United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan flew to Saudi Arabia on May 7 to meet with Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and National Security Advisor of India Ajit Doval.
Their goal was to further connect the Middle East region with India and the world, building on strong Saudi-India ties as well as on the I2U2 format.
Working with Delhi is a new US approach to the Middle East, with the goal of creating strategic synergies around the Eurasian rim, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indo-Pacific.
The Middle East and South Asia as West Asia
Over the past years, the sequence of events and changing alliances have made a strong case for redefining the Middle East and South Asia as West Asia — as the convergence between the two regions became clearer, based on the synergies between their economies, their shared maritime space, their centrality to Eurasian connectivity, civilizational outlook, and shared history.
The current reality supports a framework for the ongoing, unprecedented alignment between India, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states (UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) to balance the rising Eurasian powers of the region and prepare a US shift towards the Indo-Pacific. Two major obstacles were the Arab-Israeli conflict and the India-Pakistan conflict. As the world is drifting towards a multipolar system, pragmatism is prevailing and legacy relationships with no strategic purpose are running out of time — paving the way for the Abraham Accords in 2020 and more interest-based relations between India and Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt.
I2U2 is only the beginning
The I2U2 (Israel, India, the US, and the UAE) is the first format to bring together the Middle East and South Asia. In his speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Sullivan said that the I2U2 “connects South Asia to the Middle East to the US in ways that advance our economic technology and diplomacy.” Despite their focus on connectivity, technology and food security, leaders of the I2U2 countries intend to establish a security architecture embedded in the grouping.
However, the I2U2 is not an end in itself. It is a tool to strengthen cooperation between the littoral states of the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific system, and establish a balance of power for this system.
Stronger Saudi-India ties
In 2022, bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia surged to US $42.86 billion, positioning Riyadh as Delhi's fourth-largest trade partner and Delhi as Riyadh's second-largest trade partner. Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Aramco's mounting interest in India are part of a broader strategic plan to transform Aramco from an oil firm into a global industrial conglomerate and make PIF the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.
Saudi Arabia and India established a Strategic Partnership Council in 2019 for cooperation in defense, security, counterterrorism, energy security, and renewable energy. Both sides aim to enhance overall defense cooperation by expanding military-to-military engagements, such as joint exercises, expert exchanges, and industry cooperation.
The current robust relationship between Saudi Arabia and India signals a departure from Riyadh's longstanding strategy of leaning towards Pakistan in South Asia. This shift can be attributed to the pragmatic approaches adopted by the two largest economies in the region and their increasing global strategic and economic importance.
Towards a US-backed West Asia architecture
The India-Saudi Arabia-United States-UAE four-way meeting builds on the I2U2 format and represents a solid step towards a West Asia architecture that repositions the United States as an offshore balancer rather than a sole security guarantor to the region. This strategic framework also brings Delhi and Washington much closer and creates more strategic synergies. As such, I very much disagree with the notion that US-India relations is exclusively about obtaining China.
According to two sources from the recent four-way meeting, one of the main mechanisms for this envisioned West Asian integration is a network of railways among Gulf and Arab countries, with India being linked through maritime routes from nearby ports. This marks a significant change in Washington's approach to the region. The Middle East plays a crucial role in the global economy, not only as an energy source, but also as a critical hub for maritime trade between Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
However, the infrastructure connecting Arab nations is currently insufficient. The proposed transportation network, in collaboration with India and the Gulf states, could improve interconnectivity and transform regional economies. With India’s overland routes running through Pakistan and Afghanistan, maritime connection with the Middle East is a strategic priority for New Delhi. Linking India to the Gulf and Egypt, despite Cairo’s economic woes, is the final piece of the puzzle for this West Asia architecture.
The Saudi Arabia-India-US-UAE initiative reflects the fact that littoral nations from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean are working to protect their economic and security interests by establishing a trade and defense network. The United States has decided to aid and influence this endeavor in preparation for a multipolar global order.