Modi And The Middle East: What Does The Saudi Arabia Flight Deal Signify?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia has been fruitful, as news that Saudi has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv over and through Saudi territory, has been confirmed. While Saudi Arabia has been the first Arab state to break the taboo by engaging with Israel and working towards ‘normalising’ the relationship between the two states with the help of US intervention, Saudi Arabia is far from an Israeli ally. Therefore, given the major contentions still shared between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it is evident that India is exerting, in its own capacity, the same form of soft power the US exerted to bring these Saudi and Israeli relations into existence.

In addition to PM Modi’s visit, Saudi Arabia also hosted India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba in order to further strengthen relations and consolidate cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries. This new-found alliance is mutually beneficial, as the Saudi King Salman will likely visit India in the future to inaugurate the new Saudi Arabia Embassy building in New Delhi. This is a true show of partnership, as the Saudi King does not undertake many foreign visits.

While it is natural to expect some deals to come to life when two countries take such massive steps to engage with one another, it is more important to put the Air India Flight Permission Deal in context with PM Modi’s relation building tours in the Middle East. News of this flight path confirmation, which is the first permission of its kind that Saudi has granted to any other nation, came at a time when PM Modi was visiting the UAE, a nation that does not recognise Israel as a legitimate state and internationally condemns the Israeli occupation of Palestine. UAE and Saudi relations have also been significantly strengthened in the recent past, first with their joint sanctions on Qatar and later with a recent political and military alliance between the two countries.  However, neither Saudi’s own inhibitions to befriend Israel, nor the opposition Israel faces from Saudi’s new ally, the UAE, have stopped it from signing the flight deal with India.

This apparent dichotomy on Saudi Arabia’s part is less voluntary and more a show of India’s growing importance in the region, as well as in the international sphere as a whole. Despite the prevalence of divisive political issues, India seemingly maintains the ability to engage with other countries in the Middle East while overcoming regional differences.

Another striking example of this is PM Modi’s plan to visit Palestine after visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. PM Modi stated that this proves that bilateral talks between both nations are possible, and forming alliances with one of the states is mutually exclusive with India’s ability to form an alliance with the other. India was the first non-Arab nation to recognise Palestine as a legitimate independent state, although it also recognises Israel as a legitimate state. PM Modi is also the first Indian Prime Minister to have visited both nations. However, by recognising each of them to be allies without necessarily taking sides, despite the decades of intense conflict, India has acquired the ability to openly converse with both sides. New Delhi benefits from this ability by being able to purchase defence equipment from Israel on one hand, while also voting to drop the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on the other.  This is yet another example of how India continues to forge its own path in foreign policy above the regional politics.

Similar to the role US plays in certain regions, India could also play a mitigating role in the dispute and might even be able to use its influence to prevent conflicts from escalating in the future by keeping an open dialogue with both Israel and Palestine. Having been able to build relationships with both sides, it has become clear that India is a nation of heightened importance and it will be interesting to see how India plays its cards or exerts similar force in the future.

By playing a more decisive role in the politics of the middle east, PM Modi and future leaders could potentially use their relationships to forge closer alliances within the region. Strengthening the bonds between India and their partners in the Middle East will present new opportunities to New Delhi, including additional military partners and access to naval bases in the region. Moreover, closer relationships between India and the Gulf States can allow for greater pressure to be exerted on Pakistan and further restrict the ISI’s financial support for terrorists.