Bengaluru: A former ambassador who served in the Middle East and played a pivotal role in breathing new life into India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, believes that India’s strong civilisational links and its current engagement with the two pre-eminent powers in the region, Saudi and Iran, rooted in shared concerns, should be the driver in bridging the chasm between the two arch rivals to stop a possible descent into war.
Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad, speaking after a lecture at the Asia Centre here on Turmoil and Terror in West Asia – India’s Recent Engagements with the Gulf and Israel, said a huge opportunity exists for an Indian role in promoting regional security by increasing confidence and trust between the estranged Islamic powers.
Indian engagement with the Middle East were given a major boost with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s ground breaking visit to Riyadh in 2001 and PM Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh in 2010 when he became the first prime minister in 28 years to visit the region since Indira Gandhi. This was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s string of high level visits to the region including his visit to Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, the UAE and Qatar through 2015-2016 and when he hosted UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan in January 2017, followed by a visit to Israel this July. Both the Gulf nations and Israel see India as their “strategic partner,” Mr Ahmad said, quoting Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar who had said “our growing capabilities and stronger national branding makes us a credible partner.”
“India’s energy needs, its economic linkages and its 8 million strong Indian expatriate community that live and work in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Iran, make it imperative for these relations to be sustained,” Mr. Ahmad said. The remittances from the Indian community in the region alone have averaged between $70 - $100 billion a year.
“Any instability, any major confrontation between Saudi and Iran, the two nations that see themselves as the leader of the Sunnis and the Shii, respectively, would have catastrophic consequences for the region, but much more importantly for India as they would put the Indian community in danger and of course, affect millions in the country, who depend on these remittances,” the former ambassador to Saudi, UAE and Oman said.
Despite India’s advanced naval capability that successfully evacuated tens of thousands of Indians after the first Gulf War as well as, more recently, from conflict-torn Yemen and further afield in Iraq and Libya, Mr Ahmad says such an eventuality would put a huge strain on India’s resources.
“I believe its time, that we used our long standing ties with both Tehran and Riyadh, to play mediator and ensure that ties between the two Middle Eastern powers don’t deteriorate further,” Mr Ahmad said.
His call for a greater role for India emanates from the growing divisions between Riyadh and Tehran, concomitant with their deepening rivalry that has seen Iran take control over former Saddam Hussain ruled Iraq and installing a Shia regime there, as well as securing the Bashar al Assad regime that has come under attack from Saudi backed forces.
Riyadh, with the active support of Israel, has stepped up the rhetoric against Tehran, even as it ensured that the Trump administration was now on its side, a sea-change from the preceding Obama government which refused to participate in the Saudi-led onslaught on Syria, and brought Iran to the negotiating table in a hitherto successful bid to contain Tehran’s nuclear capability....