India's relations with the Middle East are extensive, and have flourished for several decades. However, according to Professor P R Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the Middle East is more important to India than India is to the Middle East. India depends heavily on the region to satisfy its energy needs, and India's large Middle East-based expatriate community generates billions of dollars in remittances.
Nonetheless, at an April 1 event organized by the Asia Program and cosponsored by the Middle East Program, Kumaraswamy, one of the world's foremost experts on India's relations with the Middle East, argued that New Delhi's engagement with Mideast capitals is "detached." In effect, India pursues cordial relations with the region, but is careful not to take sides in the Middle East's various disputes.
Kumaraswamy asserted that India's position on the Arab-Israeli conflict represents a prime example of New Delhi's detached engagement policy in the Middle East. Soon after independence, India began cultivating close ties with Arab countries, particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. Relations with Israel took much longer to develop—official diplomatic relations did not begin until 1992. Yet from that point on, the two countries have grown closer and closer. The "climax," Kumaraswamy noted, came in 2003, when Israel's controversial leader Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi—at a time when Belgium had launched an effort to put Sharon on trial for war crimes. Economic and military ties have expanded as well—India-Israel trade has grown tremendously, and the two nations have agreed to a $2.5 billion defense deal.
However, despite these dramatically improved relations with Israel, India has "not abandoned the Palestinian side." New Delhi's position on the question of Palestinian refugees, borders, and other impediments to Arab-Israeli peace is "in direct opposition" to that of the Israeli government. Meanwhile, India remains friendly with Arab states.
What does this all mean? According to Kumaraswamy, India thinks of bilateral relations as separate from the Arab-Israeli peace process. New Delhi is "willing to disengage" on the peace process while simultaneously engaging Arab nations and Israel through warm bilateral relations.
Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020