Excellencies, distinguished guests, and colleagues;
1. It gives me great pleasure to address the Second ORF-MEA West Asia Conference, aptly titled ‘Transformations in West Asia: Regional Perspectives’ in which we will discuss issues of topical importance for the region. I would like to thank our partner ORF
for organizing this timely Conference, which will help us understand the complex nuances of the evolving developments in a cohesive manner.
2. As you all are aware, India shares deep historical, cultural and civilisation links with the Arab world. The shared belief in anti-colonialism together with the staunch commitment to achieve, preserve and enhance international peace and security through
dialogue and consultation forms the basic framework of our cooperation. For India, West Asia is part of our extended neighbourhood. Continued peace and stability in the region is in our strategic interest.
3. To cite few examples to highlight our deep engagement with the West Asia, the region is home to more than 7 million Indians, who contribute around US$ 40 billion in remittances annually. Our economic and commercial engagement with the region is around US$
186 billion per annum (2013-14), making it the largest trading regional block. The region is a source for more than 60 per cent of our oil and gas requirement, critical for our energy security. The Maghreb region is a major source of phosphatic and other fertilizers,
a significant factor in our food security. The sizable Sovereign Wealth Funds of Gulf countries can offer significant platform for operations of Indian companies, particularly in infrastructure, important for our socio-economic development and ‘Make in India’
initiative. There is an increased air connectivity and tourism prospects between the two sides (e.g. 700 flights a week between India and UAE). India has also been participating in important UN Peace Keeping Missions in the region especially in Lebanon, Syria
and South Sudan.
4. The West Asia region, post-‘Arab Spring,’ is in a state of flux and uncertainty, which heightens the difficulty in fully assessing the overall impact of unfolding events. After over four years of ‘Arab Spring,’ the earlier exaggerated expectations of progress
towards democracy have turned out to be misplaced. On the whole, ‘Arab Spring’ has exacerbated the regional fault lines, heightened regional rivalries with competing ideologies and skewed the regional balance of power. The surge of Islamic State (IS), gaining
control over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, is threatening to jolt the geo-political paradigm. The Iran nuclear issue has further compounded the crisis. Recent flare-up of fighting in Yemen and on-going civil war in Syria and Libya only highlights
the complexity and severity of the crisis. Militia infighting in Libya has seen Islamists pitted against tribal and pro-democracy rebel groups, thus threatening wider regional stability. There are a large number of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq
from around 83 countries. The easy mobility of extremists and rising number of foreign jihadis in the region has increased fears of the possibility of the spread of radicalism in the home countries of foreign fighters.
5. India’s policy in the region remains guided by our traditional long-standing ties with the region and is non-prescriptive and non-judgmental. So far, despite the challenges, our bilateral relations with virtually all countries of the region have been progressing
structurally and we have managed to insulate our core interests from the negative fall-out of regional developments. India acknowledges that the political future discourse taking into account popular aspirations in the countries has to be determined from within
and without any external interference or influence. While India is not in the business of exporting democracy, promotion of democratic ideals may be in alignment with India’s belief in these principles.
6. As far as policy options for India are concerned, we fully acknowledge that the complex challenges of the region require a multi- thronged approach and hence our efforts to outreach to a whole cross-section of society, including think tanks like ORF, universities,
academics and media towards a consolidated policy formulation. I will now delve into some key elements of our policy options:
(i) It needs to be understood that "old order neutrality” is not absence of decision-making or political passivity. India has been asked to play more active role in the Middle East but we need to assess this based on our strategic leverages and realistic consideration
of our strengths and limitations. We would not wish to create parallel mechanisms that will affect our bilateral relations.
(ii) India remains cautious that our approach towards the region should not be misconstrued as being partisan or sectarian, as India has stayed out of any regional alliances based on sectarian or other similar considerations. We need to be sensitive to the
perceptions of our own religious and ethnic mix in the population. At the same time, given the sectarian volatility in the region, we should remain prepared for any fundamental/sectarian backlash coming from the region.
(iii) India needs to strengthen high-level G2G contacts with all the countries in West Asia keeping in view our larger diaspora, energy and security interests in the region. There have been high-level state/official visits from some key regional countries over
the last two years, including that of President of Egypt (March 2013); Prime Ministers of Iraq (August 2013) and Kuwait (November 2013); King of Bahrain (February 2014), Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia (February 2014) and Emir of Qatar
(March 2015). Our External Affairs Ministers have visited some key countries in the region, including Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan. Foreign Ministers of Oman, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt have visited India. This regular
exchange of high-level visits has further cemented our bilateral relationships.
(iv) The Government is committed to protect the interests of Indian expatriates in the Gulf countries. These steps include, inter alia, working closely with the local authorities and employers, putting in place requisite institutional bilateral mechanisms,
community outreach, initiation of Indian Community Welfare Funds and rendering regular consular assistance. We have made concerted efforts to enter into bilateral Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with all the major destination countries to enlist the commitment
of the host governments to ensure better protection and welfare of Indian emigrants. There are MoUs with UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. An agreement on labour cooperation for domestic workers recruitment was signed with Saudi Arabia in January 2014.
(v) On Yemen, India has urged all concerned parties in the conflict to resolve their differences amicably and abide by the relevant UN resolution, the terms of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference.
India remains strongly committed to a stable, peaceful and democratic Yemen, which is in the interest of global and regional peace and security. India has successfully carried out the evacuation exercise for 4,741 Indian nationals as well as 1,947 foreign
nationals from 48 countries through ‘Operation Rahat’ which I was personally associated with over two weeks.
