India’s foreign policy in the Middle East has largely been tied three things, its need for oil, keeping cultural ties active in consideration of its large Muslim population back home along with the issue of Kashmir and the country’s general (and aloof) policy of non-alignment.
However, it is not to say that in its quest to achieve the above, it hasn’t made mistakes in the region. In the 1950s and beyond, starting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who used to shift between the Prime Minister’s desk and the Foreign Minister’s desk, New Delhi made strong inroads in the Arab world by building close ties with at the time regional powers such as Egypt.
However, New Delhi found itself in a bind in the early 1990s as tensions in the Middle East grew over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s unprecedented aggressive moves against the tiny emirate of Kuwait. In response the United States initiated operation Desert Storm to militarily evict Hussein’s army from Kuwaiti territory.
Prior to the first Gulf War, India was on excellent terms with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Bilateral relations were thriving, trade was on the rise. The warm relations had been in effect since the 1970s and India even trained Iraqi pilots on MiG fighter jets more than both Pakistan and the Soviet Union, as popularly known. Iraq remained neutral during the 1965 war but supported Pakistan via the Gulf states during the 1971 war, but this stance was later reversed by Baghdad in Delhi’s favour. Iraq was also became one of India’s biggest export markets in the 1980s and Saddam’s regime maintained diplomatic to New Delhi till his ouster in 2003.
As the American military forces moved into Kuwait to push back the Iraqis, New Delhi decided to shift its embassy to the southern Iraqi city of Basra. It became the only country to abandon its embassy in such a manner and portrayed its pro-Iraq stance openly till things started to become bleak for Saddam’s regime.
During this, an Indian diplomat in the region upon being asked as to why India has not condemned Iraq’s unwarranted moves against Kuwait replied that “condemnation was not part of India’s nature.”
India’s abandonment of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was not the first time New Delhi had foregone an entire diplomatic relationship once it had stopped being economically beneficial. However, the fact that the act of ‘condemnation’ was being seen as unnatural from India by a certain part of the country’s diplomatic community could rightly show why New Delhi had to continuously de-construct and re-construct many of its relations in the larger West Asian region in the 1990s going into the 2000s.
India is currently taking a very similar stand with the now hugely complex Syrian crises. New Delhi has stood with Syria’s President and Ba’ath Party leader Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and has voted against any military action in the country. Although military action against the Syrian government seems highly unlikely at the moment, it does leave lingering questions whether India’s entitlement of abandonment of relations when the going gets tough has at least been dropped since its experience of moving Kuwait’s embassy to its aggressor’s shores.
With New Delhi possibly becoming part of the Geneva II negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war, it could provide India with an opportunity to make amends to its previous failures as a potentially strong and lasting influence in the Middle East.