For an India that is recasting its engagement with the Middle East, the lessons from US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia are doubly important.
Biden’s visit highlights not only some new trends that are reshaping the region but also eternal truths about international politics that are lost in the din of public discourse about the Middle East.
What are the lessons?
- First, contrary to the popular perception in the US, the region, and India, the US is not about to abandon the Middle East. Biden told Arab leaders at a summit in Jeddah, the US is not leaving the Middle East and that America “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”.
- Second, while the US will stay put in the Middle East, it is certainly changing the manner in which it acts. In the past, the US saw itself as the sole provider of regional security and was ready to send its troops frequently into the region. While the US does not want to be drawn directly into the region’s wars, it is determined to help its partners develop capabilities to secure themselves. Equally important is the effort to produce greater reconciliation among Arabs and Israel and create stronger networks within and beyond the region to strengthen deterrence against adversaries.
- Third, Biden had to modify his sweeping rhetoric about the “conflict between democracies and autocracies” as the principal contradiction in the world. The Middle East, in particular, is a place where ideologies come to die.
- Fourth, even more consequentially, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrated that “interests” generally tend to triumph over “values” in the conduct of foreign policy. With domestic media and political opponents focusing on his past rhetoric, Biden put his head down to do what was right for the US — to repair the relationship with Saudi Arabia — amidst the pressing need to cool down the global oil market and ease domestic inflation just months before the midterm elections in America.
- Fifth, Biden’s focus on national interest found an echo in the Middle East, which is learning to put nation above other identities such as ethnicity and religion. In the past, the region seemed immune to nationalism as it focused on transcendental notions of “pan Arabism” and “pan Islamism”. There is plenty of evidence that the old illusions are being discarded. A critical section of the Arabs, long seen as irreconcilably opposed to Israel, are now joining hands with the Jewish state to counter threats to their national security from Iran. Many Gulf kingdoms, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are now consciously promoting a national identity among their peoples. Once you define yourself as a nation-state, your focus is less on identity politics and more on state interests. This, in turn, leads to shifting geopolitical coalitions over time and space. It is this new reality that dominates the region.
The Middle East was never an easy place for those spouting ideologies of various kinds or those with a weak appetite for geopolitical hard work in the region. Its politics has become even more complex in recent years.
Delhi, whose Middle East policy today is imbued with greater realism, can hopefully discard the inherited ideological inertia, avoid the temptation of seeing the Middle East through a religious lens, and strive hard to realise the full possibilities awaiting India in the region.
Source – The Indian Express
QUESTION – The West Asia (or Middle East) has changed and slowly transforming itself to grapple with new identities based on national character and state building. Discuss what India needs to learn about these new changes so that it can effectively cooperate in the region to explore its full possibilities.