The Prime Minister will also announce financial and technical support to the Palestinian Authority at Ramallah.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make his second foray to the Arab world from February 10 to 12 when he visits Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. This will follow his earlier engagement with four Gulf states — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar — in 2015-16, and the two visits to India of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the last as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations last year.
Mr Modi has also had two remarkably successful engagements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv and New Delhi, when both sides have affirmed the importance of their bilateral ties in the diverse areas of defence, security, trade and technology.
These interactions have laid the foundations of “strategic partnerships” with the countries he has interacted with, involving enhanced political, economic, security and defence ties. They have also highlighted the shared concerns of the leaders relating to the regional security scenario, emerging from extremism and burgeoning differences among the principal regional powers.
Mr Modi’s visit to Palestine, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, will affirm India’s long-standing support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign state. The Prime Minister will also announce financial and technical support to the Palestinian Authority at Ramallah.
But for the visit to have real meaning, Mr Modi will need to do much more. This is because two recent developments seriously threaten Palestinian interests. One, US President Donald Trump has unilaterally announced that the US recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will shortly move its embassy to this disputed city.
Two, animosity for Iran has driven Israel and Saudi Arabia close to each other, leading to reports that the US might use this camaraderie to impose a territorial settlement on Palestine that would allow Israel to retain all of Jerusalem and its settlements in the West Bank, leaving only non-contiguous spaces for the so-called Palestinian state. These can best be described as “Bantustans”, since they are a crude substitute for real freedom and sovereignty.
Mr Modi will need to address both these challenges. Mr Trump’s announcement on the status of Jerusalem pre-empts discussions on a major issue which needs to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Modi must reaffirm India’s traditional position that a sovereign Palestinian state will have East Jerusalem as its capital.
He should also firmly reject the “Bantustan” proposal and insist that a Palestinian state that emerges be truly sovereign and its territories contiguous, so that the state is politically and economically viable and one in which its people can live with dignity.
Last year, India and the UAE had signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement. However, the two nations could not finalise the agreement on investment cooperation relating to the UAE’s offer to invest a total of $75 billion in the development of India’s infrastructure. As the UAE views investment as the cornerstone of the strategic partnership between the two countries, this agreement will hopefully be signed during the coming visit.
The visit should also encourage the two sides to develop concrete plans to address the parlous security scenario in West Asia. This should include the two nations exploring how to shape diplomatic initiatives to promote confidence and dialogue between the two estranged neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as direct conflict will devastate the region and the crucial interests of nations engaged with it.
Separate from Mr Modi’s visit, India’s concerns relating to the regional security situation could also be brought to the attention of the Saudi leadership when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visits the kingdom to inaugurate the Janadriyah cultural festival on February 7, to which India, in an extremely rare gesture, has been invited as the guest of honour.
Oman, the third country on Mr Modi’s itinerary, is one of India’s closest friends in the region, with which India has commercial and cultural ties going back several millennia. Oman is home to nearly a million Indians, including a few thousand from Kutch who have Omani nationality. That Oman has several thousand Indian business persons and senior professionals with local and international companies affirms their high status and local confidence in their ability and integrity.
India and Oman have close defence ties as well — the Indian Navy is a regular visitor to Omani ports and its personnel train frequently in India. Mr Modi’s visit will enable him and Oman’s ruler Sultan Qabbous to see how the two countries can take these ties forward and promote peace and stability in the ocean they share.
India could begin by associating itself with the development of Oman’s ambitious Duqm port, which provides facilities for a naval base, a commercial port, a dry dock and a major industrial complex and refinery. Besides contributing to Oman’s growth, this will also provide India with an important economic and defence presence on the western Indian Ocean.
We can go further. The Indian Ocean, which is crucial for the livelihood of billions of people, is today experiencing conflicts brought on by forces generated by failed and failing states and competitions among regional and extra-regional powers to expand their geopolitical influence. But there are no trans-oceanic institutions to address maritime security issues.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), of which both India and Oman are members, only promotes economic cooperation, while the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) discusses security issues, but only at the level of naval chiefs; its deliberations have hardly ever been influential at the political level.
The Prime Minister and the Omani ruler should discuss the restructuring of IORA so that it becomes a major platform for government-to-government dialogue and policy coordination embracing freedom of navigation; protecting the ocean’s natural resources; disaster management; countering piracy, terrorism and trafficking; coordinating ocean-related logistical connectivity, and, above all, managing naval competition.
Mr Modi’s latest engagement with West Asia gives him a unique opportunity to go beyond the mundane and shape new initiatives with regional partners that will transform the regional security landscape.