Dr Waiel SH Awwad is a senior Syrian journalist based in New Delhi
Currently, there are more than 14 million Indians visiting the Arab world annually, and more than 7 million expatriates residing in the Gulf countries resulting in more than US $73 billion remittances to India. The bilateral trade exceeds US $150 billion. India imports 65% of its oil from the region and hence oil security is of prime importance. According to experts, India’s foreign policy underwent a change because of New Delhi’s desire to improve its economy and development, working with the East, using its soft power by strengthening connection with Indian Diaspora, and at the same time to develop close ties with the West. In the Nehru era of the 1950s, the Indian foreign policy was marked by the spirit of anti-colonialism, independence of judgment, support of just causes in adherence to international law and the United Nations charter, in addition to the proximity of the Arab countries to India geopolitically, taking in consideration its national interest. It is worth mentioning that the large Indian Muslim population helped successive Indian governments to be closer to the Arab causes. This policy continued to be supportive toward the Palestinian cause. India supported the right of Palestinians for an independent state alongside Israel, coexisting in peace and harmony. India’s stand has remained constant. India’s commitment to Palestine may appear to have weakened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who enjoys a close relation with his Israeli counter-part, right-wing nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Tel Aviv. New Delhi calls it the pragmatic phase of its foreign policy. This phase emerged after the end of cold war, collapse of the Soviet Union and opening of the economy since the early nineties. The Arab world saw India as an emerging power to reckon. It was understood that India is looking for modernization, of enhancing its security and military capability with a high economic growth rate. USA and Israel turned out to be the top technology and military suppliers along with Russia. India normalised ties with Israel after the Madrid Peace conference. This relationship was closely watched by Arab countries, because of the fear that it may be at the cost of the Arab cause since a peace agreement with Israel is yet to materialise. According to reports, New Delhi’s change in attitude towards West Asia was visible as India moved closer to Israel. There is also a strong belief that India wants to fight Pakistan with the support of the Arabs. The foreign policy of India toward the region is now based on ideology and not pragmatism. The position of Muslims in India has become vulnerable under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-mentored Modi government, with reports of discrimination, attacks on minorities, and destruction of their properties in different parts of India. Many radical groups are taking the law into their hands right under the nose of the Modi government. On the other hand, West Asia has witnessed turbulence and escalation of tension and wars with the onset of what is called the Arab Spring in 2011. With the emergence of new powers in the Middle East, India began to get closer to the Arab region to understand these forces under political Islam. The fear of terror spreading into their own backyard is legitimate. On the other hand, it is getting closer to US and Israel in terms of counter-terrorism measures and fighting Islamic radicals. In the eyes of the Arabs, USA, Israel and the West are responsible for the anarchy in the region by arming, training and funding radicals and extremist groups. They are responsible for the creation Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ISIS in the Levant. It was a policy of regime change that started with the Iraq invasion. As of late, US President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has prompted Israel leaders to declare whole of Palestine a homeland for the Jews and denying the Palestinians right of existence. Now they are looking at Jordan as the alternative homeland for the Palestinians .This will lead to more fighting and wars. One of the Arab newspapers said that under Modi the nationalists are charging Mahatma Gandhi with ignorance toward the Jewish because of his support to the Palestinians when he said Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same way that Britain belongs to the British and France to the French. According to website alaraby.co.uk Mahatma Gandhi had regular contacts with the Jews in South Africa who played a major role in his nonviolence movement. The Arab world sees Indian foreign policy changing under Modi and there is growing concern about the agenda of the current government toward the Muslim community, which is the second largest in the world after Indonesia. The main concerns of Modi are to promote Hindutva policy and religious backing to the Hindu community in different parts of the Arab world. This is seen through the focus on Hindu temples and Gurdwara in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries during his visits to UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, where these countries hurriedly showed their tolerance to the existence of Hindu shrines for the Indian community in their respective countries for long years. The relationship between Israel and India is growing. It is of prime importance to the Arab world, not because of the ties as such but because of the worry from the different agendas of each party. It is conceded that it is India’s sovereign right to foster relations with any country. But the worry is of Israel’s agenda toward Arab countries as a whole. Israel is seen as an occupation force of Palestine, parts of Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. It is denying the Palestinians their right of existence in their own country. No matter what Arab leaders may say, and normalize ties with Israel, it is the Arab mass which is objecting to such a move without a comprehensive peace with Israel which looks more elusive the ever. Hence the closeness of India and Israel will always be the most difficult part since it creates the apprehension in the Arab mind that India is moving away from the Arab countries and falling for the US and Israel hegemony in the region. The more it gets closer, particularly in security and military matters, the more it worries the Arab people. In Arab eyes, India remains a bystander to the Arab – Israel conflict, and that in spite of the fact that it enjoys a close relation with all parties, it does not take a proactive role in peace process between the Arabs and Israel. It is believed that for decision-makers in New Delhi, Arab causes are secondary. When Prime Minister Modi travelled to Tel Aviv, he ignored the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which was seen as bowing to Israeli pressure. After the 2+2 meeting with US, External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj postponed her visit to Lebanon and Syria citing security concerns because of “prevailing situation”, while there were more the 67 Indian companies’ representatives attending Damascus 60th International Trade Fair in September. Ironically the Indian pavilion was the biggest, among the 45 countries which participated in the fair, with about 100 businessmen. The close ties with US and Israel are also meant to deal with challenging issues like terrorism, Islamophobia, “Islamic terrorism”, and checking Pakistan nexus to militant groups active in Jammu and Kashmir. There will be closer ties with both on the issue of Afghanistan and Iran in the future, while Islamabad under Imran Khan will move closer to Saudi Arabia. There is a strong belief in the Arab circles that with Modi in power, a close circle of experts are getting regular briefing about the future ties with Israel with the aim of targeting Arab and Islamic countries, in the place of India’s independent foreign policy with its “strategic autonomy”. It is widely feared that such an axis will be against the interest of Arab and Islamic nations’ ties with India, especially when you glorify colonial forces and equate a great India civilization with a 72-year-old Israel. India`s soft power, now is focusing more on education, trade, investment and military ties. It has to enhance its engagement with the Arab/Islamic world and keep a balance to be able to counter dominant USA’s influence in the region, and be a key player in the new security architecture of the region. Arab people and decision-makers are eager that emerging India should play a greater role in the region stretching from Marrakesh to Kabul. Terrorism has no religion or boundary. It spreads like a plague all over the globe and must be fought collectively by the international community. Being selective in targeting terrorist groups will not help in eliminating terrorism nor will selecting certain countries to fight it.