Left to right: Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan hold up documents after participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords, at the White House on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

The establishment of direct relations with Israel by some Arab countries is widely considered to provide leverage for India, which now may not need to maintain a diplomatic balance between the Arab world and Israel.

India’s interest lies in maintaining friendly ties with both sides because the Persian Gulf countries are among its major trade partners and also the source of external supplies to fulfill its huge demand for petroleum, while Israel is a key ally in defense and technological cooperation.

This normalization transforms India into a comfort zone to enhance its commercial relations from what was earlier a quagmire due to animosity between Arab states and Israel. However, diplomacy in the Middle East region could remain complex for India because of another division, between Ankara and Riyadh, which lead two different blocs of Muslim countries. 

Initially, a peace agreement was signed between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, but later Bahrain, Oman and Morocco joined in, and Saudi Arabia will follow this normalization process according to US President Donald Trump.

Although this agreement was named the “Abraham Accords” to give an impression of a peace treaty among the three monotheistic religions, it is in large part a safety-net mechanism for the Arab Gulf countries, allied with the US and Israel, to resist the increasing pressure of Turkey and Iran in this region.

This normalization has mainly occurred in the spectrum of a tussle among Muslim nations under the two different blocs led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Major Gulf countries, specifically the monarchies, are with Saudi Arabia while the most democratic and non-Arab Muslim countries are with Turkey.

India hails this agreement in hope of stability in the region and reassures its traditional support for the Palestinian cause with an acceptable two-state solution. 

Saudi and the UAE have confirmed their support to India unequivocally in its internal affairs, whether it was the abrogation of special status for Kashmir or the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, while Turkey along with Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan have vocally criticized India’s policies in the global forum.

After thawing Arab relations with Israel and worsening ties with Pakistan, India is vying to increase its outreach in the Middle East, and therefore the head of its military for the first time visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

Countries belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation account for almost 30% of India’s trade. Among the OIC nations, almost half of India’s trade was with the Arab Gulf countries during January-October 2020, while it was a total of merely 13% with Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Pakistan.

India’s external trade has declined overall because of the Covid-19 pandemic but trade with the OIC countries has suffered a more adverse impact. During the period January-October 2020, India’s overall trade has declined by 32% in comparison with the same period in 2019, but it dropped by 35% with OIC countries and a much higher 43% with the Turkey-led alliance of countries. 

Despite the relatively trivial trade with Ankara and its allied Muslim countries, New Delhi must not adopt a one-dimensional approach in the formulation of its foreign policy with the Arab states and Israel. India has already lost cheap sources of crude and palm oil because of political differences with Iran and Malaysia respectively.

Iraq, the largest crude-oil supplier to India, has been more inclined toward the Turkey-Iran bloc. Recently Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was warmly welcomed in Turkey by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Any disturbance of the oil supply from Iraq could adversely affect the Indian domestic crude market. 

With the transforming world and emerging new alliances, India needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy without putting all its eggs in one basket. India must not cozy up with the US, Israel, and Gulf countries by ignoring its commercial benefits associated with other states. Russia, China and Turkey have a notable influence in this region, where India could also have a lot of potential unexplored commercial benefits.

India, because of its huge commercial needs and importance of its geographical location, must pursue a non-alignment foreign policy irrespective of regional affinity and animosity. Israel and Arab are former enemies that have become friends now, and similarly, Saudi and Turkey could also mend their deteriorating relations in the future. Therefore, India’s relations must be directed to the benefit of its own interests without getting influenced by the policies of other countries.

Any unwarranted inclination toward a particular bloc can stir the economic isolation from another side that would not benefit India’s overall commercial interests. 

Shafeeq Rahman PhD is a New Delhi-based researcher. His data-driven articles are published in the Diplomat, Huffington Post, Middle East Monitor, DailyO, and many national and international publications. He has more than a decade and a half of research experience in data analysis.