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THE CONTEXT: The Abraham Accord was signed between Israel and few Arab Nations in 2020 under the mediation of the then US President, Donald Trump. The agreement is held to open up new chapters of geopolitical cooperation and competition in West Asia. For India the bonhomie between the Jewish nation and the Arab states provides the possibilities for greater engagements with these blocks without having to play the balancing act. In this backdrop, the article examines how India can leverage the agreement for enhancing its outreach to West Asia and beyond.
Abraham Accord and its relevance to West Asia
What is Abraham Accord?
- Abraham Accords was signed in the White house, in September 15, 2020,between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, under U.S. President Donald Trump’s mediation.
- Under the agreement, the UAE and Bahrain would normalize ties with Israel, heralding better economic, political and security engagement.
- The UAE and Bahrain were followed by Sudan and Morocco in signing the Abraham Accords.
- The accord is the first between Israel and Arab countries since the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty.
Relevance to the region:
- Although Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) had established diplomatic relations with Israel earlier, the Abraham Accords are widely seen as making a definitive breakthrough in the relations between Israel and the Arabs.
- Israel-UAE relationship is seen to have acquired a character independent of Israel’s relations with Palestine and a promise of expansive political, economic and technological cooperation.
- The agreements have the backing of Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential Arab power and a close ally of the UAE and Bahrain. Riyadh has opened its airspace for commercial flights between the UAE and Israel.
- The perceived Iranian hegemonic presence from Syria and beyond has made Israel and the Gulf partners more vulnerable. This accord and the normalization also explain a new reality: Israel has now become a formidable force in setting these emerging relations.
- The accord shows that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among States advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East.
- It will encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions in the region.
- The Accords, from the UAE’s perspective can make sure the emirate along with its international centers of trade such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi do not become targets between Jerusalem and Tehran
- Israel inaugurating its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi and direct flights will result in business and tourism picking up between the two countries leading to greater prosperity and progress.
India and Abraham Accord: Opportunities ahead
Impetus to look West Policy:
- Look West policy focuses on three main axes: the Arab Gulf countries, Israel and Iran. India’s relations with the Arab Gulf countries had already undergone change and expansion since the 1970s. By contrast, India’s relations with Israel and Iran are more recent, emerging largely since the 1990s.
- The accord provides strong impetus to India’s West Asia policy as the engagement with the two axes of Arab Gulf countries and Israel can be concurrently pursued.
Removal of strategic hurdle:
- The signing of the Accords has removed a significant strategic obstacle of delicate balancing act India has had to play out between the Arab Gulf and Israel over the decades especially in the backdrop of Palestine question.
- New Delhi had welcomed the Accords, highlighting its support for mechanisms that offer peace and stability in the region.
Sea lanes of communication and energy security:
- Defence of the waterways in and around the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the extended Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is critical as India still imports more than 80% of its annual oil requirements, much of which still comes from suppliers such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
- The Accord in all likelihood will reduce the tensions and conflicts in the region which will help India’s energy supply passing through these waters and also provide a respite from continuous deployment of defense assets in the region
Churning geopolitical equations:
- The new geopolitical churn is driven by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive claims for the leadership of the Islamic world and Pakistan’s growing alignment with Turkey and its alienation from its traditionally strong supporters in the Arab Gulf — the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
- Erdogan has been championing Pakistan’s case on Kashmir after India changed the territorial status quo of the state in August 2019. At Pakistan’s behest, Erdogan is also blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
- Thus there exists a greater scope for converging interests between India, the UAE, and Israel in this background
Eastern Mediterranean engagements:
- Turkey’s quest for regional dominance has also widened the scope for Indo-Abrahamic convergence to the eastern Mediterranean to include Greece and Cyprus. Greece and Turkey have territorial disputes in the Aegean continental shelf
- Greece has also looked towards India to enhance bilateral security cooperation. Greece’s European partners like France, which have a big stake in the Mediterranean as well as the Arab Gulf, have taken an active interest in countering Turkey’s regional ambitions.
- This provides opportunities for India in deepening cooperation going beyond the West Asia towards the Mediterranean
- Growing maritime connectivity with Greece can be a way of broadening India’s trade and investment footprint within Europe. It also serves strategic purposes in the context of increasing Turkish criticism of India.
Potential paradigm changes in thinking:
- Many in India who view the Middle East through the religious prism believe Hindus and Jews are natural allies in the region. Many in Pakistan have long convinced themselves of a “Hindu-Yehudi conspiracy” to undermine its very existence.
- But the deepening of Indian and Israeli ties with moderate Arab states challenges (in the context of the Accord), this religious paradigm of seeing cooperation among nation states as primarily driven by religious affiliation. The fresh perspective of viewing reality can reduce political and popular opposition to foreign policy outreaches in the region.
Scope for a formal partnership:
- Deepening engagement between India, the UAE and Israel can be converted into a formal coalition. There are many areas like defence, aerospace and digital innovation where the three countries can pool their resources and coordinate development policies.
