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Turmoil in Arab World: INDIA NEEDS TO TREAD CAREFULLY, By Ashok B Sharma, 16 Sept, 2014 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 16 September 2014

Turmoil in Arab World


By Ashok B Sharma

The unfolding situation in West Asia and North Africa has not only put Indian diplomacy to test but is also likely to pose a challenge to the country’s security concerns and economic interests given the region has brought both local and external powers in the play. Further, the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias has aggravated the situation by questioning the Sykes-Picot boundaries between the nation States.

Importantly, the setting up of the Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is an indication that the knotty problem may not be resolved in the immediate future. Adding to India’s security concerns is the Sunni terrorist organisation, Al Qaeeda forming a new arm for the Indian sub-Continent.

Remember, the region, long known as a playground for external powers, is undergoing reconfiguration in its geo-politics which is likely to impact geo-economics also. Though the area has a love-hate relationship with external players, it cannot resolve most of its core problems without external influence, interference or intervention.

Notably, despite its declining influence, the US continues to be the power which has the political will and military capability to exert itself in the region. But its attitude towards the Arab Spring and its policy of ‘rebalancing towards Asia Pacific’ has drawn criticism from its regional allies.

Russia is seen coming back as a player with its support for Iran and the Assad regime in Syria along-with ongoing efforts to cultivate stronger relations with Egypt. In fact, Moscow’s handling of the Ukraine issue has demonstrated its growing assertiveness in world affairs.

China, which sources about 50% of its imported oil from this region, is continuing to strengthen its economic leverage. Alongside Japan and South Korea too look to this area for meeting their energy needs.

Pertinently, the sectarian divide between the Sunnis and Shias has made Saudi Arabia and Iran active in mobilising their influence in the region. The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that is supposed to anchor the region is suffering from intra-GCC rivalry which is threatening to alter the fragile balance within the group. The emergence of Qatar-Saudi contention is one of the major issues.

Add to this, Iran is coming out of its isolation after its interim agreement with P5+1 resulting in the partial lifting of sanctions. But Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry has taken new dimensions with Tehran harbouring ambition to lead the Shias in the region.

Recall, in 2004 Jordon’s King Abdullah apprehended the emergence of the Shia Crescent embracing Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This fear was also echoed by the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal.

However, with the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, rule of the minority Alawites Shias in Syria, nascent Shia empowerment and leadership in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein coupled with US withdrawal and emergence of the new Zaydi (Shia) fighting force in Yemen, the Shia Crescent dream seems to be a reality.

True, in the global Muslim population of 1.4 billion, Shias constitute 13%, with their maximum concentration in Iran and the Arab world. If Iran is excluded, Arab Shias constitute one-third of the total native population. In Iraq, Shias constitute about 60% of the total population of 35 million.

In Bahrain, two-third of the native half million population is Shia and in Kuwait, 30% of its 1.2 million native populace is Shia, while in Saudi Arabia’s 20 million local inhabitants 13 % is Shia of which Ismaili Shias  are concentrated in the Eastern Province, Najran and Jizan Province. In Syria, Alawi Shias constitute just 12% of the total population of 23 million yet the sect’s Assad family has been ruling the country since 1971.

Significantly, all the Shia sects in the region have Iran’s support which is determined to emerge as a major player in the area. Obversely, Saudi Arabia is the natural leader of the Sunnis in the region. Notwithstanding, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were in the forefront of supporting the Palestine cause. However, in the recent Israeli operation in Gaza against the backdrop of the ISIS occupation of over 40,000 sq km of Iraq, the response from both Iran and Saudi Arabia was negligible.

There is no gainsaying that the sharp Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in the region might have a spill over effect on India’s Muslim population and elsewhere in the world. Given that the country has the third largest Muslim populace. There are already reports of some Indian Sunni Muslims joining the ISIS adventure in Iraq and a few Shias willing to go to Iraq to defend Najaf and Karbala. Thus, the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide might result in a new problem.

Clearly, the challenge facing India is to balance its political equations and economic interests with major regional and external players in the area as the country’s energy imports from the region account for about 63% of total oil imports. West Asia and North Africa have 47% of the world’s natural gas reserves.

Also, the region is India’s leading trading partner with total trade of about $200 billion. The area hosts about seven million Indian expatriates who send considerable amount of remittances back. Moreover, Gulf countries have huge Sovereign Funds which can be invested in several infrastructure projects in the country.

Though the present crisis has not impacted global oil and gas prices thanks to ample stocks, the turmoil in the region is likely to affect future investment climate and production in the long run.   

In sum, if the Sykes-Picot boundaries, arbitrarily fixed by the British and French after World War I are replaced and new boundaries drawn based on sectarian divide, the entire geo-politics and geo-economics of the region would undergo change

Already, the ISIS Caliphate has begun the process of earmarking its areas and capturing oil fields and refinery at Mosul. It is still holding 40 Indian construction workers as hostage. Consequently, in this emerging situation India needs to carefully play its diplomatic card keeping in mind its security and economic interests. ----- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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