Abraham Accords Boost India's Prospects in the Middle East
– Michael Kugelman
The normalization agreements are helping to advance India’s economic and foreign policy goals.
The Abraham Accords, like all milestone diplomatic agreements, have had a major impact on many countries, and not just those that signed on to them. India is one nation that benefits from the agreement, which was signed in 2020 between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, normalizing these countries’ relations with Israel and generating hopes of fostering peace and prosperity in the region. The Abraham Accords help advance key Indian foreign policy goals and principles, and they boost New Delhi’s relations with the US and Middle East. And by embedding India—a key trade partner with the Middle East—deeper in the diplomatic and commercial architecture of the region, the Abraham Accords pave the way for more trade and economic growth.
Momentum for minilateralism and multipolarity
The Abraham Accords enable New Delhi to establish new multilateral partnerships with Israel and with Indian friends in Arab countries that now have formal relations with Israel. One of the first such arrangements to emerge from the Abraham Accords was the quadrilateral grouping known as I2U2, comprised of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US. New Delhi has long had close bilateral ties with the other three, but never a formal four-way partnership. In recent years, India has robustly pursued these “minilateralist” groupings, which have become a major feature of the current era of international relations.
The Abraham Accords allow Washington and New Delhi to broaden the geographic bounds of partnership.
New Delhi still values its role in larger, more traditional groups, from the UN to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but it is expanding its participation in smaller setups. These include trilateral arrangements—with the US and Japan; with France and Australia; and with Australia and Indonesia—as well as the Indo-Pacific Quad. Indian diplomats tell me this is part of a broader strategy to work with close bilateral partners to secure new accords with like-minded third and fourth countries.
India’s motivation for embracing minilateralism—beyond a desire to increase its global engagement—is rooted in its desire for multipolarity. Since independence, Indian governments have sought to promote a more balanced world order, one manifested as a range of power centers diffused throughout the world and maintained through multilateral cooperation. This preference for a large global balance of power is one reason why—despite its muted stance—India opposes the war in Ukraine. The conflict, which could deepen cash-strapped, globally isolated Russia’s dependence on China, one of Moscow’s only remaining powerful allies, risks creating a new Russia-China entente—a fearsome bilateral alliance that would clash with more multilateral but less powerful groups of countries.
I2U2 dovetails nicely with India’s preferences about the world order. It brings together a superpower, a regional power, a rising power, and a major economic player; it establishes links between governments from three different regions; and it revolves around trade and development cooperation, not countering other countries or groupings.
Advancing strategic autonomy
I2U2, and any similar initiatives that may emerge from the Abraham Accords and feature India, also help advance New Delhi’s core foreign policy principle of strategic autonomy. India wants to maintain maximum flexibility to engage with as many international actors as possible, and for that reason it eschews camps and alliances and any type of entity that is pitted against another. This is why balancing has long been a core element of Indian foreign policy: It manages relations with many rival pairs—the US and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Israelis and Palestinians, among others.
I2U2 is not an alliance, and it has no military-related components or objectives. Unlike the Indo-Pacific Quad, which revolves around countering China, I2U2 is not meant to target any one country. Israel and the UAE are in fact strengthening commercial cooperation with China. Some observers have wondered if I2U2 is meant to present a common front against Iran, which strongly opposed the Abraham Accords. This is unlikely, however, given that Abu Dhabi seeks workable relations with Tehran.
I2U2 doesn’t appear to have any unifying cause at all, which critics suggest could threaten the group’s sustainability. However, one could also argue this gives I2U2 more flexibility to adjust its purpose and goals. I2U2 members have also agreed to emphasize cooperation in areas ranging from food security and climate change to health, space, and infrastructure. The group’s initial projects—both to be based in India—focus on developing and financing food parks, and a renewable energy project. These are noncontroversial activities that tie in to broader global priorities. All of this benefits India’s strategic autonomy: It keeps New Delhi out of great power politics or any alliance-like commitments, while encouraging the type of cooperation unlikely to anger key partners—or rivals, for that matter.
Expanding geographic parameters of the US-India partnership
Strategic autonomy may prevent India from joining alliances, but it doesn’t preclude it from pursuing deeper relations with top partners, including Washington. The Abraham Accords, by enabling the US and India to partner formally with Israel and some of its neighbors, allow Washington and New Delhi to broaden the geographic bounds of partnership. This helps India expand its global reach, but also deepen its relationship with the US.
In recent years, shared concern about China has fueled the US-India partnership. This means that the Indo-Pacific—a term used by Washington and New Delhi to describe much of East and Southeast Asia and some of South Asia—has become the prime theater for US-India strategic cooperation. It is here that the US and India have ramped up military training exercises, pursued partnerships with other countries in the region (such as the US-Japan-India trilateral, and the Quad), and laid out a formal policy (known as the Indo-Pacific strategy) to counter China’s power.
However, strategic partnerships aim to broaden subject areas of cooperation (which the US and India have done in recent years through increasing collaborations in energy, technology, and climate change mitigation) but also geographic areas of cooperation. This is why New Delhi and Washington both support cooperation regionally, and globally.
Despite all these benefits for India, it would be wrong to suggest this is a simple case of New Delhi free-riding off the Abraham Accords. Indeed, the opportunities that spring from the Accords are fraught with geopolitical landmines.
