Love Thy Neighbour as Yourself: The Khaleej as Our ‘Sikka’
The Modi administration’s outreach to the Gulf since 2015 was radical and enthusiastic. The Gujarati Baniya ethic was at work, with a larger trader diaspora in the Gulf being the custodian of mandirs in Muscat and Manama had a long durée footprint which matters. Many Banias hold Gulf passports. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a collective entity, consisting of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain has tremendous significance for India.
We presume our neighbours to stop at Pakistan and China, yet we forget that Oman and the UAE are maritime neighbours. Oman and the UAE have large ethnic Baluchi populations and Urdu/Hindi is a commonly spoken tongue in the region along with Malayalam, while Kerala is across Duqm in Oman, across the Sea of Oman. Muslims from Hyderabad and Malabar have had a long association with the Gulf especially Jeddah and Aden, which was governed from the Bombay Presidency.
India’s old, historical ties with GCC States coupled with increasing imports of oil and gas, growing trade and investment, and presence of Indian workers in the region are of vital interest to India. Of the total 13.46 million NRIs, more than half were concentrated in the Gulf countries with UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait accounting for around 3.42 million, 2.6 million, and 1.03 million Indians respectively. Meanwhile, Qatar and Oman consisted of 7,45,775 and 7,79,351 Indians respectively.
India’s economic linkages with the GCC have increased steadily, especially due to growth in oil imports. During 2020-21, India’s exports to GCC were US$28.06 billion. The bilateral two-way trade during the period was US$87.36 billion. The India-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is under negotiation.
The active bilateral relationship between nations can be seen through the presence and investments of the Indian companies. For example, according to the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia, there are 476 Indian companies, registered as joint ventures/100% owned entities, worth US $1.5 billion in the Kingdom as of March 2020. According to the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (QCCI), there are over 6,000 big and small Indian companies operating in Qatar.
The common political and security concerns of India and GCC translate into efforts for peace, security and stability in the Gulf region and South Asia. The emerging common security perceptions create further opportunities for GCC-India cooperation in the future.
During the India-GCC Political Dialogue 2020, the GCC welcomed India’s inclusion in the UNSC as a non-permanent member from January 2021. Both sides affirmed their commitment to reform multilateral institutions to reflect the realities of the 21st century and to work together to address contemporary challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, sustainable development and terrorism.
The Indian Muslim finds cultural comfort in the Gulf from the IT executive to the working-class barber from Lucknow to Malda. The familiarity with ease with Ramadan and the Jumma Prayers, with marginalization of the other over the past three decades, has led the Indian Muslim to find work in Dubai and Dhahran rather than Delhi, where there will be rental issues based on identity as I had observed with a senior colleague in 2016 who was a BITS alum. The lived experiences coagulating into a ‘Muslim Commons’ in the Gulf, where the best biryani chefs find work and the Muslim entrepreneur finds dignity, as dignity is not a one-way street.
Resistance might be quiet, yet the Indian who can move his business to Dubai has been doing that even the most inclusive individual. Contrary to the zoomed-out IR Scholar whose head is in the cloud, who dismisses remittances and diaspora embeddedness that feeds millions in the hinterland over three generations- the texture of relationship is in the everyday trust. The politics of the present are threatening trust. The Indian Muslim will mobilize its resistance in some manner whether it is lobbying local rulers in the Gulf or on Twitter flagging bigots who were fired.
In response to the chaos, the Minister of Commerce and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on behalf of the Government of India has affirmed that relationship with GCC matters and is of importance to India. In the Press Release by the MEA, a clear point has been made regarding respect for all religions, strong actions against speakers, and highlighting the civilizational ties with nations.
We live in interconnected times, where the weakest signal can be amplified. States in the south, even Bihar, need the labour diaspora remittances. We need to recognize that neighbours in the form of the monarchies of the Gulf have been supportive friends but must not take for granted. The current dispensation in the attempt to be Vishwa Guru, forgets the adage of being able to afford one’s politics.
Politics which threatens India’s national interest needs to be reflected upon over the long term as we cannot choose our neighbours in our ‘Sikkas’, or the neighbourhood street in the Gulf. They are our friends in business, trade, energy, politics, and security.
It is vital to note that whenever such turmoil occurs they affect people who are living in those nations, businesses and trade between the nations, and most importantly, the relationship that has been built over the years.
Therefore, it is important to understand each other through our common culture and community and then act, speak and behave responsibly and respectfully.
“This was first published by the author on his website. It has been published here with certain changes and author’s choice and willingness”.
*The views/opinions expressed in the above article exclusively belong to the writer. Tatvita may have different opinions on the subject.*
Manishankar is a writer and researcher on the Gulf based in Singapore.