Context: The current adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on India’s economic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) countries has now become a matter of concern. In this scenario, India’s interests would be best served if stability in the Persian Gulf littoral region is ensured properly.

About the equations in the Persian Gulf region

  • The lands around the Persian Gulf are shared by eight countries, all of which are members of the UN.
    • These countries include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
  • There is a commonality of interest among these countries in being major producers of crude oil and natural gas, and thereby contributing critically to the global economy and to their own prosperity. 
  • This factor has added to their geopolitical significance. At the same time, turbulence has often characterized their inter se political relations.

Background of the geopolitics of the region

  • For eight decades prior to 1970, The Persian Gulf was a closely guarded British lake, which was administered in good measure by imperial civil servants from India. 
  • When that era ended, regional players sought to assert themselves.
    • The Nixon and the Carter Doctrines were the logical outcome to ensure American hegemony in the region.
      • The Persian Gulf region was regarded as an area of vital importance to the US during the Cold War. 
      • The Carter Doctrine was a policy proclaimed by the President of the United States, which stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf.
      • Nixon Doctrine's application provided military aid to Iran and Saudi Arabia so that US allies could ensure peace and stability there. 
  • An early effort for collective security, attempted in a conference in Muscat in 1975, was thwarted by Baathist Iraq. 
    • The Iranian Revolution put an end to the Twin Pillar approach and disturbed the strategic balance.
      • Twin Pillar approach is a U.S. policy to promote Iran and Saudi Arabia as local guardians of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region. 
      • The Iranian Revolution,1979 was a series of events that culminated in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States.
    • The Iraq-Iran War enhanced U.S. interests and role. Ultimately, it was left to the Security Council through Resolution 598 (1987) to explore ‘measures to enhance the security and stability in the region’.

Understanding the current U.S. link with the region

  • The U.S. took the effort to ‘contain’ the Iranian revolutionary forces, supplemented by the effort of the Arab states of the littoral (except Iraq) through the instrumentality of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC (May 1981).
    • It was to coordinate, cooperate and integrate to ‘serve the objectives of the Arab Nation’.
    • However, it initially met with success in some functional fields and a lack of it in its wider objectives.
  • In the meantime, geopolitical factors and conflicts elsewhere in the West Asian region Yemen, Syria, Libya aggravated global and regional relationships and hampered a modus vivendi in U.S.-Iran relations.
    • The modus vivendi was to be premised on the multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear program agreed to by western powers and the Obama Administration.
    • However, it was disowned by the current U.S. President whose strident policies have taken the region to the brink of an armed conflict.
  • Changing priorities of US in the region
    • Perceptions of declining U.S. commitment to sub-regional security have been articulated in recent months amid hints of changing priorities. 
    • This is reported to have caused disquiet in most members of the GCC, whose security concern remains pivoted on
      • an Iranian threat (political and ideological rather than territorial) and 
      • American insurance to deter it based on a convergence of interests in which oil, trade, arms purchases, etc have a role along with wider U.S. regional and global determinants.

Current status of power equations in the GCC countries

  • The current divisions within the organization might be aggravated by issues such as 
    • The global economic crisis, the immediate and longer-term impact of COVID-19 on regional economies, the problems in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and the decline in oil prices.
  • Few assessments suggests that 
    • Saudi Arabia is a fading power, UAE, Qatar, and Iran are emerging as the new regional leaders, and Oman and Iraq will have to struggle to retain their sovereign identities.
    • The rest of the Arab states of this subregion are left to individual devices to explore working arrangements with Iraq and Iran. 

About Gulf Cooperation Council

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

  • Established in 1981, the GCC promotes economic, security, cultural and social cooperation between the six states and holds a summit every year to discuss cooperation and regional affairs.
  • HQ - Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • In 1984, the GCC established a standing coalition land force, the Peninsular Shield Force, tasked to defend the six nation states
  • It is composed of infantry, armour, artillery and combat support elements from each of the states, numbering 40,000 in total.

What can be done to ensure the framework for stability and security in the region?

  • Any framework for stability and security in the region needs to answer a set of questions: 
    • security for whom, by whom, against whom, for what purpose? 
    • Is the requirement in local, regional, or global terms? 
    • Does it require an extra-regional agency
  • The essential ingredients for ensuring security through a framework needs to include : 
    • conditions of peace and stability in individual littoral states; 
    • freedom to all states of the Gulf littoral to exploit their hydrocarbon and other natural resources and export them; 
    • freedom of commercial shipping in international waters of the Persian Gulf; 
    • freedom of access to, and outlet from, Gulf waters through the Strait of Hormuz;
    • prevention of conflict that may impinge on the freedom of trade and shipping
    • prevention of emergence of conditions that may impinge on any of these considerations.

Ties of the region with India

  • India’s bilateral relationship, economic and political, with the GCC has blossomed in recent years. 
  • These governments are India-friendly and Indian-friendly and appreciate the benefits of a wide-ranging relationship.
  • Few facts associated with these ties 
    • Trade and remittances
      • Ties are well reflected in the bilateral trade of around $121 billion and remittances of $49 billion from a workforce of over nine million. 
    • Oil equations
      • GCC suppliers account for around 34% of India’s crude imports. Also, the national oil companies in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi are partners in a $44 billion investment in the giant Ratnagiri oil refinery. 
      • In addition, Saudi Aramco is reported to take a 20% stake in Reliance oil-to-chemicals business. 
  • Complex relationship with Iran
    • The relationship with Iran is complex at all times and more so recently on account of overt American pressure.
    • However, it has economic potential and geopolitical relevance on account of its actual or alleged role in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 
    • Iran also neighbors Turkey and some countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea region. 
    • Iran’s size, politico-technological potential, and economic resources need to be harnessed for the wider good.
  • Ensuring security in the region
    • India has eschewed involvement in local or regional disputes. 
    • Indian interests do not entail power projection; they necessitate in their totality, peace and regional stability, freedom of navigation, and access to the region’s markets in terms of trade, technology, and manpower resources. 
    • Indian interests would be best served if this stability is ensured through cooperative security since the alternative of competitive security options cannot ensure durable peace.