Admittedly, some geographic spaces are less likely to engage in bilateral cooperation. In Central Asia, Washington has too light of a footprint, and in Latin America, New Delhi’s presence is too modest. By contrast, Europe, where many countries share views with the US and India on the Indo-Pacific, is emerging as a new space for US-India cooperation. The Middle East, a region that both the US and India view as strategically significant, and which is home to close partners of both Washington and New Delhi, also has high potential for US-India collaborations.
Enhancing engagement with the Middle East
Today, New Delhi arguably accords more strategic value to the Middle East than to any other region aside from the Indo-Pacific. It is home to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—all close or fast-growing Indian partners.
The Middle East is a critical source of Indian energy imports and infrastructure assistance, and a key supplier of water-saving agricultural technologies. The Persian Gulf region hosts more than 8 million Indian workers, many of whom send money back home that gets pumped back into the economy. And, unlike many Western partners, Middle Eastern leaders—with the occasional exception—don’t focus their attention on New Delhi’s domestic policies, which Western countries have criticized as backsliding on democratic principles. This is an additional advantage for New Delhi, which resents external criticism of its domestic affairs.
The Abraham Accords, by enabling formal cooperation between Israel and a larger number of its Arab neighbors, provide India with more opportunities to engage multilaterally with key partners in a strategically significant region. I2U2, for example, could be a springboard for more cooperation between India and Israel, as well as Arab states (like the UAE) that only recently formalized relations with Israel and other Arab states (like Egypt) that normalized ties with Israel long ago.
Trade ties, in particular, stand to increase—and in fact, they already have. Over the Indian fiscal year that ended in March 2022, just 18 months after the Abraham Accords were signed, Indian trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council—which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two key Indian partners—exceeded $150 billion. Significantly, Indian exports to the Gulf increased throughout the previous fiscal year by nearly 60 percent and its imports by 85 percent. Not surprisingly, two of India’s top trade partners, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its third-biggest source of imports, Egypt, are in the Middle East. Two-thirds of its imported crude oil and liquid natural gas imports are also sourced from the region.
Aiding global leadership
One of the major criticisms of Indian foreign policy in recent years is that the country punches below its weight: It hasn’t developed as deep a global footprint as one would expect from a country of its size and clout. Even India’s current national security adviser has leveled this criticism. Such reproach is nothing to sneeze at in 2023—India is now the world’s most populous country and the fifth-largest economy, and New Delhi holds the G20 presidency.
This is why India is especially keen to ramp up its role on the world stage. Its participation in I2U2 and any similar entities emerging from the Abraham Accords helps advance this goal. What makes I2U2 especially important in this regard is that its main objectives—strengthening infrastructure, climate change, public health, and technological developments—mirror those of India’s foreign policy on the whole. India seeks to serve as a bridge between developed and developing countries, which entails working with the US and Israel—among other major economies—to help address challenges that disproportionately impact developing nations. These same goals, not coincidentally, animate the activities of other mini- and multilateral groups of which India is a member, from BRICS to the G20. In effect, the Abraham Accords have afforded India the opportunity to participate in new arrangements that reinforce its global leadership and the objectives that drive it.
Opportunities with caveats
Despite all these benefits for India, it would be wrong to suggest this is a simple case of New Delhi free-riding off the Abraham Accords. Indeed, the opportunities that spring from the Accords are fraught with geopolitical landmines. For example, India’s two main rivals—Pakistan and China—are key players in the Middle East. Islamabad, like New Delhi, has close trade and energy ties with the Gulf states, and it depends on the remittances sent home by its millions of workers there. Beijing, meanwhile, is increasingly influential in the region. Not just as a trade partner and source of infrastructure assistance, but—as evidenced by its mediation of a recent Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement—as a diplomatic powerbroker.
Additionally, New Delhi will have to be careful about its engagements with Iran—a top regional power that rejects the Abraham Accords—even if Tehran’s reconciliation with Riyadh holds, and India gains more diplomatic space to engage with Iran without antagonizing Saudi Arabia. In recent years, India has curtailed commercial relations with Iran—formerly a top Indian energy supplier—in order to comply with the US sanctions regime. New Delhi will want to maintain that position, especially because it knows Washington is unhappy about its continued close relations with Moscow (India’s relations with Russia have long been closer than its relations with Iran). China’s strategic partnership deal with Iran, concluded in 2021, will further complicate India’s relations with Iran. For New Delhi, strengthening ties with the Middle East while tiptoeing around one of its most powerful states will be a delicate diplomatic dance.
These caveats aside, India is poised to gain from the Abraham Accords—and so is the world. They can help advance New Delhi’s foreign policy goals, and fortify its role on the global stage. They can also contribute to regional and global growth and stability by bringing together major economic players—and, in the case of India, the world’s fastest-growing economy—to pursue trade and investment opportunities, and to partner on delivering key public goods, from clean energy technologies to pandemic vaccines.
Michael Kugelman is director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. He is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, and their relations with the United States. The editor or co-editor of 11 books, he has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other publications, covering topics ranging from US policy in Afghanistan to terrorism to water, energy, and food security in the region.
Cover photo: Brett McGurk, deputy assistant to the US President and White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa; Jose W. Fernandez, US Under Secretary of State for economic growth, energy, and the environment; Ronen Levi, director-general at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dammu Ravi, secretary (economic relations) at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs; and Ahmed Al Sayegh, UAE minister of state. Photo courtesy of the US State Department.