US President Joe Biden is on a Middle East tour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, the leaders of the new I2U2 Group (India-Israel, United Arab Emirates-United States), whose foreign ministers had held an inaugural meeting last October, held their inaugural online summit.

Thanks to the footwork by their officials, the four leaders were able to clinch a short, crisp, two-page joint statement identifying projects with specific details on redressing their challenges in food security and clean energy by leveraging “more innovative, inclusive, and science-based” initiatives.

Without doubt, in the face of two and half years of the pandemic followed by five months of the Ukraine crisis, this looks impressive. Apart from disrupting political equations, these twin crises have deeply rattled the global food and energy supply lines.

Resultant loss of livelihoods and economic disruptions and deceleration in much of the world have triggered soaring inflation with punishing uncertainties. Experts are talking of the irreversibility of a global famine in the making.

Non-availability of fuel, food and medicines creating political vacuum and financial ruin in Sri Lanka presents a microcosm of challenges that have emerged. This is where I2U2 presents one more attempt at exploring alternative templates for redressing these unfolding challenges to protect their own citizens and potentially protect the citizens of their friends and allies.

Institutionalizing I2U2

The key to the success of I2U2, also called the West Asian Quad, is sustaining its credibility. As of now, its survival instincts appear promising given this being a follow-up to two US-led initiatives: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Australia, India, Japan, and the US in the Indo-Pacific and the Abraham Accords of August 2020.

The latter, normalizing Israel’s diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain and later Morocco, has since opened possibilities of Israel-centric regional-level development initiatives. And this may see more Arab nations endorsing normalization with Israel, helping to institutionalize this I2U2 grouping.

Equally reassuring so far has been the support of trends in US domestic politics involving a bipartisan endorsement of its strategy of burden sharing. This is reflected in both the Trump and Biden administrations’ shift to multilateral soft-balancing and gradual reduction of US presence in the Middle East.

March saw Israel hosting the inaugural meeting of the Negev Summit that included foreign ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, with their first meeting focusing on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, though both its agenda and membership may expand in coming times.

As US President Joe Biden makes history this week with the first ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah as well as marking a U-turn on his demonization of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there remain deep differences in US and Israeli strategy in engaging major regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran that could undermine this effort at institutionalizing the I2U2 grouping.

This is what perhaps explains the Biden administration’s desire to bring sobering influences of India and the UAE into I2U2. In particular, the US engagement of India in the Indo-Pacific has been instructive as India has withstood all pressure toward militarizing the region, leading to the US finally outsourcing security responses to the AUKUS security regime.

Sans geopolitics

While the US and Israeli engagement of I2U2 will be suspected of being guided by geo-strategy for tackling their rivals Russia, China and Iran, the brief joint statement from this “West Asian Quad” shows promise of gradually building credibility of being focused on geoeconomics.

Indeed, in the online meeting during Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s visit to Israel in October 2021, when I2U2 was first conceptualized, the press statement from the host Israel called it “an international forum for economic cooperation.” Six major areas were then identified for their mutual financial and technical investments: water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security.

However, in view of changed circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, the inaugural I2U2 summit chose to focus narrowly “on the food-security crisis and clean energy.”

Second, as US State Department spokesman Ned Price recently underlined, while all four of these countries “are technological hubs,” India has come to be viewed as the “massive consumer market” offering opportunities for the other three to invest their financial and technical resources as well as their expertise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking of digital India alone having scope for attracting investments worth US$1 trillion or more.

The UAE also has its priorities. Being home to the International Renewable Energy Agency and host for the 2023 Climate Change COP28, the UAE’s president, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the I2U2 summit pledged to invest $2 billion in developing integrated food parks in India.

Meanwhile Israel and the US will contribute climate-smart technologies and expertise to reduce food waste, conserve water and employ renewable energy aimed at tackling food insecurity in their respective regions. The grouping will also help India build a 300-megawatt hybrid (wind and solar) renewable energy project.

In fact, the joint statement makes India appear as the main beneficiary of their inaugural summit, though India has also come to be valued as a food-exporting country.

India’s interests

In fact individually India has for long been engaged with the member states of the I2U2 Group, only this now is being explored as their first multilateral initiative. The US has invariably remained India’s largest trading partner and there has been constant talk of their trade potential, taking it from the current value of a little over $100 billion to $500 billion.

Similarly, the UAE, India’s third-largest trading partner, recently signed a free-trade agreement (FTA) that is expected to increase their bilateral trade from the current $59 billion to $100 billion or more in five years’ time. 

India and Israel are also currently at an advanced stage of their FTA negotiations and their ties have seen exponential growth in recent years. India’s ties with Israel have been transformed, making it India’s major defense supplier and the value of their bilateral trade moving from $200 million in 1992 – when India formally established its embassy in Tel Aviv – to $6.35 billion last year.

With the UAE as well, the idea of food corridors connecting farmers to food parks was first mooted before the pandemic, but the Ukraine crisis has since revived this initiative. Major Dubai-based firms like Emaar Group are expected to invest billions to rejuvenate India’s agricultural productivity.

The pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have seen India emerge as an important exporter of agricultural products, marking a 20% increase in its food exports, reaching $49.6 billion for 2021-22 compared with $37.3 billion for the previous year.

Interventions from I2U2 are expected improve India’s storage capabilities for both food and renewable energy using innovative technologies.

The big idea here seems to be to enhance intermittency and decentralization of power generation and storage to make deep penetrations in India’s national electricity grid while providing stability from fluctuating prices. This will also promise to help India achieve its target of tripling its renewable power generation to reach 500 gigawatts by 2030 and achieve a net-zero emissions by 2070.

Defying divergences

But with each of the four I2U2 nations having its own emotional and historical baggage, it will not be easy for them to stay on course and overcome their divergences. Some critics have already denounced it as nothing more than a “hedging” strategy devoid of “logic” and having “no strategic value,” as they see it driven by Joe Biden’s China-containment policy, along with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid pushing for his “punish Iran” thesis.

India and the UAE as of now seem more focused on geoeconomics, and they see I2U2 as a platform for greater global recognition as well as complementary for their management of global shocks in food and fuel supplies.

While this Quad in the Middle East will always be compared to the Quad in the Indo-Pacific, the sustained success of the latter so far – four summits in 14 months – could also inspire it. Its inaugural summit has surely survived headwinds, but how far I2U2 will be able to expand on their convergences and build synergies remains to be seen.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and professor of diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is president of the Association of Asia Scholars; adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.