In 2017, when the UAEs’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan alighted from his plane at New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to receive him with a warm hug. Two years later, he did the same with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. These are not isolated incidents but indicate a fundamental reset in the relations between India and the Gulf states, the contours of which are defined by camaraderie, mutual respect and a high degree of trust. Historically, the interactions over centuries between the Gulf nations and India have included expressions of shared heritage and culture that find themselves in strands of the everyday life of the people. Apart from the fact that Mecca and Medina—sacred sites for many of our citizens—are physically located in that region, our mythologies, languages, religions, food and architecture have seeped into each other in ways that have not yet been fully understood, or explored.
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However, the relationship today has moved much beyond being a function of an organic historicity. Indeed, it has traversed more in the last six years than it has ever before. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision, the leadership has made assiduous efforts to fortify relationships with countries in the Gulf region through its “Look West” policy. With some of these countries, our relationship has upgraded to the strategic partnership level, which is a higher level of commitment than bilateral relationships, and that generally include strategic dialogues in diverse sectors but not formal alliances. New Delhi and Riyadh have established the Strategic Partnership Council at the level of our Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince. The UAE also significantly elevated the strategic relationship with high-level ministerial groups driving the relationship. The two elements of an intensive trade engagement vis-à-vis both commodities and people, and the personal touch of the top leaders concerned, has pushed up these relationships to their present status. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are India’s third and fourth-largest trading partners respectively. There has been significant increase in the investment component in our bilateral economic engagement- major announcements include potential investment by Riyadh of $100 billion in the areas of energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining. Meanwhile, the UAE features in the top 10 sources of FDI inflows into India.
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The vast Indian diaspora in the region in the Gulf region, estimated to be more than 8.5 million Indians, serves as an important connect in our bilateral relations. While India stands to benefit from the massive inflows of remittances, estimated about $50 billion from the Gulf countries as per estimates in 2018, the host countries reap the benefits of having a skilled working populace at its disposal. Consequently, there has been a significant shift in the approach of GCC countries to the sensitivities of Indian diaspora —be they cultural or in their social engagements. Allowing the construction of a Hindu temple in the UAE, for example, is an indication of this trend. However, the backbone of these trade and investments between India and the Gulf countries has been hydrocarbon sector. For 2019-20, India’s hydrocarbon trade with the region was worth $62 billion, which is 36% of total hydrocarbon trade. Saudi Arabia and the UAE may partner us in the next phase of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) programme in India. Also, in a historic agreement, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UAE, in a first, a consortium of Indian oil companies were awarded a 10 percent interest in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakum concession.
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In August 2015, Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE, which he visited again in 2018 and 2019. During his last visit, he received the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civil decoration, in recognition of his role in improving ties between the two countries. Three years prior, he received the King Abdulaziz Sash Award of Saudi Arabia and the ‘King Hamad Order of the Renaissance’, the third-highest civilian order of Bahrain in 2019. Prime Minister Modi has had a calibrated approach to the Gulf region’s powers with high-profile visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Iran and Bahrain, which were followed by Gulf dignitaries visit to New Delhi. When one of the most revered leaders of the region His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, passed away in September, the Indian Government declared a day’s state mourning throughout the country—a gesture that was much appreciated in Kuwait. This personal touch between the top leaderships paid rich dividend in the crisis that ensued globally after the Covid-19 disease became a pandemic.
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India ensured uninterrupted supply of medicines, food and other essential items to the Gulf region and also facilitated the deployment of about 6000 Indian health professionals to several Gulf countries amidst the lockdown in order to cater to the health needs of its citizens. In April 2020, India sent a 15-members Rapid Response Team to Kuwait for capacity building and sharing of experience in tackling the pandemic. India has emerged as a “global pharmacy” that also substantially caters to the needs of the Gulf region. In turn, the UAE supported us for our urgent need during a peak of the pandemic for LPG for a new scheme announced by Prime Minister Modi of providing three refills to below poverty line families free of cost. In the past few months, all Gulf countries took great care of the Indians in their country and ensured an orderly return to India for those who wanted to do so in view of the pandemic. The Gulf region is a reliable partner for energy security for India while India augments food security in the region. However, our relationship has moved beyond merely displaying transactional value. Prime Minister Modi and the Gulf leadership are recreating a civilisational connect that had rusted over the years.