Looking West

Looking West

The gathering of southeast Asian leaders last week at a summit in Delhi was a celebration of India's Look East policy. Could we imagine a similar "Look West" strategy towards the Arabian Peninsula?

Delhi has often mused about Looking West, but there has never been a serious political effort to initiate one. Like southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula is linked tightly to India through history, culture and commerce. Just as the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations emerged as a major partner for India over the last two decades, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) has become a critical region for our economy.

If India did $80 billion worth of trade with ASEAN this year, its annual commerce with the GCC is now close to $120 billion. The GCC countries provide more than 40 per cent of India's rapidly growing petroleum imports and host nearly six million migrant workers. The GCC is India's largest trading partner and together with ASEAN, the GCC accounts for more than a quarter of India's annual two-way trade in goods. But the GCC is a long way from acquiring an ASEAN-like profile in Delhi.

India's political leaders travel less frequently to the Gulf. ASEAN's expansive institutional processes have compelled Delhi to sustain a relentless interaction at all levels. The GCC's institutions are yet to mature and Delhi is under less compulsion for a sustained whole of the government engagement with the Arab states of the Gulf. That could be changing as the GCC seeks a more credible regional identity.

Gulf Union

Faced with growing external and internal threats to the future of the political order in the Gulf, its leaders have sought to deepen their economic and political integration. Although they have talked the talk of customs union, free trade area, common monetary policy and defence integration, the members of the GCC have found it hard to walk the talk.

At the annual year-end GCC summit last year, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asked the region "to move from a stage of cooperation to a stage of union into a single entity". The ambitious Saudi call for a Gulf union came in the wake of the political disturbances in Bahrain and the collective GCC military intervention there in March 2011.

The Saudis are nervous about rising Iranian power and occasionally accuse Tehran of encouraging fellow Shia to revolt against Sunni Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia and Qatar from the GCC have backed Sunni opposition to the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. There has been talk of inviting the Sunni monarchs from Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC.

But not all countries in the GCC are enthusiastic about limiting their national sovereignty and establishing a Gulf political Union. It is unlikely that any progress will be made towards the union at this week's GCC summit in Bahrain. A separate special GCC summit is likely to be called next year to bring the political debate on the union to a close. As Iran and Syria dominate this year's summit level discussion, there is no denying that the GCC, established in 1981 following the Islamic revolution in Iran, has arrived at a fork on the road.

India's role

Even if they succeed in generating greater unity, the weak and vulnerable regimes of the GCC will continue to depend on great power support for peace and stability in the region. Through the modern period it was the British Raj that was the principal provider of security to the Arab Gulf kingdoms. After the Partition of India, and

the withdrawal of Great Britain from east of Suez, the United States has been the main guarantor of

Gulf security.

Although the US is likely to remain the dominant power in the Gulf for the foreseeable future, the region is increasingly concerned about the constancy of American policies and is looking towards a diversification of its security partnerships. No wonder the GCC countries want a stronger political dialogue, deeper economic engagement and substantive defence cooperation with India. It is entirely up to India, then, to craft a purposeful Look West policy.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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