India's balancing act in Middle East
Posted on Feb 26 2014 | IANS
By Gyanendra Kumar Keshri, New Delhi, Feb 26 : Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud arrived here Wednesday on a three-day official visit as India has actively begun engaging with major players in the Gulf region.
"We have so much on stake from the point of view of population (Indian expatriates in the region), remittances and energy security," Anil Wadhwa, secretary, East, in the external affairs ministry, told IANS.
"If we put together bilateral trade and remittances, our economic engagements with GCC countries alone is around USD 200 billion," he said, adding that the engagement is set to grow rapidly in the coming years.
Gulf countries fulfill over 60 percent of India's oil need. Saudi Arabia alone accounts for nearly one-fifth of India's total oil imports. It is the second largest supplier of crude oil to India after Iraq.
In another effort at building this engagement, India would be hosting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Thursday.
Nearly seven million Indian expatriates in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries send home more than USD 30 billion in remittances.
Talmiz Ahmad, veteran diplomat and expert on the Middle East affairs who served two separate stints as Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the US disengagement from the region, especially in Syria, gives an opportunity to the Asian giants like India, China, Japan and South Korea to enhance their engagements.
The US is not actively involved and has shown little interest in the worsening situation of Syria due to ongoing civil war. The US has also indicated flexibility in its approach over Iran's controversial nuclear programme.
It has opened the doors for talks, which analysts say, is an indication of Washington's potential tolerance of nuclear-capable Tehran.
The biggest reason for declining US interests and involvements in the Middle East, according to analysts, is the US's declining energy dependence on the region.
"For energy security, the US is now not bothered about the Middle East. Shale gas output will make it self-sufficient," Ahmad told IANS.
A substantial part of US energy requirements will be met from shale gas in the coming years and according to international agencies, it will make the world's largest economy completely independent of imported oils by 2030.
While the US is set to become self-sufficient in energy requirements, India's dependence on imported oils is estimated to stay or even grow further. India, the fourth largest energy consumer after the US, China and Russia, meet over 80 percent of its oil needs with imports.
Ahmad said India must broaden and enhance its strategic involvements in the Gulf region to ensure energy security.
India also shares a strong strategic relation with Israel, another key player in the Middle East region.
"Our relations with all the key players in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, are very good. We need to enhance our engagements with all the players and balance the relations," said Ahmad.
Israel Ambassador to India Alon Ushpiz recently said Isreal and India are "existential partners" and the two countries are set to further enhance cooperation, notably in the areas like defence, technology and energy security.
(Gyanendra Kumar Keshri can be reached at email@example.com)