India has a well-deserved reputation as one of the leaders in the global IT industry. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports, India is among the top ten world powers in terms of cyber readiness and is also one of the most active exporters of digital solutions to other countries.
Against this background, it is not surprising that the digital factor has become one of the elements of the Indian strategy to build up geopolitical weight both at the global level and in the regions. Particular attention should be paid to the Middle East, where New Delhi acts not only as a supplier of ready-made technological solutions, but also as a full-fledged security exporter, combining official and business tools in its approach. Given the large-scale geopolitical shifts taking place in the Middle East today, it seems relevant to assess what place New Delhi occupies in the structure of the region's cybersecurity and how its actions affect the balance of power.
India and Cybersecurity: Some Touches
Despite the fact that India recognized the importance of working with the digital dimension in the early 2000s and that certain aspects of responding to a threat from the digital space are reflected in doctrinal documents, for example, in the military doctrine of 2004, a number of experts believe that India has long acted in cyberspace “in a slipshod manner”, focusing on stopping certain aspects of the “digital challenge”. Such self-positioning can be explained, first of all, by the fact that the Indian government underestimated the real scope of the confrontation in cyberspace, believing that other great powers are limited to, at best, insignificant intelligence-gathering operations.
However, in light of a series of painful blows India received in cyberspace in the early 2010s, the system has been restructured. In particular, the work to ensure information security, which was previously outsourced, turned out to be concentrated in the hands of specialized departments. At the same time, New Delhi continued to maintain its largely neutral approach to solving problems related to cyberspace, although it significantly increased the intensity of international contacts in the field of digital defense.
The final transformation of the approach took place after 2019, when, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, cyberspace turned into a key platform for interaction (and, at the same time, struggle), and the challenges characteristic of the digital world multiplied. In addition, there was an urgent need to expand international ties in the field of joint response to threats from cyberspace. Against this background, the New and Emerging Strategic Technologies Division (NEST) was established within the Indian Foreign Ministry, which focused on developing technology diplomacy, as well as promoting the national digital vision on the world stage. At the same time, India began to gradually expand the national cyber sector and by 2021, in fact, doubled it. The changes also affected the volume of investments in core projects outside the country: the Indian authorities not only supported the intention of large national cyber businesses to become more actively involved in public-private partnership projects in the Middle East, but also made it one of the elements of their multilateral diplomacy.
In general, the fundamental transformations that have taken place in recent years have helped New Delhi join the “digital race” for influence in the post-COVID Middle East, become more prepared, and secure a good starting position.
India and the Arab World: Heading for the Gulf?
The Arab world occupies an important place in the list of India’s partners in the context of the development of cyberspace. At the moment, New Delhi has stable business relations with most Arab countries; package agreements on the development of digital cooperation have been signed with six countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Jordan, Egypt), as well as with Palestine. At the same time, in terms of the priority of interaction, there is an inclination toward the Arab Gulf states. Starting from 2021, New Delhi’s “anchor” partners are Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat; Doha has also recently shown interest in strategic cyber partnerships. The inclination toward the Arab Gulf countries is due to the rapid growth of the technological market of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as their greater interest in developing international partnerships in the field of cybersecurity compared to other Arab states.
At the same time, India is not limited to bilateral cooperation. On the contrary, as an independent track, New Delhi considers the development of complex interaction with regional associations – first of all, with the League of Arab States, as well as with the GCC. In both cases, issues of the joint development of artificial intelligence and digital business solutions are at the forefront.
The formation of a “two-level dialogue” with the Arab world, in turn, organically fits into the strategy of India’s behavior in the region, since it allows maintaining a dialogue with all active states, as well as offering an alternative to Chinese digital initiatives and thus providing room for maneuver for its own IT business. On the other hand, India’s results in this area are somewhat more modest: the country has not yet been able to offer the region any megaprojects in the digital sector, similar in scale to, for example, the Global Information and Data Security Initiative (GIDS) announced by China in 2021.
Indo-Israeli Cyber Alliance
Intensive cooperation between India and Israel in the digital space began in 2017, when, as a result of meetings at the level of prime ministers, the parties signed an agreement to consolidate efforts in the field of cybersecurity. The fight against organized cybercrime and hacktivism, threats that are equally relevant for both powers, was identified as a priority area of cooperation. Later, in 2020, the cyber cooperation regime was further expanded, covering the sphere of countering cyber terrorism and cyber espionage, and in 2022, the sphere of defense. Cooperation between the two countries in cyberspace has acquired a strategic character.
In addition, with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which led to a new stage in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, India managed to throw an additional “bridge” into the Arab world by including in the initiative to ensure security in cyberspace. The project, informally called the “Iron Cyberdome” (by analogy with the Israeli missile defense system), is designed to increase the stability of the critical information infrastructure of the countries participating in it, as well as to promote a more intensive exchange of data on recorded incidents in the digital space.
It should be noted that the intensive development of relations between New Delhi and Tel Aviv was largely facilitated by the extensive ties previously developed by the Indian IT business. Since 2015, major players in the national market (Infosys, Tech Mahindra, Wipro, etc.) have gradually expanded their presence in the Middle East (and, in particular, Israeli) technology market and increased investment in Israeli startups. Similar steps were taken by the Israeli cyber business. These ties, in turn, helped to increase the level of mutual trust and later became a solid basis for bilateral cooperation already at the official level.
