Jan-Mar 2014

Forging a Collaborative Path in the Middle East

At a recent conference organised by the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (ISB) and the Consulate General of the United States, scholars and thinktank experts addressed a range of critical issues facing India and the US as they aspire to engage meaningfully with the Middle East and ensure stability and security in the region.

This year, the Bharti Institute of Public Policy (BIPP) at the ISB joined forces with the Consulate General of the United States (US) in Hyderabad to organise a conference titled “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: The US and India Forging a Stronger Middle East”. The idea for the conference, which was held at ISB’s Hyderabad campus on September 31 and October 1, 2013, emerged from a growing realisation that both US and Indian relations with the Middle East are at a crossroads and that a paradigm shift in policy is required to engage more meaningfully with the countries of that region.

In recent years, India and the US have expanded their areas of mutual interest to include energy, security, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, trade and people-to-people ties. India also has a large diaspora in the Middle East – more than six million Indians live and work in the Gulf countries alone. Therefore, the US and India have a mutual interest in ensuring a stable and secure Middle East. However, recent political upheavals in the region, the latest of which took place in the run-up to the conference when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons to quell a citizens’ uprising, point to the need for a deeper understanding of the forces at play in the region and their repercussions for both countries. In this context, the conference sought to bring together civilian and military think tank experts from the US, India and other countries on a single platform to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities and obstacles before the two countries as they take on significantly different roles in the Middle East.

In his inaugural speech on September 31, Ajit Rangnekar, Dean, ISB emphasised the need to engage with and understand the new realities to devise strategies that reflect the evolving politics of the region. “Collaboration is part of our DNA,” he stated. Michael C Mullins, Consul General of the US Consulate in Hyderabad, in his address, underscored the growing importance and involvement of think tanks as a key institution in policy making and welcomed more initiatives to engage stakeholders from across the spectrum.

Among the many well-known experts and scholars on the Middle East from the US at the conference was Steven A Cook, Hasib J Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who delivered the keynote address. Dr Cook began by tracing the historical imperatives for US involvement in the region. One of these was to ensure the free flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to the US and its various allies. The other, which persists today, was the historical and moral obligation felt by certain sections of the US strategic and policymaking community to extend military and economic aid to the then newly created Israeli state to ensure its safety and security.

According to Cook, the point of departure, or as he described it, “the all changing inflection point,” was the shift in US policy following the September 11 attacks, most overtly manifested in the war on terror and increased military and diplomatic involvement in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and most recently, Syria. There had been growing criticism against what was seen as the domineering role of the US in the region from all over the Middle East and from international observers, he noted. While advocating for fundamental change in the policies of the last 10-15 years, Cook observed that decreasing the influence of the US in the Middle East would not necessarily mean a reduction of its military presence in terms of active duty personnel deployed at various bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and other Middle Eastern nations. He concluded by focussing on the opportunities that could arise from greater US-India cooperation on their shared interest in ensuring a stable and secure Middle East. Cook emphatically stated that “India’s strengths – being the largest democracy and emerging as a successful postcolonial state – give India the strategic lever as well as the moral voice to promote democracy in the region.”

The panel discussions on October 1 were led by an eclectic line-up of academics, experts and policy makers. The discussion opened with a panel on “Energy Trends”, which as the moderator, Amirullah Khan, Senior Policy Adviser, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, remarked, is a central concern for both countries. The panel included TP Sreenivasan, former Ambassador of India to the United Nations and former Governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency; Suresh Prabhu, former Union Minister for Power; and Michael A Levi, David M Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Programme on Energy Security and Climate Change, Council on Foreign Relations.

In his talk, Dr Levi pointed out that the US had developed more flexible markets for oil, thereby significantly reducing its dependence on the Middle East for oil and ensuring that no single country could cut off its supply. It had also increased its production of oil and natural gas to the extent that it had started exporting natural gas. However, he added, “We still face challenges, some of which are enduring, some of which are new.” These include an enormous increase and greater volatility in oil prices, increasing awareness of new environmental threats that come from the way oil is consumed, and the increasing instability in the region, which affects the price of oil. The next speaker, Suresh Prabhu, discussed in detail the energy needs of India and how oil price volatility in the Middle East would have larger ramifications for the world market. He also observed that countries such as Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia were investing in renewable energy (solar energy) and hoped that India would also follow suit. He said that India needed to diversify primarily because “we do not have a strategic resource of oil. Our strategic resource lies in the Middle East … so any disruption is going to affect us badly.”

India’s strong links with the Middle East go back a long way and encompass issues other than oil. This key point was highlighted by TP Sreenivasan when he stated, “Even before oil became an issue, we had cultural links with the Arab states. We were deeply in favour of a Palestinian state and at the same time friendly with Israel.” According to him, if the US withdrew from the region, there was a possibility that China, not India, might fill the gap.

Trade issues formed the focus of the next panel discussion. The panel comprised Professor Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, and KKM Kutty, Head, National Committee on the Middle East, Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), with Professor Rajesh Chakrabarti, Executive Director, BIPP, moderating the session. Professor Chakrabarti gave a quick overview of the size and the countries involved in trade between the US and the Middle East and India. Both speakers highlighted the growing trade between India and the Middle Eastern region and the new challenges that may emerge as a result. Professor Chaulia revealed that India’s collaboration with Israel extended well beyond the weapons trade; he offered the example of an agro-science park in Karnal, Haryana, set up in partnership with Israel, where local farmers were learning productivity enhancing techniques.

Geostrategic and security issues occupy a central position in both Indian and US foreign policy towards the Middle East. India, like most other countries, was caught off guard when pro-democracy movements began to destabilise established governments in the region. The need for India to evolve a more nuanced and coherent policy towards the Middle East was highlighted by Praveen Swami, National Security Analyst, who moderated the panel on security. Another key point highlighted by Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhasker, former Deputy Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and one of India’s foremost experts on strategic matters, was the need to enhance diplomatic engagement with the governments of the Middle East if both the US and India aspired for greater stability in the region. He also spoke about the difficulty of maintaining trade relations with Iran, despite its strategic significance for India on various levels, including its potential to stabilise Afghanistan

Appropriately termed “People-to People Ties”, the last panel explored the implications of India’s longstanding cultural ties with the Middle East and of the large diasporic population residing in various Arab countries. Asaduddin Owaisi, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha urged India to invest more in the region and also drew attention to the poor working conditions under which many Indians were employed in the region.

Kaushiki Sanyal, Senior Analyst at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB) contributed to this report for ISBInsight.

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