SPEAKING FREELY India and security in the Gulf
By Rajeev Agarwal
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The Persian Gulf region has been the focus of the world for over 100 years now. It found its importance in the modern era when oil was discovered at Masjed Soleyman in southwestern Iran on May 26, 1908. Just three years later that oil was being piped down to a refinery at Abadan on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab.
Today, the region (Gulf Cooperation Council countries plus Iran and Iraq) holds 56% and 40% of the world's conventional oil and gas proven reserves. The region also has a rich legacy of history
and cultural heritage and is home to three major religions of the world; Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
The Persian Gulf, however, has been more in the focus due to its intrinsic web of intra-regional differences and uncertain nature of regional geopolitical dynamics. It is host to the longest festering conflict in modern era; the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry is not only about the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian divide but also about the race for regional leadership. The Iran nuclear issue complicates the security matrix bringing the threat of WMD to the table. The widespread influence of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups further adds complexity to the security picture.
The fact that this region is the bridge connecting South Asia, Europe, Central Asia and Africa makes it imperative for the global powers to take note of developments there. The "Arab Spring" has brought to the fore the critical fault lines in the region. The change of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen have pushed new political actors to the forefront, creating possibilities for new alignments and an as yet undetermined new political and security order in the region.
The West Asian region, which is part of India's extended neighborhood, is of vital and strategic importance to the Gulf. Economic relations have traditionally formed the bedrock of India's relationship with this region. It is a source for more than 65% of India's oil and gas requirement and hence critical for its energy security.
About six million migrant Indians work in the region and help sustain regional economies. Iran is also India's gateway to the Central Asian energy rich region. In contemporary times, the threats of terrorism, sea piracy, and trans-national movement of criminals have become common concerns for both India and the Gulf region. Any deterioration of the polarized security situation could have adverse effects on India's core interests in the region.
Security issues in the region will, however, not only have an adverse effect on the region and India. Disruption in oil supply could hit the global economy hard and any military conflict could very soon flare up into a larger regional conflict that could split international support into two rival camps - as was seen in recent Syria chemical weapons crisis.
It is thus paramount for the international community to give adequate focus to regional security issues in the Gulf. The recommencement of Israel-Palestine peace talks, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons as well as the ongoing talks between P5+1 and Iran on Iran nuclear issue is a welcome step. There is, however, a need to look at long-term concrete measures on the subject of regional security.
The GCC, the only regional organization is grossly inadequate to take care of regional security issues for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is restrictive in membership and does not include important nations like Iran, Iraq and Egypt in its ranks. Secondly, it lacks robust security architecture.
The Peninsular Shield Force comprising predominantly troops from Saudi Arabia can not be termed as credible or effective. Thirdly, it does not have any voice or vote of important global players in the region like the US, China or Russia. Lastly, without Israel, there cannot be any peace and security in the region.
It would, however, be difficult to imagine expanding the GCC into an all encompassing framework right away. The differences and conflict of opinions and ideologies in the region are too deep rooted to be overcome soon. However, the international community could make a modest beginning if all the important players in the region, such as the GCC, Iran, Iraq and Egypt could be brought together to start a dialogue on collaborative security in the region. Creating a common platform and mutual trust would be a prerequisite which would require a proactive approach from all international partners.
Issues could then be divided into two; the common and the difficult. While common issues like the threat of terrorism, need for secure sea lanes of communication for oil supplies, cyber security, trade and commerce, education and health could be discussed first, difficult issues like the Iran-GCC issues, bilateral conflicts between nations, sectarian issues and Palestine issue could be discussed later.
Obviously, any positive resolution of the Iran nuclear issue would help create an atmosphere of trust. There could also be an effort towards commencing parallel trilateral or multilateral dialogues between nations which could help towards confidence building measure.
India, with its long standing ties with the region and its image as a benign power which does not harbor any extra territorial ambitions, could play a crucial role in getting the region to commence a collaborative dialogue on security. The fact that India has good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel at the same time could be a big plus.
Reports on how India contributed in Iran and the United States to get into a direct dialogue on the nuclear issue, invitation to India to attend the Geneva II talks on Syria in January 2014, security cooperation with Saudi Arabia (leading to extradition of Abu Jindal despite Pakistan's protests) and increasingly enhanced trade and security ties with each of the countries in the region are a clear signal that India could play a positive role in the regional security of the Gulf. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid's participation in the Manama Dialogue recently on December 5 could be seen as opportunity to extend India's support on this very critical issue.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Rajeev Agarwal is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He works on West Asia and Afghanistan.