Iran: Partner or Opponent?
Digital relations between India and Iran are rather ambiguous. Despite the fact that both countries similarly see their place in the emerging multipolar world order and strive for the comprehensive development of contacts primarily through the joint implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects, the level of real mutual trust leaves much to be desired, especially in matters related to digital security.
New Delhi has been hit hard by attacks by pro-Iranian hacker teams since the second half of the 2010s; they traditionally account for about a quarter of attacks on India's digital infrastructure. At the same time, the Indian “hawks” are most annoyed not by the very fact of the attacks, but by the tendency of Iranian hackers to use clones of the websites of large Indian IT companies as a “false flag” when carrying out attacks. This practice not only harms Indian cyber business, but also reduces the level of trust between New Delhi and Tehran.
In addition, India is concerned about the ongoing rapprochement between Iran and China, which has accelerated significantly against the backdrop of Beijing’s mediation activities in the Gulf region. New Delhi does not rule out that China may, in exchange for further mediation, ask the Islamic Republic to send part of the hacker groups to identify gaps in the Indian cyber defense system. Such alarmist judgments, however, have little in common with reality: officially, Tehran does not include India in the group of “unfriendly countries,” which automatically excludes the possibility of attacks by pro-Iranian groups “out of patriotic motives.” At the same time, the gradual involvement of New Delhi in the “Iron Cyberdome” project forms among the Iranian establishment a conviction that it “indirectly supports” Tel Aviv’s interests in the Iranian-Israeli asymmetric conflict and in the future, may become one of the reasons for the additional activation of Iranian hackers in the Indian cyberspace.
Between Cooperation and Competition
The growing presence of New Delhi in the digital space of the Middle East does not go unnoticed by other major players – Russia, the United States and China, as well as the EU countries. Each side assesses in its own way the impact of Indian efforts on the digital field of the Middle East and on its interests in the region, in particular. Let’s briefly consider each of the directions.
Russia. Against the background of Moscow’s increasing involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, the representation of Russian IT companies in the regional market is growing; it is they who are responsible for the main work on the implementation of Russian “technological diplomacy.” In parallel with this, Russia seeks to promote political initiatives aimed at increasing the level of security in the Middle East (including in the context of combating cybercrime and cyberterrorism). It is important to emphasize that, due to the absence of fierce competition between Moscow and New Delhi, the parties may well jointly promote projects that are beneficial to both parties, for example, the development of digital initiatives under the auspices of the BRICS format. However, New Delhi, most likely, will not show excessive zeal in this matter, including due to the desire to maintain the status of a completely independent player and not enter into an open conflict of interest with Western players (the USA and the EU).
The USA. In light of Washington’s intention to reduce its presence in the Middle East while maintaining the same level of control over the situation by redistributing the load on key allies, the importance of India is increasing many times over. Being a non-regional player, New Delhi can, on the one hand, continue to adhere to its interests and, on the other hand, ensure communication between the regional partners of the United States (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel) due to its developed ties with them and the absence of a pronounced conflict of interest. In addition, the active involvement of India in regional affairs will partly allow Washington to more effectively promote its own projects in the field of security – first of all, the initiative to increase the level of cyber readiness within the I2U2 Group.
China. The Indian-Chinese rivalry is also reflected in the Middle East and, as in most cases, is closely linked to national megaprojects; the bone of contention is the segments of the Chinese “New Silk Road” and the Indian “North-South Transport Corridor” being promoted in the region (as well as their digital components). In addition, in light of the growing tension between Beijing and New Delhi and the constant mutual attacks in cyberspace, the digital segment of the Middle East is also seen as a potential point of clash between the cyber forces of the two powers. Competition is also growing in the private sector: both Chinese and Indian companies are seeking to expand their presence in the technological markets of the Arab Gulf states, primarily in the areas of 5G and Big data. Given the general tone of the Indian-Chinese dialogue, as well as the serious convergence of interests between New Delhi and Beijing, the rivalry between the two powers for influence in the digital sphere of the Middle East will only deepen in the future.
The EU. The positions of the EU countries in the digital market of the Middle East have noticeably weakened over the past five years and practically do not conflict with the interests of India. The parties act in isolation from each other, in the light of which Brussels does not perceive New Delhi as the “number one competitor,” paying more attention to countering the influence of China and Russia.
In a relatively short period of time, India managed to organically integrate into the digital space of the Middle East and secure a winning position for itself through multilateral diplomacy and the activity of national business. Unlike most external players, New Delhi does not seek to dominate the region unconditionally, preferring to gradually increase its share.
The growth of India’s influence on the processes in the digital space of the Middle East will continue; the impact will be felt both at the level of interstate relations and in the private sector. At the same time, New Delhi will probably not seek to overtake opponents from among the great powers (with the possible exception of China); on the contrary, the Indian establishment will look for common ground in order to achieve its own goals more effectively with fewer resources.
Of course, in order to maintain the position of New Delhi, it will be necessary not to stop there and constantly expand ties with regional powers. The emphasis in this case will probably need to be placed on the Arab world, since a significant part of the Arab countries are still in the stage of “passive cooperation” with India, which somewhat reduces the level of real influence of New Delhi on digital processes in the Middle East. It should be expected that a kind of “harbinger” of deepening relations between India and the Arab world will be the activation of Indian IT business in specific countries.
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