Monday, 8 August, 2022
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India is good in the Arab world now. But Delhi must quickly move to contain Turkey’s Erdogan

UAE-Israel peace deal signals a realignment in the Middle East that will have wider ripples, which will reach India soon.

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It came as a surprise but it is not surprising. When the United Arab Emirates and Israel announced that they would establish normal relations with each other, in a US-brokered agreement last week, they publicly accepted what has been obvious for several years now — that the national interests of the Emirates along with those of Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states were converging with those of Israel.

The triangular contest in the Middle East — with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia vying for regional dominance — is a modern replay of older rivalries between the Persians, Ottomans and Arabs. With Israel perceiving an existential threat from Iran and being wary of once-friendly but increasingly threatening Turkey, realist logic would expect Tel Aviv to gravitate towards the Arab nations. The thorny Palestinian question long prevented an alliance between Israel and the Arab powers. Set that aside and Israel and the Arab nations become co-travellers on the road to prevent Iranian and Turkish hegemony over the Middle East.

Also read: UAE is the ‘Sparta’ of Middle-East. It needed Israel on its side to punch above weight

How things change for Israel

Under the agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will establish diplomatic relations with Israel in return for the latter’s suspension of the plans to annex and change the status of some Palestinian territories. As journalist Anshel Pfeffer points out in the Haaretz, this is a diplomatic coup for the Israeli prime minister because “Benjamin Netanyahu never had a real plan for annexing parts of the West Bank. There was no timetable, no map, no draft resolution to be brought to the government or the Knesset…It is an achievement for Netanyahu that his predecessors, who were prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians, only dreamed of – and he paid nothing for it beyond what he called the ‘temporary suspension’ of the annexation he was never going to carry out anyway.”

The corollary, of course, is that Israel’s capacity for unilateral actions in the future will be circumscribed by its diplomatic relations with the Arab world, for it will have things to lose. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Palestinian interests might be better served when more Arab countries have embassies in the Israeli capital.

Also read: Why UAE chose to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel

Saudi hand is clear

While the UAE’s decision is significant in itself, the inevitable question that follows is whether Saudi Arabia will do likewise. There are strong indications that Riyadh today is more inclined to normalise relations with Israel than it ever was. Indeed, the UAE-Israel agreement would not have been possible without Saudi Arabia’s tacit approval. Yet, there is a generational divide in the House of Saud — prominently between King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — on the Palestinian issue, with the older generation taking a far more conservative approach to recognising Israel.

The Saudi leadership also has to contend with the fact that were the Kingdom to recognise the Jewish state, its status as the leader of the Sunni Islamic world will face a strong challenge from a Turkey-Malaysia caucus. This could, in turn, weaken the Saudi dynasty’s domestic legitimacy, exposing it to political challengers. So, Riyadh is treading carefully but clearly in the direction of Israel.

Also read: Iran, not Israel, becomes the unifying enemy for the Middle East

The changing Middle East

UAE’s step signals a realignment in the Middle East that will have wider ripples. For one, it sharpens the triangular polarisation of the region, with countries either siding with the Arabs, Iran or Turkey, or suffering their intervention. Just like in Europe before 1914, the risk of a bigger regional war has sharpened. Unlike that period, there are external powers involved that might not see a Middle Eastern war in their interests. So, the security of the region is still enmeshed with its relationship with the United States, Russia, and China.

The Arabs (and Israel) enjoy good relations with all three external powers; and China is the only external power that has strong ties with all the regional powers. Through its arms exports, investments and purchasing power, Beijing has ensured that it is seen as an essential partner by all three sides, and the fourth if you include Israel. China can thus play all sides of the Middle Eastern equation, just as the Saudis are well-placed to leverage all sides of the global power equation.

Also read: Modi’s bid to sway China’s Xi with personal outreach was a big error. India’s paying for it

Opportunities for India

Interestingly, Pakistan is moving away from the Saudi camp on the back of its relationship with its new patron, China. It is also toying with the idea of joining Turkey and Malaysia in a bid to wrest the leadership of the so-called Islamic world away from Saudi Arabia. As C. Raja Mohan writes, “Islamabad is probably betting that America is on its way out of the Middle East, and that its all-weather strategic partnership with a rising China would give Pakistan new leverage in the changing Middle East. In the interim, the threat to align with Turkey and Iran serves as an instrument to put pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis.”

