The West Asian region is in the process of profound transformation. In
the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010, the region has been marked by
political instability arising from the forceful articulation of popular
aspirations, especially by its youth, violent civil strife in some countries,
widening sectarian schisms, and the rise of extremist forces in others. There
is growing distrust of the existing social contract, increased stress on
regional fault-lines, and uncertainty about the future. Owing to its
geographic location, its centrality in the Islamic world, and its hydrocarbon
resources, West Asia plays a crucial role in global affairs, particularly in
the oil and gas markets and consequently the global economy. Instability
in the region is of particular concern for Asia, which largely depends on
oil and gas from West Asia, and will do so for the time to come.

India has civilizational ties with West Asia, a region located in India’s
extended neighbourhood. It hosts over 8 million Indians, and is India’s
largest economic and trade partner. A large number of Indians have an
emotional engagement with the region, which hosts the two holy mosques
and a number of holy places associated with Christianity and Islam. The
Gulf’s abundant hydrocarbon resources are critical for India’s energy
security, and the region is a major source of remittances from Indian
workers employed there. India has wide-ranging institutional relations
with every country in West Asia, encompassing cooperation in various
fields, including counter-terrorism. India’s security and wellbeing are
deeply intertwined with that of West Asia. Its ongoing transformation is,
therefore, of special interest for India.

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It is in this context that the Delhi Policy Group (DPG) launched a
project in 2016 to study the rapidly changing socio-political and economic

2 West Asia in Transition

structures as well as emerging trends in West Asia. The principal focus
was on the main drivers of this transformation and on the main players.
Particular attention was paid to the evolution of Islamic thought and
practice in the region viz. Wahhabism, Velayat-i-Faqih, the Muslim
Brotherhood, and Salafi-Jihadism, and their overarching influence in the
region. The project also looked at the main regional powers—Egypt, Iran,
Israel, and Saudi Arabia and their interactions with each other, as well as
the areas engulfed by conflict—Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The first section
of this volume studies global Jihad, the changing energy scenario, and the
consequent geopolitical implications for West Asia. It identifies the trends
and forces driving these developments. The essay on global Jihad examines
how the failure of West Asian states to address the aspirations of their
youth, the lack of avenues for political participation, combined with
governance which is both non-transparent and unaccountable, has
increased the allure of Jihad. It analyses how Jihad has become global,
attracting youth in their thousands from different parts of the world,
including the West, with many of them converting to Islam and being
indoctrinated into extremist ideas and fundamentalist world views. It also
explores how the states from the region have themselves occasionally
extended support to Jihadi groups, with disastrous consequences. The
second essay examines the dependence of the region’s economy and polity
on the oil and gas industry which has led directly to the creation of a
paternalistic social contract, which underpins regional social and political
stability. This now faces major threat from the decline in importance of
hydrocarbons as a result of changes in the patterns of production and
energy use as well as related technological developments.

The second section contains essays on Saudi Arabia’s role in the region,
and Wahabbism. The first essay describes the salient features of the
Kingdom, its foreign policy, and its relations with other regional powers.
It analyses how the Kingdom views and addresses changes in the region,
the challenges it faces, and the strengths and limitations of its approach.
In particular, it focuses on Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and examines the Saudi
involvement in conflicts in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. The second essay
traces the history of the relationship between Wahhabism and the Saudi
state since their birth in the early 18th century and its status today. It
highlights the dynamics of the relationship, the inherent tensions and the
challenges posed in the context of the ideas unleashed by the Arab Spring
in the region, and the requirement for a new security architecture.

The third section comprises essays on Yemen. The first is on the
domestic and regional aspects of the civil conflict in the country, and the

Introduction 3

second on its effect on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The
first describes how Yemenis demanded political and economic reforms in
2011 in line with the protests carried out in many other Arab countries at
thee time. This led to the overthrow of the 33-year long rule of President
Ali Abdullah Saleh. The essay examines how even though most of the
existing problems were attributed to the authoritarian leader at that time,
the underlying factors have proven to be far more complex and intractable.
The uprisings, which sought to promote popular participation in the
political process, activated a number of fault-lines along tribal and regional
affiliations, and gave succour to secessionist endeavours from the south
as well as to the Houthi rebels in the north. This in turn provided the
justification for external armed intervention, with disastrous consequences.
The second essay describes how AQAP, an amalgam of Yemeni fighters
and those driven out of Saudi Arabia, regrouped in Yemen, and managed
to capitalize on the chaos prevalent there, carving out a much larger role
for themselves in the process.

