India Thaws Ties With Levant, Gulf

Indian Minister MJ Akbar meets Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

High-level Indian visits to Levant, Gulf seen as diplomatic correction…. reports Aroonim Bhuyan

Indian Minister MJ Akbar meets Syrian President Bashar Al Assad
Indian Minister MJ Akbar meets Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

A flurry of high-level visits from India to countries in the Levant and the Gulf is being seen as a corrective policy in India’s diplomatic engagements with these regions. Consider this. Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar last month visited Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Levant countries to which one cannot even remember when the last Indian high-level visits happened. This month, he visited Iran.

Around the same time, the other Minister of State for External Affairs, V.K. Singh, visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Libya, all countries with big expatriate Indian populations. In the case of Libya though, the number has significantly come down because of the security situation there.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a prime ministerial visit that happened after over three decades. This year, he visited Saudi Arabia and Iran in quick succession.

“Akbar’s visits (to the Levant countries) were long overdue,” a well-informed source with knowledge of the government’s diplomatic initiatives  said.

MJ Akbar, India's Minister of State, External Affairs
MJ Akbar, India’s Minister of State, External Affairs

“This can be seen as a corrective policy on the part of the government in terms of diplomatic engagements with these regions,” the source said.

A veteran journalist, M.J. Akbar was appointed as a Minister of State in July and observers here say that he is being sent to these countries for his wide knowledge of the region.

On the other hand, the Gulf region is a source of significant remittances from expatriate Indians there, most of who work in the infrastructure sector.

“In 2015-16 alone, India received $35.9 billion in remittances (from the Gulf region) which is over half of what we get in remittances annually,” the source stated.

Compared to the Chinese who are also present in these countries, Indians integrate well with the societies there.

These countries form India’s extended neighbourhood to the west and are important in terms of energy security and counter-terrorism efforts, especially with the rise of the quasi-state terror outfit Islamic State (IS).

Syria, according to experts, has a wealth of information on the IS which is reportedly recruiting people from the South Asian region too.

“You do need to deal with the Sunni states,” the source said. “But you need to engage with the Shia states too as India has a sizeable Shia population.”

According to the source, India dragged its diplomatic engagements with Baghdad after 2003, when the US launched its war on Iraq.

India had maintained close diplomatic relations with Syria and Iraq before the two countries were hit by internal conflict, triggering an international blitzkrieg of actions with the rise of the IS.

“You cannot be a player if you don’t engage,” the source asserted.