The signing of the ‘Abraham Accords’ in 2020 was a watershed moment in geopolitics amid the havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Abraham Accords are a series of joint statements issued by Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between these countries. The accords were ratified on 15th September 2020. This was the first instance of Arab-Israel normalisation since Jordan established diplomatic relations with and formally recognised Israel in 1994. With these agreements, the UAE, and Bahrain became the third and fourth Arab countries to formally recognise Israel and establish diplomatic relations with it. Before this, Jordan and Egypt were the only Arab countries that had a full diplomatic relationship with Israel (PTI, 2020). The United States (US) mediated these agreements to decrease its presence in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region. Clearly, because India is a major player on the world stage, the Abraham Accords have serious security implications for it.
Many scholars believe that the US’ shift from the MENA region to the Pacific region will leave a void in the MENA region. However, this void can be effectively filled by ‘Indo-Abrahamic’ ties, a term coined by scholar Mohammed Soliman (Soliman, 2021), which is why the US has been urging India, the UAE, and Israel to strengthen and expand their cooperation.
When it comes to India, it has always regarded Israel as an important strategic partner, especially when it comes to its national security. During the Kargil War, for example, Israel provided India with laser-guided missiles, which aided India in destroying Pakistani posts. And when it comes to the UAE, it has always been a very important partner, especially when it comes to energy security. And energy security is an integral part of any country’s national security. Moreover, the UAE has been trying to increase defence cooperation with India because both nations face similar threats. So clearly, India has always had good relations with both countries, but it was unable to cultivate those relationships to the extent that it desired because India had to balance its position while dealing with the two ‘opposite worlds of ideology’ because if it sided with Israel, the Arab world would have been antagonised, and if it leaned more towards the Arab world, it would have to deal with Israel’s backlash. However, this can now be altered.
So normalisation of relations between Israel and various Arab countries opens up ample opportunities for India.
Prominent developments in the region
With the US leaving the MENA region, India can seize the opportunity to elevate its position in the global world order and become a regional leader by assuming responsibility for this “potential alliance’s” security dimension. It will not only assist India in elevating its position on the international political stage, but it will also aid India in better understanding and addressing security threats such as terrorism. So therefore, India can and should capitalise on this development.
India has already started taking steps in this direction. The steps taken can be seen as the then-chief of the Indian Air Force visited Israel in the year 2020 and the then-chief of the Army visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the same year. The growing cooperation between the Arab World, Israel, and India is not limited to just the visits by the Indian Army and Air Force to the respective countries but has also occurred on a higher level. For example, on October 19, 2020, immediately following the signing of the Abraham Accords, the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, India, and the United States met virtually to strengthen their relations. It has also been referred to as the ‘Middle Eastern Quad’ by some (Taneja, 2021a). Officially, the group of these four countries was formed in October 2021 and is known as I2U2. Another example includes the conduct of ‘Zayed Talwar’ naval exercises off the coast of the UAE which indicates the deepening of security ties between the countries.
Although even before the Abraham Accords, India had been gradually increasing its foothold in the MENA region, whether through the maiden visit of an Indian Air Force delegation to Saudi Arabia in 2015, hosting Iranian Navy warships in 2018, or ‘Operation Sankalp,’ in which Indian warships used to escort nearly 16 Indian-flagged vessels in a day (Taneja, 2021b). But the signing of the Abraham Accords has helped India even further.
A commerce corridor between India and Europe via the Arab World is also possible. The signing of the Abraham accords might be used to construct a multi-modal link between Mumbai and the European continent via Piraeus, a Greek port (Suri, 2021). And if the trade increases, so will India’s leverage when it comes to the global world order.
We must keep in mind that economic prosperity and national security are highly interdependent in the modern world, as money gives states a means to buy weapons.
With increased trilateral cooperation between India, Israel, and the Arab world, the Indian Navy could also gain access to important Arab ports, countering China’s influence on Gwadar Port in Pakistan and some Iranian ports.
