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Tag Archives | West Asia

Another diaspora conundrum-Saudi Arabia

Evacuations of expatriate Indians from foreign countries present our policymakers with tough questions and it is time that the Indian government sets out a clear cut policy

By Guru Aiyar(@guruaiyar)

The recent rescue operations by the Indian government from South Sudan looked like a well scripted Hollywood movie where the country comes to the rescue of its beleaguered citizens abroad. Within two weeks, another crisis looms in Saudi Arabia where Indian workers are reportedly living in sub human conditions. The Minister of External Affairs, General V.K.Singh (retd.) has already left for Saudi Arabia and has confirmed that 7700 workers are affected.

The above situation is nothing new. The expatriate workers from South and Southeast Asia belong to the cheap labour pool who work in sweatshop conditions. In 2006, 4000 South Asian labourers were deported by the United Arab Emirates on charges of vandalism when they were only protesting for fair wages and working conditions. The Indian government is signalling a very important message now. The message says that you can’t mess with the Indian workers. Providing food to the starving Indians in the camps is one thing. But to evacuate them back to India completely changes the dynamics of the situation.

There are approximately 3 million Indians in Saudi Arabia alone and about 7.3 million in West Asia. Mass evacuations using the military and commercial assets implies a huge cost to the exchequer. In this, using commercial assets is the best option. Military assets like naval ships and air force aircraft are much costlier (use of C-17 Globemaster costs US $ 24,000 per hour). Of course, it needs to be understood clearly that when human lives are at peril, no cost can be attached. In this particular situation, it can be said that workers cannot pay for their passage and thus it needs to be borne by the exchequer.

If cost-benefit analysis is to be the basis for evacuations, then the government must have contingency plans drawn up. West Asia is the most volatile of regions in the world. India has been involved in six evacuations within the last decade itself. Even geographically, the distance to Doha and Riyadh are less than 3000 km. I have argued in my earlier columns for evolving a strategic evacuation policy which calls for involving the commercial airlines and shipping. With Air India beset with its own travails, this has become imperative.

Diaspora politics can be extremely tricky and a veritable landmine for diplomatic and international relations. Should all the diaspora be treated with the same yardstick? Does a Non Resident Indian (NRI) blue collared worker surviving on the margins of host country deserve the same kind of treatment as a wealthy Indian billionaire based in North America or Europe? Does the Indian state bear any responsibility towards fifth or sixth generation naturalised Indians in Mauritius or Guyana? Should the Indian government evacuate Indians from Fiji if there is ethnic or racial violence? Or should it have a line that says that the Indian state is responsible only to ‘Indian passport’ holders and not others? These are the kind of questions that our policy makers in the ministry of external affairs ought to be grappling with. There are no easy answers. The final call lies with our elected politicians.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Fellow with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

 

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West Asia Engagement with Chinese Characteristics

Four parameters that are likely to guide China’s engagement in West Asia

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

My previous post Talking about the Asia beyond Pakistan was in light of the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine. Using The Economist’s Grid of Grievances, the post argued that:

if India were to be mapped on this graphic, it would perhaps be the only state that maintains a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian state.

Apart from India, there is another state which is missing from the mosaic, and one that has been the quickest off the mark in dealing with the transformed power structure of West Asia: China. President Xi’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran, coming immediately after lifting of international sanctions against Iran, have garnered widespread attention in policy circles.

There is a broad consensus that China will be a force to reckon with in the new West Asia but there is little discussion on the direction that China is likely to follow in the process. This post tries to sketch out the parameters of a greater Chinese engagement in West Asia.

First, the Chinese government sees West Asia as an unsaturated market. West Asia in general and Iran in particular have the potential to boost demand for Chinese production. It is no surprise then, that Xi’s arrival was greeted with talks about the ancient Silk Road, reminiscent of a time when the supply chains between China and West Asia were robust.

Second, the Chinese government wants West Asian countries to bandwagon on its side in its efforts to create a new world order that challenges the West. On the geopolitical axis, this means China wants more West Asian participation in institutions like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. On the geoeconomic axis, China will look to get greater West Asian commitment to the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

Third, China will side with the incumbent political leaderships in West Asia. As a geopolitical actor, China has shown less inclination to regime change except in conditions when a state’s internal political situation directly affects China’s security adversely, as seen in Afghanistan. Going ahead, China will continue to engage the ruling dispensations of all important West Asian countries.

Fourth, China will let others do the fighting against IS. Apart from supporting the incumbent leaderships militarily and economically, China will not put any feet on the ground against the IS, as long as the IS threat remains away from its borders.

