West Asia in Turmoil

Today, more than at any other time in modern history, West Asia in turmoil is a barometer of the world’s political climate.  Though the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, not much has changed in West Asia. Israel is still in occupation of the Golan Heights; Palestinian and Hizbollah terrorism continues unabated despite Israel’s pullout from the occupied territories in Gaza and South Lebanon; Israel’s on-off air attacks against Hamas militiamen remain in the headlines; and, the continuing US occupation and near-civil war conditions in Iraq may in due course lead to further hostilities with Syria and perhaps even Iran. The participation of a large number of Saudi nationals in the September 11 attacks in the US has cooled the cosy relations between the US and Saudi Arabia and added further to the instability already plaguing the region. The crisis in Lebanon in July 2006, sparked by the capture of Israeli soldiers by the Hizbollah, was only the latest manifestation of a perpetual conflict that is seemingly unending. 

Stretching from the Indian Sub-continent in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west, West Asia has often been called the ‘Arc of Crisis’.  The popular image of West Asian instability is that of a chaotic world, crumbling everywhere and always falling apart, an area governed by abrupt, sweeping changes and unpredictable developments.  The West Asian states are locked in internecine quarrels against each other due to religious, ethnic or historical rivalries and inherited colonial legacies such as boundary disputes. It is a house divided, an Islamic world divided against itself despite the strongest possible motive for unity – a shared hostility towards Zionism. The long-standing Arab and Palestinian opposition to the existence of Israel as a nation-state and senseless terrorism directed against the Jews, have led Israel to pursue a belligerent foreign and national security policy that is not in the least conducive to peace in the region.  

Israel’s annexation of the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in Syria in the 1980s was totally unacceptable to the Arabs and the Muslim world. Israel’s excursion deep into Lebanon in 1982, all the way up to Beirut, created more problems than it solved.  The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), whose evacuation from Lebanon was secured by Israel at great cost, was soon back in strength.  Lebanon was more strife-riven and unstable during the last two decades of the 20th century than at any other time in its bloody and chequered history. Without the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the Israel-Lebanon border, daily incidents of terrorism and violence would have continued unabated.

Perhaps the thorniest problem in West Asia today is the continuing deadlock over Palestine and its internal instabilities.  Though the world accepts the Palestinians’ right to an autonomous state, the issue is still to be finally resolved. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s historic handshake with Chairman Yasser Arafat in September 1993 had changed the course of history but has so far led only to a temporary reprieve. Ariel Sharon’s government had once again adopted military means and stalled all efforts towards a final solution till it decided to pull out of occupied territories. The installation of a Hamas-supported Palestinian government has further exacerbated the situation.

Instability and superpower rivalry in West Asia does not augur well for India’s security and commerce. Combined with the escalation of force levels in the Indian Ocean, the heightened tensions in West Asia may ultimately lead to a spillover of the intra-regional conflicts to adjacent areas, directly affecting India.  India must make all efforts to safeguard its interests in the face of growing threats.  Like the West, India too is dependent on Gulf oil to a large extent for its industry and the development of its economy.  The long-drawn conflicts of the last two decades of the 20th century had forced India to buy oil at far greater cost from distant markets, with no assurance of guaranteed supplies. The 1991 oil shock had almost completely wrecked India’s foreign exchange reserves.  The present situation is again becoming critical.  Oil is ruling at over US $ 50 per barrel. India now imports almost 70 per cent of the oil required to fuel its growing economy and most of it comes from the Gulf. During Gulf War II in March-April 2003, oil prices in India had skyrocketed. 

Since the early 1970s, Indian companies have been winning a large number of contracts to execute turnkey projects in West Asia.  The conflict in the region has virtually sealed the prospects of any new contracts.  Also, payments for the ongoing projects are not being made on schedule, leading to un-absorbable losses for the Indian firms involved, and a dwindling foreign exchange income from the region. The number of Indian workers employed in the region has been growing by leaps and bounds. The 1991 Gulf War had adversely affected the sizeable remittances of non-resident Indians, as well as new employment avenues for Indian workers.  In 1991, approximately 1,00,000 Indian expatriate workers had to be evacuated from Iraq in what was then labelled the largest airlift since the Berlin crisis after World War II.  Recently, Indian workers were evacuated from Lebanon on board ships of the Indian Navy.
The dogs of war have once again been unleashed over West Asia and the Arab-Israeli peace clock has been set back. Round two of the Gulf War has already had adverse geo-political repercussions. If the new crisis is not competently handled, it will lead to greater instability and give a further boost to al Qaeda- and Hizbollah-led Jihadi terrorism.  The world’s leading powers and the West Asian nations need to unite in their efforts to bring back a semblance of stability to this war-ravaged region.  As an emerging power sharing a littoral with the region, India has an important role to play in acting as a catalyst for West Asian stability through negotiations and dialogue rather than confrontation.

(Approximately 1,010 words.)