The section on Iran has three essays. The first, on ‘The Concept of
Wilayat al-Faqih 37 Years after the Iranian Revolution’, explains how this
concept continues to underpin the politics in the country, and how its
appeal extends beyond Iran’s borders. The essay compares the different
narratives of this phenomenon, including the debates within the religious
establishment. It enumerates the multiple arguments from the clergy, both
inside and outside Iran, to provide perspective on a seminal political
development that has had a profound effect on regional developments.
The second essay explores how the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
(JCPOA) was the result of an exercise in the diplomacy of exploring the
art of the possible. It studies the key areas that have evolved in the post
JCPOA period, including the effect on Iran-United States ties, sanctions
relief, and Iran’s economic situation, and how these have impacted the
strategic landscape. The third essay examines how Iran is perceived in
the region, and its activities there. It also studies the changing US-Iran
relationship, which is a significant factor in regional politics. It looks at
how growing Saudi-Iranian tensions could be problematic for India,
especially at a time when New Delhi seeks closer political and strategic
partnerships with both Iran and the Gulf States.

The section on Israel explores India-Israel bilateral relations. It
examines how the Indian policy of recognition-without-relations was a
result of domestic imperatives and India’s own ambitions within this
region, and how, by 1992, the global and regional situation had evolved
to produce an enabling environment for India to establish full diplomatic

4 West Asia in Transition

relations with Israel. Like much of the international community today, India
supports the two-state solution even while strengthening its relations with
Israel. The second essay takes a critical look at the trajectory of US-Israel
ties, the evolution of which has been non-linear and contradicts widely
held perceptions about the relationship. It makes the point that these
bilateral ties have not always been as smooth and robust as they appear
on the surface, and are a result of the interplay of complex forces. It seeks
to identify these forces and understand their effect on this relationship.

The sixth section consists of two essays on Egypt. The first is on the
growing power of the Armed Forces in Egypt and the deteriorating security
situation. The second examines recent developments in state-society ties
in Egypt, and analyses the imperatives and choices before President Abdel
Fattah al-Sisi. These essays examine how the leadership has become
authoritarian, repressive, and intolerant of dissent, demanding absolute
and unquestioning loyalty. They look at the alienation of different sections
of society in Egypt as a result of the economic crisis, human rights
violations, crackdowns on press freedoms, and the collapse of tourism in
the face of extremist terror attacks. The essays also study the role of the
Muslim Brotherhood and its influence on Egyptian society. They examine
Egypt’s limitations in playing a regional role—the weakening of its
institutions, the lack of an appealing economic model, and the power to
extend aid. They point out that its diplomacy is constrained by internal
problems, instability, and corruption, and conclude that, apart from battling
terrorist groups, Egypt just does not possess the wherewithal’s to focus
on regional affairs.

In the section on Iraq and Syria, the first essay examines the
tragedy that has befallen Syria—the result of the incompetence of domestic
governance combined with regional and international interference. It
examines the legacy of the Sykes-Picot arrangement, and how Syria seems
to have become a failed project—a proxy battlefield for the Saudi-Iran
rivalry to play out. The second essay carries on from the first to examine
how misgovernance in Syria and Iraq created opportunities for the Islamic
State to emerge, and grow to the point that it now has a presence in over
18 countries around the broader region. It goes on to study the waning
influence of IS in Iraq and Syria, and its rapidly dwindling revenues as a
result of concerted attacks on its infrastructure. It also points out that, today,
ISIS is finding it difficult to finance its operations on as large a scale as it
did before. It notes, however, that the digital and ideological moorings of
the IS are still formidable, and that it has digitally enabled itself to expand
its global outreach.

Introduction 5

This book has been made possible through collaboration between the
Delhi Policy Group (DPG) and the Institute of Defence Studies and
Analysis (IDSA). It is the result of a project designed to provide an
opportunity to young researchers to engage in a fruitful exchange of ideas,
and contribute towards a better understanding of the current contexts West
Asia through their academic research. Thus, a key objective of this project
was to form a network of young Indian researchers from think-tanks and
academia studying West Asia in order to build a cadre of area specialists
for the future. The project has benefitted significantly from the involvement
of senior diplomats and academicians who mentored the young
researchers.

It is hoped that this book, drawing upon the considerable expertise of
regional specialists, academics, and former civil servants will be a useful
resource for policymakers in helping them to calibrate an effective,
informed, and balanced strategy towards the region.