The West Asian region continues its struggle to establish a stable political order. As the popular protests removed many longstanding authoritarian regimes throughout West Asia and North Africa in 2011, the contemporary geo-political situation seems to be getting more complex day by day. The hoped-for transition from authoritarianism to democratisation has been rather painful and convulsive, and has a long way to go. Tunisia is the only success story. The situations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen are still evolving and these countries are yet to find a viable future political roadmap for themselves. Besides, the deteriorating situation in Syria provides a geo-political challenge for peace and stability throughout the region.
The region is experiencing rapid destabilising societal and political changes and, thus, the fundamental challenge is to envision ways to achieve ordered change for West Asia. There has been much speculation amongst scholars regarding the future trajectory of the so-called Arab Spring; whether this tumultuous upsurge will peter out remaining an isolated event in contemporary history or will the chain of events translate into a movement leaving behind a significant mark throughout the Arab world and West Asia.
Particularly disturbing not only for the region but for the immediate neighbourhoods as well is that the continuing uncertainty is creating expanding spaces for extremist and terrorist elements to entrench themselves in the region. Their increasing activities are evident on a daily basis in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen manifested in a growing number of attacks. Sectarian politics in the region has also further contributed to the growth of such radical ideologies among the people. Iran has been the most important player throwing its weight behind various Shia groups. Saudi Arabia has been known for supporting the Salafists throughout the region while Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The growing Shia-Sunni dimension of the conflict has severe implications for regional security throughout West Asia.
The P5+1 interim agreement with Iran in November 2013 over Iranian nuclear programme has added yet another dimension to the complex geopolitics in the region. As per the interim agreement, Iran has agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear programme, provide access to the international inspectors as well as provide additional information about its nuclear programme. In return, the P5+1 has agreed to partially lift sanctions on Iran. As further negotiations continue to reach a possible final deal, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel have expressed concerns regarding the West’s rapprochement with Iran. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran has been able to buy time by signing the interim deal with the P5+1. Similarly, Israel is also concerned about the future of the agreement and its implications for regional security in West Asia.
The region has a history of external influence and even intervention in the past. Among several stakeholders, the US remains the most prominent one despite undoubted loss of influence in the region. Its attitude towards the Arab Spring and it policy of ‘rebalancing towards Asia Pacific’ has drawn criticism from its regional allies. At the same time, Russia is emerging as a major player in the region with its support for Iran, stance on Syria and ongoing efforts to cultivate stronger ties with Egypt, it could emerge as an important player. Recent developments in Ukraine and Russia’s role therein exhibit increasing Russian assertiveness in the world affairs and it may have an impact on the developments in West Asia. China, meanwhile, has continued to strengthen its economic leverage in the region and is a major player in the energy scenario as well.
Continuing regional instability also raises increasing concerns related to issues of energy security. The emergence of protests led to rise in international oil prices and created apprehensions regarding uninterrupted production and supply. Since the economy of many countries in the region is primarily dependent upon the hydrocarbon sector, any disruption in production and supply of oil may have serious impact not only regionally but much further beyond on countries dependent on oil supply from the region.
India has been following West Asian developments very closely. India has important political, economic and security stakes in the peace and stability of West Asia. In the light of the emerging political situation, the challenge facing India is to balance its political equations and economic interests with major regional and external players in the region. India is heavily dependent on energy supplies from the Gulf region. Energy imports from the region constituted around 63 percent of India’s total oil imports in 2012-13. The region is the leading trading partner for India with a total trade of around US$ 200 billion in the same year. Around 7 million Indian passport holders live in the region and they form another important symbiotic link between India and the region.
The importance of stability is therefore of paramount importance for India. Absence of a robust security architecture and deep rooted intra-regional conflicts raises concerns about the viability of regional security in West Asia. There is a realisation in some quarters that India should start getting involved in the regional security of West Asia. As India maintains warm ties with all the major countries in the region and is non-interfering in the internal affairs of these countries, it can be an important player in talking to various countries to discuss about regional security in the region.
Realising the importance of the developments taking place in the region and huge Indian stakes involved in the regional stability, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, has taken a decision to hold an annual West Asia conference beginning this year, and in this regard, the first conference will be held on September 10-11, 2014. This year’s conference will deliberate on geo-political, security, economic and strategic issues unfolding in the West Asian region. Scholars from India, West Asia and other countries will participate in the conference to discuss in greater details the evolving trends and its implications for the regional peace and stability in West Asia.