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Jaishankar’s Egypt visit reflects farsightedness of India’s ‘Look West’ policy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the 2017 BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China (Image courtesy: PIB)

Today, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar began his official visit to Egypt. While this will be the minister’s first visit to that country, it comes as the latest in a series of high-profile visits there. A while ago, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh paid an official visit to Egypt.

The India-Egypt partnership has been gathering momentum over the past few years. Though both are ancient countries, modern bustling republics, and regional powers, the partnership has begun to grow visibly only now. It is part of the new energy that has been breathed into India’s ‘Look West’ policy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Jaishankar’s visit to Egypt will be focussing on the promotion of bilateral trade, commerce and investments. According to the Ministry of External Affairs India, Egypt bilateral trade touched a record high at US$ 7.26 billion during FY 2021-22. Indian investment in Egypt exceeds US$ 3.15 billion. Over 50 Indian companies are actively present in Egypt in a range of sectors like manufacturing, chemicals, energy, infrastructure, retail, etc.

Egypt is one of the partnerships that India is seeking in its wider Middle East outreach. Now, more than ever the ‘Look West’ policy has acquired greater salience. Since PM Modi came to power, India’s relations with countries of West Asia and North Africa have been consistently growing.

From a transactional one, relations have been evolving into strategic ties between partners. With huge geo-political shifts taking place India has everything going for it in the region.

The first is the receding US footprint. With the US, beginning with the Obama administration, becoming more focussed on the Indo-Pacific West Asia has had to start fending for itself. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the rise of political Islam, the war in Syria, or the war in Yemen, countries in the region have had no choice but to make tough decisions and chart out their own individual paths.

While the US still remains the major defence supplier and partner of countries in the region, even security provider countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and UAE understood that the US could no longer be the net security provider. They began diversifying their strategic partnerships.

Russia with its hydrocarbon resources became a major partner of GCC countries, with the OPEC-plus emerging. Its intervention in Syria, where it helped degrade and decimate the Islamic State, also won it major defence contracts and partnerships in the region. It emerged as the major defence supplier of countries like Egypt and Algeria, while those like Saudi Arabia entered into new defence collaborations with Russia. But Russia is now focussed on Ukraine and unlikely to play any major role in the region in the near future beyond energy cooperation.

At the same time, the traditional foot soldier of the Gulf countries – Pakistan – which had often provided security and military services to the Gulf countries now seemed incapable of continuing to perform such duties, as it did not want to get drawn into regional rivalries like the one between Iran and the predominantly Sunni Gulf states, or the one between Qatar on one side and Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other.

Meanwhile, not just Iran, a traditional rival of the Sunni powers since the Islamic Revolution but regional heavyweights like Turkey also began asserting themselves in the region triggering another set of regional geo-political rivalry.

The search for strategic partnerships paved the way for the Abraham Accords, whereby the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan normalised relations with Israel, something which has tremendously benefitted India as it does not have to continue with its balancing act vis-a-vis its relation with Israel and with the Arab countries.

India has had traditional links with the region. Analysts from the region point out that for counties in the region preserving stability and the nation-state are the priority. India fits in neatly in its cooperation with the region within this framework. From providing cheap labour to investments in the region, India’s relationship with the West Asia North Africa region, which it considers its extended neighbourhood, is multi-faceted. And the thrust increasingly is on the defence sector where collective defence cooperation is set to be strengthened by expanding military-to-military engagements, launching joint exercises, and joint defence production.

Last month, Jaishankar made his maiden official visit to Riyadh where he stated that “collaboration holds the promise of shared growth, prosperity, stability, security and development”.

While ties are anchored in energy security and the Indian labour pool, with India’s increasing geopolitical and economic heft, it offers an exciting partnership to the kingdom which, as the region’s largest economy with a $400 billion sovereign wealth fund is seeking to chart a more autonomous course and assert itself more independently in the region, while ushering in major reforms to modernize and transform the kingdom into a regional economic hub.

The Saudi Vision 2030 plan, for instance, identifies India as one of the eight countries chosen for a strategic partnership, and an India-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council has already been established. Cooperation in defence, security and counter-terrorism has grown exponentially between India and Saudi Arabia, as also of course with UAE, Oman, and Bahrain.

The expansion of such collaboration now includes Egypt. A major component of this cooperation will be defence collaboration. India has already been collaborating closely with countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE in defence, which includes holding regular joint military exercises, regular high-level exchanges at the level of Service Chiefs, and military education exchanges. In 2019 India set up for the first time, a pavilion at the Dubai air show. The first-ever India Air Force-Egyptian Air Force Joint Tactical Air Exercise, ‘Desert Warrior’, was held in October 2021. India’s Air Chief Marshal, VR Chaudhari, visited Egypt from 28 November to 2 December 2021 and attended the ‘Egypt Air Power Symposium’. India has offered to set up production facilities for the manufacturing of light combat aircraft (LCA) as well as helicopters, as Cairo focuses on local production and technology transfer. During Rajnath Singh’s visit to Egypt, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the two countries.

Egypt ranks first in the Arab world and 13th globally in military manpower and houses the region’s largest military base, It also has successfully battled Islamist insurgency and political Islam on its territory. It neighbours Saudi Arabia – the region’s economic powerhouse. Setting up a joint defence manufacturing hub there will give India access to other countries in the region for defence sales, which will majorly boost Indian defence industry, as well as increase India’s role in the region.

The Ukraine conflict has shown the limits of Western power, and increasingly countries of the global south will be asserting strategic autonomy. In this the positions of countries like India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE converge. Their cooperation is the only way forward into the future.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

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