-Arab State to recognize Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, India became one of the first countries to recognize the Palestinian State. In 1996, India opened its Representative Office in Gaza, which was later shifted to Ramallah in 2003. Mutual understanding and trust between India and Egypt further increased during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Cairo in June this year. During PM Modi's first ever visit to Egypt, the two countries signed four agreements and they included ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries, and MoUs in the areas of agriculture and allied sectors, protection and preservation of monuments and archaeological sites and competition laws. Relations with Iran are very strong and unshakable. Both share a millennia long history of interactions. The contemporary relations between the two countries are marked by high level exchanges, commercial cooperation, connectivity paradigm and cultural and people to people ties. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is India’s one of the important maritime neighbours. India’s trade relations with Indonesia have also witnessed an upside tick in recent years and Indonesia has now become India's second-largest trading partner in the ASEAN region. The Ramayana plays a very important role in connecting and showcasing India-Indonesian age-old cultural, civilizational, and historical linkages. Similarly, in the South Asian region, India-Bangladesh ties in the domains of trade, connectivity, energy, security, and water sharing have been marked by the salient values of mutual trust, cooperation, and mutual respect, which has led to a phase of golden chapter in India-Bangladesh bilateral relations under Modi-Hasina regime. With Maldives, India’s relations are very cordial and warm. ‘India First’ has been a stated policy of the Government of Maldives. In November 2022, Government of India in response to a request from the Government of Maldives, amid the economic challenges faced by the Maldives, handed over a financial assistance of $100 million. In December 2022, the RBI signed a Currency Swap Agreement with the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) under the SAARC Currency Swap Framework. This agreement will enable the MMA to make withdrawals in multiple tranches up to a maximum of USD 200 million from the RBI. Conclusion India’s relations with Islamic countries have strengthened in the recent years and the country’s engagement with these nations on trade and commerce, defence, and security, cultural and people-to-people fronts, shows clearly New Delhi’s keenness to further deepen ties with them. In fact, India has shredded its reluctance to foster stronger connections with Islamic nations, which traditionally had maintained extensive ties with Pakistan. Thus, India has now embraced a more practical approach that emphasizes greater flexibility in foreign policy. **The author is working as a Senior Research Fellow with India Foundation; views expressed here are his own