India’s vexing Middle Eastern dilemma!
The world watched with disbelief when Saudi Arabia and its allies decided to punish Qatar for supporting terrorism in the region. These allegations against Qatar had been the sole preserve of Syria and other countries who suffered the after-effects of the Arab Spring in 2010. They squarely blamed the tiny gas-rich principality for using its TV channel, Al Jazeera, for spreading discontent and supporting terror groups. No one expected the Saudis, accused similarly of supporting groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to give legitimacy to the allegations against Qatar. Though the Saudis have not shown a fondness for the Emir of Doha, they were still part of the grand Sunni military front that they had put together under the leadership of Pakistani General Raheel Sharif. So what really happened? There was obviously the much-publicised visit of US President Donald Trump to Riyadh where he addressed a Sunni summit of leaders. The interaction was sweetened by a $140 billion arms deal that floored Trump to the extent that he gave a carte blanche to his hosts, King Salman and his highly ambitious deputy. That not only meant freedom for Saudi Arabia to establish its sway over the Sunni world but also pretty much decide on how to diminish its arch enemy, Iran. The precipitating reason was, true to these times, fake news according to which the Emir of Qatar reportedly praised Iran. Though this news was attributed to some Russian hacker, the Saudis were looking for just such an opportunity to make an example of Qatar for daring to enlarge its influence and flirt with its enemies in the name of pursuing an independent foreign policy.
They resented Iran poaching from their alliance and gaining greater influence in the region, what with Syria and Iraq doing Tehran’s bidding. For Saudi Arabia, it all seems quite ominous and they want to stop the slide that may visit their fortunes with US interests lessening in the region. Besides allies like Egypt and the UAE, the Saudis also had the tacit support of the Israelis who share a common enemy in Iran. Armed with an endorsement from the US and support from other affluent friends, the Saudis are asking tough questions of their friends. They asked the Pakistanis – are you with Qatar or us? Pakistan kept quiet. They may pose the same question to India, which has been promised almost $100 billion by the Saudi-UAE combine to refurbish its decrepit infrastructure. This promised funding has been on hold for some unstated reason. A section of the strategic community claims that these Gulf monarchies want India to provide security to them as this region represents India’s core and real interest with more than seven million Indians living there who send home billions of dollars’ worth of remittances. Also, it is this region again that satisfies India’s fuel needs. For a while, the US too has been quietly suggesting that India take on security responsibilities in this region and perform pretty much the same role that British India played: that of a feeder colony. India, for obvious reasons, has no stomach for this. Most of the political parties are convinced that sending troops to conflicts we have nothing to do with could create new issues in our volatile society. Worse, body bags of our soldiers returning from faraway wars would be hard to explain in parliament and elsewhere. This is one big question that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to confront as he travels to Washington to meet the usually pugnacious and transactional Trump. Till now Modi has been smart in sidestepping tricky demands from his foreign hosts, but Trump’s interaction with other heads of state shows that he means business – mostly his own, but some realms shouldn’t be his to meddle in.