23 February 2021
By Amb Sanjay Singh
Amb Sanjay Singh, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary (Gulf), March 2005 to March 2009. India’s Ambassador to Iran, March 2009 to March 2011. Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs, March 2011. Retired, April 2013
National Institute of Advanced Studies
NIAS Tuesday Lecture Series
Contemporary Middle East
Amb Sanjay Singh
Report Prepared By
The lecture focused on eight salient trends emerging in contemporary West Asia. First, COVID-19 and Economic slowdown, which has inflicted the region since last year. The cumulative cases from the beginning have been around 8.3 million, the maximum being in Turkey 2.5 million, Iran 1.4 million, and Israel nearly half a million. The spread of the pandemic has exacerbated the global and regional economy. This slowdown has reduced the out-take of oil and gas from the region and depressed prices. In November IMF estimated, economic loss in the region will amount to around $270 billion. After a decade of Arab Spring, the region has not witnessed any progressive change. It has either unleashed violence, liberating religion, tribal and ideological differences or has reinstalled the old guard in the region.
Second, key features of the regional situation. The region presents contradictory images of holy sites, oil wealth, and opulence with sectarian conflict, extremism, and terrorist violence. It is confronted with daunting political, socio-economic, and security challenges. The Arab Spring has considerably destabilized the region which is afflicted by the continuing violence in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. The Palestinian-Israeli conundrum, deepening divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the schism within political Islam, and the feud between Israel and Turkey. The Great Powers continues to intervene in the region, as the region continues to suffer from the proliferation of radical extremist groups. It also faces nontraditional threats from climate change and desertification, droughts, environmental degradation, terrorism, piracy, and the effects on the sea lanes of communications, drug and people trafficking, especially from North Africa.
Third, the US Middle East Policy undergoing a shift. Despite the shale oil revolution and contrary indication, the US continues its involvement in the region, as per its national interest. Biden's presidency's emphasis on the environment and climate change may derail the US independence from Middle East oil in the future. Former President Trump administration policies, toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE focused more on the transactional aspect. Whereas the new administration has maintained a lowkey towards it as the focus is more on the domestic challenges from COVID, strengthening of traditional alliances, the challenge faced from China and Russia. The administration has reversed many of Trump’s policies. Arms deal with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been put on hold, overturn the ban on citizens from some Muslim countries and lastly, the designation of the foreign terrorist organization has been kept in abeyance. This indicates a different approach towards the Middle East. On 25 January, US Permanent Representative to the UN said, the new US government supported a two-state solution to the Israel Palestine dispute and would overturn several related decisions.
Fourth, the tension in the Persian Gulf: Sanctions on Iran and the future of JCPOA. US sanctions on Iran and withdrawal from JCPOA inflicted considerable damage to the Iranian economy. According to IMF, the Iranian economy had contracted by 6.5 per cent in 2019 and 6 per cent in 2020, one of the worst performances since 1984. The sanction came into force, in May 2019. The region had witnessed an increase in attacks on energy to maritime transportation assets. Recently, Iran’s noncompliance with the JCPOA, enrich uranium for 4.5 per cent. Further the assassination of Dr. Mohsen Fakhirzadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist. Soon after which, Iranian majlis passed out a resolution. First, to stop the IAEA nuclear inspections unless the economic sanctions are lifted. Second, rise in uranium enrichment by 20 per cent. In February, IAEA reported Iran’s increasing production of uranium metal, despite warned by the P5+1. The new administration expressed its readiness to re-engage in JCPOA. On 20th February, IAEA inspectors were granted access to nuclear sites for three months. This may further give space to negotiated between the US and Iran.
Fifth, Abraham-accords: Normalization of ties between UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Israel. The agreement formalized the informal relationship between UAE and Israel. Concurrently, Israel suspends plans for annexing parts of the West Bank after the signing of an agreement in September 2020. These developments impacted the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. While the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Iran, etc, criticized the deal. It was welcomed around the world, as a positive step.
Sixth, the Trump administration's policy on Israel and Palestine is indicated by the Middle East peace plan-"the deal of the century.” Before launching the peace plan the US made several unilateral decisions such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, legitimizes Israeli settlements in West Bank. Under Biden's administration, the region might undergo changes. On 17 January, Palestinian Authority decided to restore normalcy in its relations with Israel, which was disrupted last year. They also called for a new initiative from the Biden administration and greater involvement of the UN and the EU.
Seventh, conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, unsettled Iraq, and Lebanon's difficulties. On 19 January, Libyans formed the interim executive authority, to oversee the transition to the general elections. Muhammad Yunus Manif had been appointed the head of the Presidential Council, and Abdul H M Jabbar, the transitional Prime Minister. The Libyan conflict had earlier swung from one side to another, Turkey and Qatar supported the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and Egypt, UAE, and Russian mercenaries supported Benghazi based Libyan National Army. A further contestation over the gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel complicate the conflict. The unsettled conditions in Libya result in increased illegal immigration to Europe, which is a matter of concern.
Conflicts in Syria have shifted to the rebel militias near the north center bordering, Turkey. This has caused widespread damage, displacing Syrian civilians and a large number of killings. In the Northeast region, there is an uneasy truce between Turkey and the Kurdish militias. Also, Israel's continues bombing has flamed the conflict in the country. In Yemen, Houthis continued attacks on the Saudis, Al Qaeda expansion in the Arabian Peninsula this conflict is leading towards an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian efforts, the conflict in Yemen has so far claimed the lives of over 230,000 people.
Iraq remains a playground, the assassination of General Soleimani, to which Iranian response came in the form of missile attacks on US bases. The US had vowed to hold accountable those responsible. Iraq’s internal situation still remains questionable due to corruption and sectarian fighting. Whereas Lebanon is financially week and is seen polity incapable of throwing up a solution. Agreement with Israel and Turkey on the exploitation of offshore gas fields may give succor to the country.
Eighth, the great power presence and exposition of the view from India. Russia emerged as an assertive actor in the region. In 2019, Russia presented the collective security concept for the Persian Gulf area. Also, there has been an increase in engagement of Asian countries particularly the growing engagement of China and India. Various studies recommend Chinese greater politico-military engagement and participation in promoting peace and security in the region are solely to foresee its BRI development in the region.
India has a strategic interest in the region. It expatriates the region, religious and cultural links. Over 9 million Indians live and work in the region. India also depends for its 70 per cent of oil and gas requirements, as well as phosphatic fertilizers and urea essential for agriculture. West Asia is India's largest economic partner with trade exceeding $150 billion annually and has a growing investment partnership. India has moved from a look west to think West and now focusing on link-west to build strong economic and security ties.
The Middle East continues to witness tension, conflict, and violence. ‘A Day is a long time in the Middle East, the situation changes by the hour, and it is difficult to say how the situation will unfold’. There has been a change, but much has remained the same, over the last seven months.