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India’s intricate balancing in the ongoing Gaza War overshadows India’s regional objectives in the Middle Eastern Quad, leading to a strategy dilemma that navigates between India’s competing priorities. India’s polarity between its relations with Israel and Arab nations was observed when it chose to abstain from vote on the Gaza-Israel ceasefire. This indicates retrenchment of the I2U2 agreement, which was meant to close the divide between Arab governments and democracies.

The ‘I2U2’ partnership aims to establish a robust security framework in West Asia. This collaborative effort involves India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen their multilateral cooperation between the public and commercial sectors in the domain of technology and to work together on international challenges pertaining to water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. The purpose of India’s engagement in the Middle Eastern Quad in the form of the I2U2 partnership is to strategically situate it as a key international player in the complexities of Middle Eastern conflicts. It was designed to enable India to assume the role of a mediator and an extra-regional overseer.

India’s Rationale for Supporting Israel

India’s alignment with Israel in the Gaza war can be attributed to several strategic and economic factors. First, Israel’s significant role as one of India’s top arms suppliers in 2021 highlights the strategic importance of their defense partnership. The potential coproduction of weapons systems further deepens this cooperation. Second, there are indications of a shift in India’s business community’s perception of Israel, as demonstrated by the successful bid by the Adani Group and an Israeli partner for Haifa Port, worth USD $1.2 billion. This suggests a growing interest in investment opportunities and economic cooperation between the two countries. Ongoing negotiations for an India-Israel Free Trade Agreement further underscore the economic significance of Israel for India. Third, a growing U.S.-India partnership coupled with the United States’ unwavering support for Israel may be resulting in India following suit.

Foreign Policy Trade-Offs

The Middle East, characterized by its complexity and volatility, features numerous ongoing conflicts and divergent interests. India’s decision to take sides in Israel-Gaza conflict holds the capacity to undermine its longstanding policy of non-alignment in the Middle East, a principle integral to its foreign policy framework. Significantly, such an alignment may complicate India’s ability to adeptly navigate the intricate regional dynamics of the Middle East and to realize its economic, energy and strategic interests aligned with the region. Significantly, it raises queries about the potential impact on India’s energy security, given the substantial role played by Arab states as major suppliers of oil and gas to India. Out of India’s total trade with the Middle Eastern Region, Middle Eastern crude oil makes up over 61% of all of India’s imports.

India’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is driven by a blend of diplomatic, economic, and strategic factors, which are evident in its associations with significant Arab nations. These goals are particularly exemplified by its close commercial links to Oman which accounted for US$ 9.988 billion in 2021-2022; its robust energy cooperation with Saudi Arabia which is India’s second largest trade partner; with Qatar, with bilateral trade increasing to USD 17.2 Billion in 2021-2022; and its economic and human resource collaboration with the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain is becoming a more significant economic partner, as seen by agreements on investment and taxation. India’s support for a two-state solution is emphasized by its principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. India being the tenth largest trade partner of Israel with make it a foreign policy priority. These links demonstrate India’s skillful management of the complex interaction between energy, security, economic, and strategic interests, as well as its active participation in regional fora to seek maritime security objectives. The Middle Eastern QUAD holds strategic significance in this regard.

More specifically, this alignment may be perceived as a setback for the I2U2 partnership. India’s participation partnership in I2U2 is driven by its global ambitions, seeking strategic independence beyond South Asia. This engagement is important for India due to the potential strategic benefits it offers, including economic and energy security, access to advanced defense technologies, and a role as an international stakeholder in key maritime regions. India’s military presence in the Middle East is exemplified by initiatives such as its involvement in maritime security operations in the Gulf.

India’s standing in the QUAD stemmed mainly from the fact that it prioritized its partnership with the US, the Arab world, and Israel under the QUAD framework. Notably, India decided to forgo emphasizing democracy when it signed a cooperation deal with the UAE. However, unlike its initial commitment to the Arab states within the I2U2 Club, India’s support for Israel on the international scene is again based on its advocacy of liberal democracy against authoritarianism. The UAE’s efforts to normalize relations with Israel are part of a larger Middle Eastern agenda, which emphasizes the UAE’s interdependence with other Arab countries in the region. However, it is imperative to recognize that the Middle East as a whole has continuously depended on diplomatic endeavors to uphold a delicate balance in its regional connections.

Secondly, the UAE, being a member of I2U2, cannot be assumed to not be a pro-Palestinian Arab state. Despite normalizing relations through the Abraham Accords, the UAE’s condemnation of Israel’s military action in Gaza shows that it is unable to act independently of the Arab world. The UAE’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is mostly shaped by regional dynamics, Arab unity as previously evident in Saudi-Iran conflict, and the possible effects on its relations with other Arab states. Different Arab states, significantly including those under the US influence, have reacted and condemned the Israeli military incursion in Gaza to differing degrees. A ceasefire has been called for and condemned by the UAE, while Jordan took a firm stand by removing its ambassador from Israel. Bahrain became the first country under the Abraham Accords to respond to the conflict with such measures when its parliament recalled its ambassador to Israel and cut off commercial ties. These reactions show the complexity of relationships within the Arab world; some countries have chosen to criticize Israel’s conduct in a more forceful and outspoken manner, while others may have chosen to respond more subtly or silently. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the dispute will influence initiative for the normalization of relations between Arab nations and Israel.  Setting the precedent, despite the White House’s assurances on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to normalization, the disagreement is also anticipated to affect talks regarding the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel cannot accomplish regional integration by ignoring the Palestinian issue, as demonstrated by the Hamas-Israel battle. The I2U2 is certain to be impacted by the political constraints that may exist between the UAE and Israel, highlighting the complexities of Arabs regional relations.

What Comes Next for India?

India’s strategy towards Middle Eastern conflicts requires maintaining a delicate balance, marked by the assigned neutral posture it committed to with the Arab states in the I2U2 agreement. Following India’s foreign policy precedents in the Israel-Palestine conflict conditioned India to de-emphasize its defense ties with Israel in order to maintain cordial relations with Arab nations. India’s strategic global role requires India’s dependability in managing conflicts, subject to its foreign policy objectives and the current dynamics in the Middle East and beyond.

In conclusion, India’s approach to the Middle East has shifted from ideological solidarity to a more strategic engagement with countries like the United States, Israel, and the Gulf states, focusing on economic development and security cooperation.

Publication link:  https://strafasia.com/decoding-i2u2-indias-middle-east-balancing-act-and-the-arab-worlds-dilemma/

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