In addition, this development has implications for India-Turkey relations. Relations between India and Turkey have never been good, owing to Turkey’s support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, as well as Turkey’s constant obstruction of India’s entry into the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) on Pakistan’s behalf. India’s admission to the NSG is critical to its national security. So, if India could successfully cultivate its ties with the Arab world and Israel at the same time, it would be possible to balance Turkey on the world stage of politics, particularly by mobilising the Muslim world, and inevitably weaken Pakistan’s position on various issues, as Turkey is one of Pakistan’s few supporters.
This is not going to be a simple endeavour. India faces numerous obstacles when it comes to formulating its policies in the MENA region.
India faces two types of challenges when navigating its foreign policy in the MENA region.
- Domestic Challenges – Balancing diplomacy in the MENA region, particularly when it comes to the security aspect, has always been a challenge for any country, but especially for a democratic and cosmopolitan country like India. For example, left-wing political parties in the country have frequently attempted to lobby for support for Palestine rather than Israel, citing various reasons such as Israel’s human rights violations, among others. Furthermore, India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, the majority of whom support Palestine’s cause. On the other hand, the country’s pro-Israel lobby attempts to steer Indian policy towards greater support for Israel. So, balancing both sides has been a major domestic challenge for India.
- International Challenges – Due to various rivalries such as Saudi-Iran rivalry, Israel-Palestine conflict, and so on, the situation in the MENA region for the past many decades has always been a bit tumultuous. So, in this regard, as well, India had to and still has to tread very carefully.
So, in the following section, we discuss some countries that are strategically important to India but have opposed the Abraham Accords.
- Iran – When it comes to Iran, it has been relatively friendly to India, but Iran believes that the ‘Abraham Accords’ are nothing more than an alliance of the West and Western-influenced countries against it, which is why Iran was one of the first countries to officially condone these accords. So, clearly, if India leaned too heavily on this nascent relationship between Israel and the Arab world, it would be counter-intuitive. Iran is already leaning towards China, and there is an increase in Chinese-Iran security cooperation. Furthermore, in the year 2020, an Iranian envoy proposed a new alliance of five countries, namely Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and China, which is clearly not in India’s best interests (Sajid, 2020). India cannot afford to distance itself further from Iran, as Iran is a strategically important location for India’s security. India can bypass Pakistan and connect directly to Central Asia via Iran, from where it can connect to Europe. Another important aspect of India-Iran relations is that India also imports oil from Iran, which is important for its energy security and, axiomatically, national security.
- Palestine – When it comes to Palestine, it obviously opposes the Abraham Accords, and India has always supported a two-state solution, so it must tread lightly and cautiously when it comes to Palestine amid the Abraham Accords’ development.
- Qatar – Qatar rejected the Abraham Accords as well, and Qatar is a crucial ally of India when it comes to providing India with energy security, having imported close to $7 billion of petroleum gas in 2021 (India (Ind) and Qatar (Qat) Trade | Oec, 2021). Thus, India must similarly proceed with caution when it comes to relations with Qatar in context to Abraham Accords.
The Abraham Accords have provided India a chance to restore its strategic position in the Indian Ocean. India is already a member of the Quad in the east (India-Japan-Australia-United States), and by integrating into the security aspects of the MENA region, India will become a formidable force. It will also help India to balance China’s growing influence, both in security and economic terms. India’s future MENA region policy will play a major role in deciding its place in the global world order. To expand its significance on the global stage, India should be more proactive, both politically and militarily. Notwithstanding the likelihood that the signing of these treaties will increase the polarisation of militant organisations in the MENA area, particularly between Iran and Israel, India cannot afford to lose either of these two allies. If polarisation increases, it would shatter the balance India has been able to maintain over the past many years, which is counterintuitive. And we must not forget that India is heavily reliant on the Arab world for its energy security, which is an integral part of its national security.
The Abraham Accords have provided India with immense opportunities, particularly in terms of security and dealing with terrorism, but one wrong move can cause a domino effect that could destabilise the entire India-Arab-Israel relationship.