The moniker I2U2 may sound like some rock band, but it’s the latest “minilateralist” group on the global scene, bringing together India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. It refers to the first letters of the four countries’ names and is the latest Quad of which India is a member. In the other, older and more established Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, India partners with Australia, US and Japan.
The first top-level summit of the new West Asia Quad occurred during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in mid-July. President Joe Biden, alongside Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, virtually met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan of UAE.
Although the original Quad aims to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, nobody doubts its real purpose—to counterbalance China’s growing clout in the region. China calls both the Quad and the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) “exclusive cliques” and part of the US administration’s “ill-intentioned” Indo-Pacific strategy.
Is this West Asia quad too an American move against China, and what benefits can India expect to reap from being part of it?
The new Quad, conceptualised during a meeting of the foreign ministers of the four countries in October last year, is projected as an economic bloc with six focus areas of energy, transportation, water, space, health, and food security. On his first visit to the region, Biden also seemed keen to reassure Middle Eastern leaders of America’s commitment to the region and restore partnerships that suffered during the Donald Trump administration.
Biden appears eager to integrate the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific by closing ranks among its partners in both regions. Some analysts view this as yet another move by Washington to contain China’s increasing influence in the Middle East. And the ‘C’ word did emerge during the next leg of Biden’s trip.
“We will not walk away [from the Middle East] and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said in Jeddah at a summit of the leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, all autocracies—after bumping fists the previous day with Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a country that he had described as a “pariah” following the assassination of Mohammed Khashoggi. “And we’ll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”
For Israel, I2U2 is another avenue to bolster its opposition to Iran and strengthen the landmark diplomatic pact that it signed with the UAE in 2020, known as the Abraham Accords. The pact led to Israel normalising diplomatic ties with the UAE and two other countries in the region. According to a senior US administration official, Biden’s Middle East trip was also to focus on “Israel’s increasing integration into the region”.
The group’s meeting comes at a time when India-Israel relations are flourishing. The bilateral relationship has seen a vast improvement since Modi became prime minister in 2014, and today, India is Israel’s top arms buyer at an estimated annual value of US$1 billion. Some attribute increased ideological proximity too, as critics accuse both governments of similar treatment of Palestinians, minorities, and dissenters.
Membership of the I2U2 group suits India in many ways. It boosts the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed last February between India and the UAE, which is the highest contributor of Foreign Direct Investment to India from the Gulf region. The CEPA is expected to increase the value of bilateral trade to US$ 100 billion in five years. UAE is also home to 35 lakh Indians, roughly a third of the country’s population, and a major source of labour.
A collaboration for “integrated food parks” was announced following the summit. India will provide land, and the UAE will invest US$ 2 billion in the project. With expertise from the US and Israeli private sectors, the food parks will help “maximise crop yields which, in turn, will help tackle food insecurity in South Asia and the Middle East”, said a joint statement.
Another initiative is a hybrid renewable energy project in Gujarat consisting of 300 megawatts of wind and solar capacity, with investment from the UAE and support from Israel and the US. “Right from the first summit held today, I2U2 has established a positive agenda,” said Modi. “Our cooperative framework is also a good model for practical cooperation in the face of increasing global uncertainties,” he added.
I2U2 is a winner for India at the diplomatic level too. It opens a window for India to play a greater global role with an enhanced profile in West Asia. It provides a new avenue to expand its cooperation with Washington beyond the Indo-Pacific without sacrificing New Delhi’s strategic autonomy. It could also deepen ties with the Middle East, a strategically important region due to India’s energy and economic interests.
A likely spoiler at the diplomatic level could be if Israel tries to use the I2U2 platform to advance its anti-Iran agenda. That’ll be a headache for New Delhi, considering India’s long-standing and traditional relationship with Iran.
Former spokesperson for the United Nations