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First India-GCC Senior Officers Meet to consolidate India’s position in the region

In the wake of China recently achieving pole position in the neighbourhood by brokering the Iran-Saudi brotherhood, India has moved so as not to be left behind, as also to close the FTA that has long been hanging fire.

March 23, 2023 / 08:02 PM IST
Flag of the Gulf Cooperation Council

Flag of the Gulf Cooperation Council

India held its first Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh earlier this week to further consolidate its relations in West Asia — a region of strategic importance to India, which contributes significantly to its security, development, and growth.

The Gulf countries are the main source of India’s energy. The remittance India receives from over 8.5 million Indians living and working there accounts for a third of the country’s total remittance from all over the world. At $154 billion, the GCC is also India’s largest trading partner bloc.

The meeting of the senior officials of the two sides stems from a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed last September during Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

This week, during the visit by India’s Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary, (CPV & OIA), the two sides spoke of collaborations in the renewable energy, food security, health, and information technology sectors. The focus was also on the early finalisation of the India-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The region has traditionally been the playground of major global powers like the United States and Russia, as the two former Cold War rivals have continued to engage in a diplomatic tussle to expand their influence over the countries of West Asia.

In recent years, China has been enlarging its footprint in these lands. China is not only the largest consumer of oil and gas from the region but has also turned out to be its leading investor.

It has invested billions of Dollars in the Gulf countries to develop their infrastructure under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Until recently, China had limited its engagement in the region to the economic sphere. But in the past few years, it has also taken an interest in the region’s politics.

Its desire to play a bigger role became clear in December last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh and held separate summits with Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and the Arab League.

The growing Chinese presence in the region drew attention earlier this month when, in a surprise move, Beijing mediated the resumption of diplomatic ties between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. China also has strong ties with the GCC.

The GCC is a bloc of six countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The monarchies came together in 1981 in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution.

The GCC has a collective GDP of $3.46 trillion and a population of 55 million. Its aim is to cooperate, coordinate, and integrate to achieve Arab unity in the region — as a counter to Iran. But the intra-GCC rivalry has led each country to pursue its own economic and foreign policy.

The Iran question has also split them as Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have maintained cordial relations with Teheran.

Even on trade and energy, the countries have foregrounded individual interests and competed fiercely against each other.

A split within the GCC surfaced in 2017 when Qatar’s rising profile led Saudi Arabia to initiate an economic blockade of Doha. But with support from the region’s two big players — Iran and Turkey, Qatar managed to survive the blockade and clock impressive economic growth.

The blockade was lifted after three years and normal relations between Qatar and the GCC were restored.

The differences within the GCC resurfaced once again in 2021 when UAE disagreed with Saudi Arabia, Russia, and others in the OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) over capping oil production in the wake of the Ukraine war.

Though Riyadh and Abu Dhabi subsequently resolved their differences, frequent clash of interests and intra-GCC rivalry have prevented the rich bloc from putting up a united front and taking full advantage of its potential.

The long-pending FTA between India and the GCC is an example of intra-GCC quibbling that has prevented the closure of this critical agreement between two large and strategically important trading partners.

India has managed to deepen its economic relations with the Gulf countries individually and this has been reflected in the significant jump in trade with the GCC in recent years. Delhi is keen on investing in the region and has also been encouraging investment from the Gulf into India, especially under its ‘Make in India’ programme. India’s traditional and historical ties with the region have led to an improvement in its relations in the Gulf in recent years.

Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enhanced India’s engagement with the Gulf and West Asian countries significantly. His frequent visits to the region have allowed him to develop personal relations with most of the rulers and leaders in the Gulf and West Asia.

The region continues to be an area of immense strategic importance and competition for several global and regional players.

Though US influence in the region has waned, America continues to be the chief security provider for most countries in the region and the GCC members.

Russia has also expanded its influence in recent years, and despite its involvement in the Ukraine war, remains a key player.

However, the most dramatic rise in the region has been that of China, which has become the sought-after power in West Asia.

But as the GCC members expand their strategic autonomy, India will continue to remain a viable option for most of them.

Pranay Sharma
Pranay Sharma