- Coordination with Saudi Arabia will certainly remain a high priority for the three nations. Meanwhile, others like Greece are eager for greater cooperation with the coalition.
- Also, Sudan can provide springboard to East Africa while Morocco is a gateway to western Mediterranean and North Africa.
Evidence of enhanced engagement (2021):
- India carried out ‘Zayed Talwar’ naval exercises with the UAE off the coast of Abu Dhabi further deepening the fast developing strategic cooperation between the two countries
- Indian Army chief, visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia, becoming the first chief of the Indian Army to do so.
- An Indian contingent of the Indian Air Force will now visit Israel in October 2021 to take part in multilateral military exercises.
- The recent visit by the Indian Air Force chief to Israel is another example of India’s rising attention towards the region.
Analysing the challenges: Abraham Accord and Indian outreach
- India is committed to the two nation states theory in the Middle East and its support to Palestinian statehood remains unchanged. Although India has tried to de hyphenate the Israel-Palestine relations, the challenge remains to balance the engagements with these two.
- Moreover, the Arab world’s response (whether within Accord or outside) to the Palestine issue will also influence the trajectory of India’s outreach.
- Iran is one of the axis in India’s Look West Policy and the country has important place in India’s strategic calculus be they energy, security, or connectivity.
- For instance, the connectivity projects such as Chabahar Port and Chabahar-Zahedan rail project have huge significance to India’s ambitions in Central Asia and Afghanistan, specially under changed scenarios after the Taliban takeover.
- Iran perceives the Abraham Accord an attempt to clip its wing in the region and may view India’s growing proximity to the grouping with suspicion which may hamper India’s interests.
Role of Saudi Arabia:
- Saudi Arabia, a close ally of UAE and Bahrain is among the most powerful countries in the region, is not a part of the Accord. Saudi Arabia has maintained a distance from this arrangement although Riyadh has praised the Accords, but said that the resolution of the Palestinian State remains at the forefront of its requirements
- What course of action does the country takes in future will decide the Accord’s effectiveness and by extension the contours India’s outreach.
- More so, when the vacuum left by the retreat of the Arab powers from the Israel – Palestine conflict is being filled by the non-Arab Muslim powers — Iran, Turkey and their allies.
Evolving regional dynamics:
- With the U.S. in retreat and Turkey and Iran pursuing more aggressive foreign policies, there is a three-way contest taking shape, in which Sunni-ruled Arab kingdoms, all American allies, are realigning their geopolitical interests with Israel.
- The Abraham Accords are likely to sharpen this contest. In such a scenario, Indian options in West Asia will remain what they were or may even get limited.
- Till recently, India has been a reluctant power in this region but with a relatively weaker US and an assertive Chinese presence, India can’t afford to remain isolated.
- New Delhi must recalibrate its options and methods in alignment with Gulf partners and Israel for its own security and strategic interests.
Leveraging the changed narrative
- The Gulf states’ non-secretive relations with Israel would certainly legitimize India’s de-hyphenation policy towards Israel-Palestine relations.
- The emerging ties between India and Israel and India-GCC relations need to be leveraged to help find new ways for multilateral engagements on strategic issues like, security, energy challenges, agriculture, space to cyber technology.
Soft power diplomacy:
- India’s soft power has created a trust factor although India’s current domestic factors have seriously damaged its democratic credentials. In March 2020, the UN approached India for a constructive mediation between Israel and Palestinian considering New Delhi’s good relations with both sides.
- India’s official de-hyphenation policy has been hailed by these two sides in the recent past. India needs to use this trust and acceptance factor in furthering Palestinian institutional building and equally nurture the special relationship with Israel.
More pragmatic engagement:
- India’s energy security challenges and conditions of its expatriate workers’ conditions in the Gulf might serve India’s long term interest if it engages more pragmatically in this region.
- India’s relations with Iran need not be strained for its enhanced outreach with the countries in the region which have a conflictual relation with Iran.
Extending cooperation into newer areas:
- India and Israel’s relations have found new trajectories beyond defence and agriculture to cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.
- In the past, India and UAE have signed a deal for securing their huge oil base. Similarly, India had major deals with Saudi for a huge investment. Notably, these Gulf states have one of the highest sovereign wealth funds and India offers an attractive market.
The Abraham Accord presents greater opportunities to the peace, stability and progress of the Middle east. It also provides huge prospects for Indian’ outreach to west Asia in multiple areas. The shape and direction, the agreement will take depend on the Iranian and Saudi actions along with Palestinian issue resolution. India needs to devise strategies to reap the benefits of the changed equations in the region while minimizing its fallouts.
Q.1 How far do you think the Abraham Accord will address the pressing issues in Middle East? Justify your answer
Q,2 The Abraham Accord opens up new opportunities and challenges to India’s outreach in West Asia. Comment
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