These four parameters are likely to guide China’s greater engagement in West Asia. While it remains to be seen what aims this engagement will accomplish, China faces the same challenge as India does on the issue of increasing proximity with West Asian countries: thus far, the two countries have maintained fairly good terms of engagement with West Asia by allowing them to settle at a low level equilibrium, with none of the engagements taking the form of a strategic partnership. As these two states tries to scale these local maxima, the geopolitical environment is bound to throw up new challenges and tough choices that can upset the delicate balance they lie in currently.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Talking about the Asia beyond Pakistan

What does India’s search for a new equilibrium state in its engagement with West Asia imply?

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

As the “talks about talks” with Pakistan continue to garner more-than-required attention in India, something perhaps more significant is in process with regards to India’s foreign policy — a search for a new metastable state for India’s balancing act in West Asia.

The Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid Al Moualem is on a four-day trip to India. Not to forget, Mr Moualem is a part of the Bashar Al-Assad government, which is fighting a war on multiple fronts with multiple adversaries in the region. This visit precedes the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine planned later in the week, which will further set the stage for a visit by Prime Minister Modi to the region in the near future.

These developments immediately lead us to the questions — how does India see itself in West Asia? Is there a change in the way this government is approaching its relationship with the countries in the region?

To answer these questions one needs to first look at the complex canvas that West Asia is. A mosaic chart titled “Grid of Grievances” in The Economist offers some insight into the complexities of the region.

Mosaic Chart of West Asia relationships. Source: The Economist

Mosaic Chart of West Asia relationships. Source: The Economist

As is evident from the graphic, there is no single nation-state in the mosaic that has friendly or for that matter, even neutral relations with all the other geopolitical actors in the region. Even the external actors in the region such as Russia, US and the European states find it difficult to maintain friendly relations with all the states in West Asia.

This challenge of the complex geopolitical environment is exactly the challenge that India will have to manoeuvre as it steps up engagement in the region. The silver lining in all the complexity is that if India were to be mapped on this graphic, it would perhaps be the only state that maintains a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian state.

However, that does not make the situation comfortable, far away from it.  This outcome is partly a function of the fact that India has kept itself at an arm’s distance away from virtually every state in West Asia, in the fear that building relations with one will come at a direct cost of alienating several others. Thus by following a safe-distance approach, India now maintains decent collaborations in the region. The implication is that it has thus far allowed all the collaborations in West Asia to settle at a low level equilibrium, with none of them taking the form of a strategic partnership. As India tries to scale these local maxima, the geopolitical environment is bound to throw up new challenges and tough choices.

A glimpse of these challenges were on display earlier in the year, after it was announced that Narendra Modi will be visiting Israel, making such a visit the first ever by an Indian PM. This news immediately filtered through the mosaic of West Asia and the visit has since been put under suspended animation.

As India looks to increase its footprint in West Asia and across the world, India will not only have to balance against other countries, but also bandwagon with some others. And no where in the world, as the Grid of Grievances shows, such choices are tougher than in West Asia.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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The changing contours of India—Israel relations

We can deftly steer the technical co-operation between the two countries into a substantial partnership

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

This is the gist of the points made by Pranay in a panel discussion on CNBC Awaaz at 6:00pm IST on 5th June. This was in the context of the upcoming visit by Narendra Modi to Israel — the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister.

Q: From a foreign policy angle, how to you view the upcoming visit of Narendra Modi, the first ever by an Indian PM, to Israel?

In the years immediately following India’s independence and Israel’s formation, the India-Israel relationship was completely subservient to India’s relations vis-a-vis the other West Asian countries. Consequently, India recognised Israel in 1950 and yet deferred the establishment of diplomatic ties until 1992.

This policy changed in 1992 for a multitude of reasons, chief among them being Israel’s role as a supplier of arms in the wake of a weakening USSR, and its role as a conduit for economic and trade opportunities with the US. Thereafter, the India-Israel relationship has taken the shape of a technical co-operation rather than a strategic partnership.

This visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel, provides an opportunity to go beyond the realms of technical co-operation, and deepen the engagement between the two countries.

Q: Is it necessary for India to still play a balancing act between Israel and other West Asian countries or can it go all out without worrying about the reactions of the other West Asian countries?

It is important for India to diversify relations with its foreign policy partners, and in this case it means going beyond the co-operation in defence and agriculture. But this does not mean that India can ignore the other West Asian countries. While India has consistently voted for the people of Palestine at forums like the UN, it has also managed to consolidate its relationship with Israel. Such a balancing act is likely to continue.

Moreover, there is another interesting dimension to this relationship. Government of India preferred not to go ballistic with its Israel partnership. But this only meant that several Indian States took the lead in engaging with Israel, beyond the glare of the national media. The period after 1992 has seen several visits by Indian CMs to Israel. On one such occasion in 1996, Maharashtra Diwas in Israel was celebrated in the presence of the then Maharashtra CM (There is a community of Bene Israelis who immigrated to Israel from India’s west coast). Going ahead, this direct partnership between Indian states and Israel is likely to continue as Indian states will become important players, even in matters of India’s foreign policy.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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