Talking Over the Arab Spring

  • Part of U.S. India Insight - July 2011
    photo courtesy of CharlesFred www.flickr.com/photos/40279823@N00/6759461641
    Jul 12, 2011

    As Washington has struggled to deal with the Arab Spring over the past few months, New Delhi has also watched developments in the Arab world with similar concern. For India, the Middle East represents 70 percent of its imported petroleum reserves according to analysis from the Energy Information Administration. India also has over five and a half million of its citizens working in the Middle East. Indian citizens working in the Gulf provide remittances totaling $14.3 billion, according to a 2009 study by the Reserve Bank of India.

    Clearly, India and the United States have converging interests in the Middle East, including the free flow of energy, the security of their citizens, and the development of democratic norms to foster stability. As the exhilaration of the Arab Spring moves into the uncertainties of the Arab Summer, the United States and India have an opportunity to work together with regional partners to shape a new political complexion for the Middle East. The first manifestation of that opportunity will come this week when the United States and India meet in Washington for bilateral consultations on the Middle East, an idea that was initially raised during President Obama's trip to India last year. As both sides sit down this week, there are three areas that could be useful discussion topics.

    First, the United States and India should consider how best to coordinate their efforts on democracy promotion.

    India is currently assisting Egypt's democratic transition with electronic voting machines and advice about electoral systems. While India will most likely seek to implement its efforts unilaterally, both sides should discuss their respective current and planned efforts to promote coordination and avoid duplication.

    Second, the U.S. military has deep relationships with various militaries in the Middle East. Perhaps India's top military leadership could also engage with various militaries to reinforce the norms and principles of civilian control over the military.

    Finally, a discussion about the current situation in Libya should be on the agenda since India abstained on the UN Security Council vote to use force. Such an exchange could be useful in helping India better understand U.S. rationale and support for the continuing NATO-led military action. The UN response to Syria should also be put on the table for discussion. The United States and India will not always agree on their approach to the Middle East, but a Middle East dialogue is a good starting point on the road to reaching strategic convergence in this critical region.