For India, the normalisation of ties between Israel and the Gulf Arabs is a good thing — for it opens up greater opportunities for our engagement with the region. It is important, though, that New Delhi does not get drawn to any one side of the Middle Eastern triangle. Iran is important for India, and must be engaged regardless of its isolation by the United States. Despite the realignments, India is well-placed with respect to the Arab states, Israel and Iran. It is with respect to Turkey that Indian foreign policy needs to find new approaches. Because he has nothing to lose, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is increasingly taking anti-India positions to bolster his own standing. Why not give him something to lose?

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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  1. “Delhi must quickly move to contain Turkey’s Erdogan”

    Delhi’s track record so far in its immediate neighbourhood as been abysmal. The Chinese take great delight in having two incompetent Gujarathis at the helm of affairs in India and they have grabbed Indian territory to prove it. There are unsolved disputes with Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and then of course Pakistan.

    And now, Mr Nitin Pai wants to extend Delhi’s belligerance and display its incompetence further afield in Turkey !

  2. The global equation should be viewed more from a transparent as seen yesterday status. China is building its military along the border but the reflexes to change the strategy when India is aware of its game plan amd moves, is not so evident. From Indian point of view, in this context, the current govt seems well prepared with its game plan.
    Turkey for its advantages of a secular fabric despite being an islamic nation, is loosing its credibility and a favoured nation status with the serial conversion of religious places to mosques. On the otherhand the oxymoron is fighting Riyadh to establish an alterego for the islamic countries union, the OIC, without a clue if it is actually required. Iran and Isreal are self sufficient no matter how the global relations take shape. Malaysia is no so ready for a religious leap howmuchever the desperate push from Pakistan or Turkey compels them. Dont want to spoil their equation and daily bread within their small world.
    Pakistan, just landing flat on its face from a verbose flight has no benefit with any alignment because at the table it has no stakes to offer except ofcourse, shadow militia that the incompetent to fight wars of honour, like the mossad and others of repute. Basically reduced to a parasite to react to the master’s dictat, the masters voice changing recently from Riyadh to Beijing. China has a huge task on hand, a huge flood to swim against the flow. Its entire military is engaged along the borders, the wolfwarrior strategy is now a reduced to a paper tiger, economy is seeing south and its superpower dream is a failed narrative of copied IPs and shady tactics of espionage and data stealing. Even on comparison the US, with all its negatives, stands apart as a superpower on better credentials and strong footing. China cannot stand or sustain its own claim until it gathers the guts to challenge an economy with a walk the talk stance, no matter the cause is right or wrong. Right no the cause of its aggression is wrong and the confidence to admit its wrong doing is not rightly advised by the leadership. China is at a crossroads and to dent the world with its power, may take much longer than its leadership is aspiring desperately. As such, the Isreals, UAE, the US, the Saudi Arabs of the world have very little to worry about. The bites and barks that cannot impact or match the intellect, deep roots, financial readiness and tech savvy leadership, balanced with a long term vision and a balanced ecosystem that is advocated by these economies.

    • Exactly !

      Most of these small Emirates and even Saudi Arabia are autocratic, despotic regimes that do not have to consult their peoples when policies are made. Additionally, when the voice of their subjects is raised, they are quelled violently in these places. Thus, at the grassroots, Israel, with its entrenched commitment to Zionist expansion by violently uprooting Arabs for the areas that they have lived in for centuries is never going to be accepted. It ia colonial power and does precisely what colonialists always have done. kick out the natives and turn over their land to the white man.

      And as you correctly point out, it is only the Modi led Indian government, with its deep hatred of Muslims that believes in this nonsense. And even applauds the violence perpetrated on Arabs.

  3. India at least gives Turkey some valuable tourists. Turkey doesn’t have anything to give to India or any Muslim country. Iran gives India oil and access to Afghanistan and central Asia. Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Mecca and Medina, besides being the oil giant. Erdogan just has his pompous ego. The more it tried to become the leader of the Muslim world, Turkey will alienate its western allies as well as the Arab world.

    • Turkey is firmly in China’s lap. That is probably the only reason the Russians are letting Erdogan be….else he would have died a long ago of some mysterious poisoning 🙂

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