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‘Chabahar regrettably a stop-go affair’

It is true that India has some degree of credibility with all the parties (other than the Houthis), but this will not be enough to attempt any mediation. Besides this, India has not been at the forefront of any international mediation for decades, the last attempt perhaps being the ill-fated and negative example of its effort between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Statesman News Service | Kolkata |

With the Houthi rebels firing missiles at the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the tension in the Middle East seems to be at a boiling point. Since the conflict in Yemen is said to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – two of the countries India has developed its trade relations with over the years – the former Foreign Secretary of India, Krishnan Srinivasan, speaks to Soumyadip Mullick about India’s stance in this conflict and whether it can have any adverse impacts on global oil prices.

Excerpts:

Q. What could be the possible adverse impacts on India in the wake of the conflict brewing in the Middle East with Houthi rebels launching missile attacks on UAE and Saudi Arabia – countries with whom India is deeply involved on many fronts, mainly trade?

A. There is no doubt our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have improved considerably during the Modi government, both in political understanding and in economic matters. Also, in the background, there is the peace agreement between Israel, Bahrain and UAE, and the Middle East ‘Quad’ of India, UAE, USA and Israel bringing various parties together in a quasi-alliance. India’s standing has improved and as a result, the status of the large Indian communities in Saudi Arabia and UAE has been enhanced.

India has played no role, even in terms of statements, on the essence of the ongoing Yemen conflict, now seven years old, between Saudi Arabia, UAE and the Houthi population in Yemen; the Houthis being a large clan originating from the north-west Saada province. There is no direct impact on India of the sporadic aerial attacks by Houthis on Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Q.What may seem inevitable in case of a full-scale conflict in the Middle East, are soaring oil prices – a situation that riled India in recent years causing tension between Centre and States over reduction in prices. Do you feel such a situation is impending if tensions are not placated?

A. Yemen is not a significant exporter of energy, and it is highly unlikely that the Yemen conflict will expand beyond its borders. If it was to do that, it would have happened by now. The infrequent attacks by drones and missiles from Yemen on oil installations in Saudi Arabia and UAE may cause temporary, but not any significant, disruption to oil production. To that extent, the Yemen conflict has no impact on global oil prices which have been rising due to the OPEC (in which Yemen is not a member) cartel’s desire to raise prices by depressing the level of production. So this is a demand-supply equation. The Yemen situation, therefore, has no bearing on oil prices in India.

Q. India has been building its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. With the former, it has signed numerous pacts including on the security front. Since the conflict in Yemen is considered a result of the proxy war between Saudi and Iran if a war-like situation presents itself, should India take sides or remain neutral?

A. The conflict in Yemen has indeed assumed the form of a SaudiIran proxy war, at least proxy on the part of Iran, as opposed to a very high degree of intervention on the part of Saudi Arabia and UAE, both directly and through proxies. There are at the same time tentative peace feelers in progress between Saudi Arabia and UAE separately on the one hand and Iran on the other. Progress has been made but the outcome is slow and perhaps dependent on the eventual result of the US-Iran talks which are taking place in Vienna about reviving the Obama era agreement on nuclear and other issues. As of now neither India’s relations with Iran nor Saudi Arabia are affected and will not be unless New Delhi opts to take a position on the Yemen conflict, which as I said before, is neither necessary nor desirable

Q. In case India decides to side with Saudi given the huge amount of items it imports from the latter country, including crude oil, would it come at the cost of sacrificing its ambitions in Iran where it is making a huge investment in Chabahar Port?

A. This question presents the options rather starkly. India’s involvement in, and benefits from, the Chabahar Port have been a most regrettable stop-go affair and by no means has this project achieved even 10 per cent of its expected potential. I would like to question the return on investment from this government but am never likely to be provided with any reply. These delays have been due to Indian deference to the USA’s differences with Iran and US sanctions rather than any volition of its own. Whether this was wise is open to considerable debate. The best option would be to avoid this zero-sum approach and therefore side with neither party – Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Let us be aware, however, that the Houthi grievances in Yemen are genuine, having been marginalized for decades despite having 35 per cent of the population of Yemen. Irrespective of the outcome of the conflict, they will continue to be a major factor in Yemen. This is also a factor that needs our careful consideration.

Q. Can India at this juncture risk disappointing Iran given it has also been cosying up to China in terms of trade?

A. It is best to leave China out of the Middle East policy equations. China will be a factor in our dealings with most countries in the world and we should regard this henceforward as inescapable and inevitable. Iran is already disappointed with the attention India gives to Washington’s concerns, and given its strategic importance as a bridge to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and given our relations with Pakistan, I believe it would be unwise both in the short and long run to take Iran for granted. I would imagine our government is aware of this though it shows no great evidence of such awareness.

Q. Is India in any position to broker peace in this proxy war which at present shows no signs of de-escalation but just the opposite?

A. The UN and USA intermittently appear to have tried to negotiate a settlement or at least a ceasefire, but without success. It appears the three parties- Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Houthis are all adamant in their positions, and you also have the ousted and discredited Hadi government based in Saudi Arabia since 2015 which is a quisling of Saudi Arabia’s though still considered ‘internationally recognised’. This is one of the many anomalies in the present US-dominated world order.

UAE has troops on the ground and a proxy regime in South Yemen. Israel is also believed to be active behind the UAE in part to diminish Iran and strengthen its strategic presence in the Gulf. Israel can always be expected to fish in troubled waters. If you include Iran in this mixture since it is a weapons supplier to the Houthis, then it is a many-pronged and complicated puzzle, not only doctrinally but in terms of geopolitical considerations and ambitions.

It is true that India has some degree of credibility with all the parties (other than the Houthis), but this will not be enough to attempt any mediation. Besides this, India has not been at the forefront of any international mediation for decades, the last attempt perhaps being the ill-fated and negative example of its effort between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Q. Does this whole Middle Eastern conflict essentially boils down to the perennial Shia – Shunni tussle to establish supremacy or do you believe that it is purely cynical political interests that have left Yemen crippled and soon headed for famine as apprehended by the World Food Programme?

A. With over 10 per cent of Yemen’s population dead and 60 per cent without any basic amenities, Yemen is the biggest humanitarian problem in the world today apart from Afghanistan and Syria, although the rest of the world chooses to look away. There is a Sunni-Shia element in so far as the Houthis were treated as second class citizens in their own country despite being 35 per cent of the country’s population. They are Zaydis, a form of Shia Islam, but without being close to Iran doctrinally or politically until the present one-sided conflict started.

The Saudis and UAE have airpower that the Houthis do not have and accordingly, the Houthis suffer terrible losses in human life and material. The UAE also has inducted armed men into Yemen.

The political interests are obvious: the Saudis want their puppet Hadi back in power and a safe southern border and their assorted surrogates are doing the fighting in Yemen, the UAE want a divided Yemen with their proxy being in charge of the south, Aden, and in control of the sea lanes. The Israelis are seeking to curb Iran’s influence. The UN is powerless to confront the big players and USA has little control over its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE or Israel, none with the Houthis, and doesn’t mind seeing Iran bested.