India rarely appears on lists of world powers involved in the Middle East, but, like several other populous Asian countries with money to spend, the world’s largest democracy has looked to the tumultuous but wealthy region as an opportunity to bolster India’s own economic development. In fact, Indian officials seem to be following the example set by their better-resourced Chinese counterparts: ignoring Middle Eastern allies’ disregard for human rights and peremptory norms in the name of preserving economic partnerships that have proved lucrative for both sides.
When a hit squad tied to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman killed the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year ago, much of the Western world, including close allies of Saudi Arabia, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, condemned the kingdom and questioned the contemporary value of the historical Saudi–Western alliance. For its part, China took a far more nuanced approach to an assassination that reshaped the Middle East.
Whereas Western business were withdrawing from the kingdom in the wake of the scandal, the Chinese–Saudi partnership was growing stronger.
Though China opted to refrain from defending Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s death as Saudi allies in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and the United Arab Emirates did, Chinese diplomats also avoided criticizing the kingdom. Instead, Chinese and Saudi leaders heralded the signing of a $10 billion deal on cooperation in the petrochemical and petroleum industries only a few months after the Khashoggi episode. Whereas Western business were withdrawing from the kingdom in the wake of the scandal, the Chinese–Saudi partnership was growing stronger.
Just as the Khashoggi affair represents a microcosm of China’s wider non-interventionist foreign policy, the incident proved that India would prioritize its economic ties to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general over any concerns about the actions of its Middle Eastern partners. This February, the same month in which bin Salman reached the $10 billion deal with China, he paid a visit to India, which celebrated his arrival despite credible reports linking him to the assassination.
The Khashoggi atrocity has become the most notorious example of China and India’s willingness to overlook the transgressions of their Middle Eastern partners in international trade, but his death only served to draw the attention of the international community to an understanding in existence for years. China and India consume much of the fossil fuels exported by Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Middle Eastern kingdoms with a history of abusing human rights and quashing dissent, actions that Chinese and Indian officials rarely challenge if at all.
As a country that has little interest in fostering democracy and human rights at home, China has surprised few with its openness to engaging with authoritarians abroad and in the Middle East in particular. India, however, takes pride in its status as the world’s largest democracy, so its ties to Middle Eastern autocrats seem all the more striking. Still, the Indian decision to turn a blind eye to the actions of its allies in the Middle East appears to rest on simple economic calculus.
For the time being, India has judged that its own economic growth outweighs human rights abroad.
In recent years, India has become the biggest destination for exports from the UAE, the second biggest for Oman, the third biggest for Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and the fifth biggest for Bahrain. If Indian officials expressed concern about these countries’ crackdowns on dissidents or their handling of their internal affairs in general, India could jeopardize access to fossil fuels, on which Indian businesses have relied to sustain the country’s economic development. For the time being, India has judged that its own economic growth outweighs human rights abroad.
In addition to economic benefits, India’s Chinese-inspired approach to the Middle East continues to yield diplomatic dividends. When Indian officials launched their own crackdown in the restive region of Kashmir by arresting community leaders, cutting telephone lines, and even revoking its autonomy, the UAE voiced its support for the controversial Indian operation, which the country’s ambassador to India expected to “encourage further stability and peace.”
The UAE likely embraced India’s position on Kashmir because, just as India has appreciated the importance of its economic relationship with the Middle East, the UAE understands that it needs clients such as India to keep the Emirati war chest full. In a similar move, Saudi Arabia defended China’s detention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims, a position soon adopted by other wealthy Middle Eastern kingdoms, including Qatar and the UAE; although, Qatar, to its credit, retracted its support and offered to “focus on compromise and mediation.” By backing one another in the international community, these economic allies secure their diplomatic reputations.
The Chinese and Indian willingness to ignore the headline-grabbing actions of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Middle Eastern countries has allowed China and India to exploit economic opportunities that more scrupulous Western businesses, wary of criticism from human rights activists, might avoid altogether.
While China and India’s rivalry has fueled a cold war between the world powers across much of Asia, the pair’s strategy in the Middle East seems more or less the same. The Chinese and Indian willingness to ignore the headline-grabbing actions of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Middle Eastern countries has allowed China and India to exploit economic opportunities that more scrupulous Western businesses, wary of criticism from human rights activists, might avoid altogether.
The U.K., the U.S., and many other Western countries choose to engage with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, but American and British politicians have begun to reevaluate the ultimate benefits of these alliances as allegations of Emirati and Saudi war crimes in Yemen still provoke outcries across the world. No such conversation is occuring in India despite its vibrant democracy, yet it may have a far greater ability to influence the behavior of its allies in the Middle East than its Western counterparts, which have long struggled with the same task.
The UAE’s deference to India on Kashmir speaks to a crucial point: the UAE needs India no less than India does the UAE. If Indian officials wielded their economic leverage not only over the UAE but also over Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, India could pressure these Middle Eastern kingdoms to embark on substantive reforms, strengthening the efforts of Western diplomats to achieve the same goal. Here, India enjoys a unique level of influence.
How India chooses to proceed could inform the approach of other Asian world powers interested in expanding their presence in the Middle East, such as Japan and South Korea. For now, though, India seems to have concluded that economic growth matters more than human rights.