(vi) On Egypt, we have noted that the situation is slowly stabilizing. We are encouraged at the progress in the implementation of political transitional roadmap with the adoption of new Constitution and conduct of Presidential elections. The holding up of Parliamentary
elections at an early date will be important.
(vii) On Syria, India supports a UN-backed, Syrian-led comprehensive political settlement taking into account the aspirations of the Syrian people. We firmly believe that there can be no military solution to the crisis. India participated in Geneva-II and has
contributed financially towards humanitarian assistance and destruction of chemical weapons.
(viii) On Israel-Palestine, there is no change in India’s policy of extending strong support to the Palestinian cause, while maintaining good relations with Israel. India supports a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue, leading to a sovereign,
independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel, as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolutions. We have called on both sides
to resume the stalled peace process. On Israel-Gaza conflict of last summer, India expressed deep concern at the loss of large number of civilian lives in Gaza. India pledged US$ 4 million at the Cairo International Conference on Gaza Reconstruction in October
2014. Apart from strong political support to the Palestinian cause at international, regional and bilateral levels, India has been contributing budgetary, economic and developmental assistance to Palestine.
(ix) On Iraq, the ISIS take-over of large swathes of northern Iraq and creation of territorial contiguity with north-eastern Syria has serious ramifications for the region, with heightened extremist and sectarian overtones. We have expressed our firm support
to Iraq in its fight against international terrorism and efforts to preserve its unity and territorial integrity. We are hopeful that an inclusive political arrangement will help easing the conflict. In view of the security situation, the government has assisted
over 7,000 Indians in returning from Iraq. However, the safety of the 39 Indian nationals in captivity in Mosul remains a matter of foremost concern, and the government is making all efforts for their release.
(x) Libya, in post-revolution period, is witnessing extreme divisive tendencies shrouded in tribalism, religious fanaticism, regionalism and more recently, extreme forms of militia violence. The intensified militia warfare and in-fighting in Libya ongoing since
July 2014 is of grave concern to us. The government initiated a detailed assistance plan for the safe exit of the Indian nationals trapped in the conflict. So far, of the 6,500 Indians at the time of the commencement of the conflict, around 3,500 have been
evacuated. The remaining Indians, despite persistent Embassy Advisories, have refused to leave for economic reasons.
(xi) As for the external players, India believes that US, despite its pivot towards Asia-Pacific region, remains an important player for regional stability (i.e. fight against IS, security of Israel, Iran nuclear talks). Other countries have attempted to re-engage
and may have gained in appeal as a counterweight to the West in the region. However, there is question on their economic capability and sustainability. Some of these countries may be making a strong economic and military thrust in the region, including for
consolidation of oil interests. But their readiness for a strong political role in the region remains to be seen.
(xii) On the Iran nuclear talks, India has welcomed the understanding announced in Lausanne between Iran and E3+3 on the nuclear issue. India has always maintained that the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully by respecting Iran’s right to peaceful
uses of nuclear energy as also the international community’s strong interest in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.
(xiii) On IS, India believes that the only solution to this threat can be through a larger political approach requiring a consolidated, rather than fragmented perspective, including intelligence sharing; counter-terrorism; cyber-space cooperation for containment
of outbound flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria; developing a legal framework for fighting terrorism at national and international level (including early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism); tracking of financial flows;
and humanitarian assistance. So far, the efforts of IS to gain recruits from India has met with limited success largely owing to our own pluralist society and inclusive democratic experience. There are reported to be a small number of Indian jihadi fighters
in Iraqi-Syrian war zones, but the Government is taking measures to control this through immigration controls, intelligence sharing, and liaison with state Governments.
(xiv) In view of the situation in the region, new areas of defence and security cooperation have emerged which includes counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, piracy, money laundering, small arms smuggling, financing terror activities, etc. Specific measures
for strengthening institutional security mechanisms can include: greater naval presence in the region; regular participation in Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings; stronger regional cooperation through naval assets in the Strait of Hormuz
for protection of maritime trade.
(xv) India believes that political instability can be offset through greater economic engagement with the region. While India’s regional trade volumes have increased, considerable untapped potential remains.
(xvi) The Indian diaspora in the region has become the most preferred work force due to their hard working nature and sense of dedication and commitment. Their contribution in the development of their host countries has earned tremendous goodwill for India.
It has also helped in furthering our bilateral relations with these countries.
(xvii) We will continue our efforts to further our mutually beneficial political, economic and security ties with North African countries including Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan. New economic cooperation areas are pharmaceuticals, automobiles,
infrastructure, power and renewable energy.
(xviii) We shall continue our cooperation with Somalia on anti-piracy and hostage issue. Importantly, the last of the remaining 7 Indian seafarers in captivity in Somalia were released in October 2014, after four years in captivity.
(xix) We have laid out a strong foundation for our relationship collectively with the Arab League, through the signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation and an Executive Programme in December 2013, covering the fields of political consultations, trade and investments,
media and culture.
7. In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that India attaches high priority to its political, economic, and security relations with the countries of the West Asia region. I remain optimistic that our bilateral relations with the countries in West Asia are
poised to grow, given the enormous potential on both sides. However, the broader context in which we seek to pursue our vital interests in West Asia is fraught and unpredictable making our task so much more challenging and daunting.
8. I look forward to hearing from the learned speakers on this pertinent topic and gain new insights on regional perspective.