Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates
The uproar in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), over alleged “blasphemy” in India has died down as suddenly as it had begun. This is not surprising. Those who express alarmist views do so out of an incomplete understanding of relations between India and the Gulf.
Certainly, the Gulf states matter tremendously to India. But equally, the Gulf countries have prospered from the endless supply of Indian blue and white collar workers to the region.
Eight million Indians live in the Gulf, constituting the largest expatriate populations in many of them. They send back hefty remittances of around 60 billion USD, forming a significant portion of India’s foreign exchange.
However, these Indians do not live in the Gulf states on the largesse of these states. They put in backbreaking labour to turn the deserts into gleaming icons of modernity. Because of the large pool available, their willingness to work at wages that locals and others would not, and their ability to keep a low profile and not be politically involved in the affairs of these states ensure that they remain the more preferred labour recruits.
In fact, Indians came to be increasingly preferred to Arab labour in the GCC states, after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the support it got from Palestinian immigrants there. Over the years, different considerations have attached themselves to different groups, for instance many Shiite Lebanese suspected of being supporters of Hezbollah, were deported from a number of GCC countries. These countries abhor and strictly forbid any type of demonstration or mobilization by expatriate communities who outnumber indigenous population in many of the GCC states. A case in point is the demonstration by Pakistanis in support of Imran Khan recently in Mecca, and the more recent demonstration by expats in Kuwait against “blasphemy” in India - deportation awaits all of them.
India and the GCC states, particularly UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, today share close ties and cooperation in almost every sphere, especially in energy, trade, military, defence, counter-terrorism. Even Kuwait, some of whose citizens have been amongst most severely critical of the current Indian administration, and which is the only GCC state that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not yet visited, opened the office of a defence attaché in Delhi in 2020, testifying to growing ties, encompassing sensitive areas including defence.
According to government data, bilateral trade between India and the GCC has expanded rapidly over the last few years, increasing to 154.73 billion USD in 2021-22 from 87.4 billion in 2020-21. The share of these six countries to India's total exports has risen to 10.4 per cent in 2021-22 from 9.51 per cent in 2020-21 standing at USD 44 billion in 2021-22 against USD 27.8 billion in 2020-21; imports rose by 85.8 per cent to USD 110.73 billion compared to USD 59.6 billion in 2020-21. The balance of trade is clearly in favor of the GCC countries, with energy exports being the GCC’s main exports, including significant amounts of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and almost 40 % of liquefied natural gas imports from Qatar.
India looks to the GCC as a major source of foreign investments; UAE has become the biggest GCC investor in India. During the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2019 to Delhi, he promised investments of upto 100 billion USD. Both countries have participated in helping India build up her strategic oil reserves.
More recently, UAE and Saudi companies have signed MoUs for investing in tourism and transport in Jammu and Kashmir. But many of these investors are NRIs based in the region. Indians have also turned out to be major investors in GCC. For instance, Indians are now the largest investors in Dubai’s real estate, estimated to be 2.2 billion USD. Similarly Indians account for largest number of tourists now driving Dubai’s non-oil economy surge to 35-month high, so important for post-Covid economic recovery.
UAE and Saudi Arabia are third and fourth largest trading partners of India respectively, Kuwait remains amongst India’s top ten trading partners with investments of 5 billion USD. India concluded the Comprehensive Economic Partnership which is billed to take bilateral trade up to 100 billion USD. India is similarly negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC.
A day ago, the UAE announced it was banning the export and re-export of wheat sourced from India since 13 May, testifying to the important role India was playing in its food security; till the Ukraine conflict broke out, Russian and Ukrainian wheat were imported by the UAE. India, which has emerged the largest wheat producer since has made exceptions to allowing wheat exports to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Besides wheat, India is a major exporter of agricultural and food products to the GCC.
Health industry is another area of vital cooperation for India and the GCC countries. Medical tourism, Indian health workers and pharmaceuticals play a significant role in the lives of the GCC residents. With the emergence of the COVID 19 pandemic, this had only increased.
“Saudi Arabia views India as an important strategic partner. India is an important asset to international and regional integrated efforts to deal with the current situation and minimize its impact on the health of global community. We are working closely with the Indian government in this regard," Saudi Arabia's envoy to India Saud bin Mohammed Al said in an interview in 2020.
Ties have, however, moved beyond to enter the fields of counter-terrorism, defence, and security cooperation. India and Abu Dhabi signed a strategic partnership treaty in 2017 during the then Crown Prince and current President Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s visit to India to participate in the coutnry’s Republic Day celebrations. In 2019 Riyadh chose India as one of its eight strategic partners under the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative. History was made last year when India and Saudi Arabia held their first ever joint naval exercise, called the Al-Mohed Al-Hindi Exercise, after a similar drill “Zayed Talwar” with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) off the coast of Abu Dhabi
Defence and military ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia received a major boost with Indian Army chief Gen. MM Naravane’s visit to these countries last year – the first such trip by an Indian service chief. Another significant first was the visit of the Saudi Army Chief Lieutenant General Fahd Bin Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mutair to India earlier this year in February. India and Oman too share a robust defence partnership for years; tri-service military exercises are conducted by both countries regularly. Omani military personnel are trained in India, and since 2018 Oman has given India access to its Port Duqm for military and logistical use.
In 2020 the Embassy of Kuwait opened a defence attaché office in Delhi. Kuwaiti Ambassador to India Al Najem said opening of the military office in New Delhi attests that there is a real desire to increase defence and security cooperation between the two friendly countries.
India also plays an important role in maintaining the security of the Gulf’s sea lanes through its anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.
The turmoil of the Arab spring, the rise of Islamic militants like ISIS and Islamist political movements in the region, a resurgent Iran after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), a receding US footprint from the region, a terrorism and debt- ridden Pakistan no longer able or willing to provide its military services to its GCC patrons have been drivers of closer cooperation with India in defence and counter-terrorism.
India has also played behind the scene roles: India was a venue for a backchannel meeting between Israeli diplomat Dore Gold and Saudi representative retd. Major General Anwar Eshki. In 2017 during the blockade and boycott of Qatar by some of its Gulf allies India airlifted supplies and cattle to the gas-rich state. India has cooperated with the UAE to help treat Yemeni civilians and army personnel injured in the country’s brutal civil war.
All of these reflect the mutuality of the ties between India and the different GCC states. Ties which go back millennia received a major boost under Prime Minister Modi, who made “Look West” a priority in his foreign policy objectives. But the current level of cooperation could be reached because India’s GCC partners also stood to gain from such cooperation and therefore have been willing to take the relationship with India forward. I
It is too deep, span too many areas to be destroyed by an unfortunate indiscretion occurring during a heated television debate. It is another matter that there are those who would like to put a spanner on such ever- burgeoning ties.