by Zahack Tanvir
The controversy was exploited by the propagandists of the fifth-generation warfare to damage India’s reputation and its international status.
With the recent furore in the international media over the controversy related to Islam’s Prophet, the Indian government promptly acted upon the requests of its brotherly Gulf nations by respecting their religious sentiments—in order to maintain the historical bonds which the Arabs and Indians have enjoyed.
Moreover, the controversy was exploited by the propagandists of fifth-generation warfare to damage India’s reputation and its international status. Social media witnessed Chinese whispers that India can be cowed down by the bully, in this case, a Twitter storm that can potentially damage the nation’s economy.
However, it’s not a mickey-mouse play to straight-away boycott India. Especially, when both the regions hold historical, cultural, religious, and strategic ties.
India’s historical ties with the Arab nations date back more than 5,000 years to trading between the ancient civilisations of the Indus Valley and the Dilmun. Arab merchants, traders and religious men would traverse through the gigantic oceans to reach the coasts of India to enjoy the business-friendly markets, culturally rich atmosphere, and welcoming society.
Gujarat’s port of Gogha has been active since the 5th century CE and it flourished as a major trading point during the 10th to 16th century CE. In fact, the early companions of Prophet Mohammed landed in Ghogha around the early 7th century and built the Barwada mosque there, whose Qibla direction is Jerusalem (not Mecca).
During the British era, the English imperial interests in the Gulf region were administered by the Bombay Presidency. Until the 1960s, the Indian rupee was a legal tender in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the Trucial Sheikhdoms.
Given the significant relations India maintains with the Gulf countries, Indian premier Narendra Modi focused on the region from the beginning of his term in 2014. He made a series of visits to all the GCC capitals during 2015-16, and encouraged the Arab monarchs to visit India. These visits included Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
In August 2015, the UAE was the first Gulf country Modi visited, marking the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the UAE for 34 years. Both the nations inked the deals in various sectors. UAE planned investments into India’s infrastructure development, spanning ports, airports, highways and construction, and petrochemical projects as well.
In February 2019, Modi broke the protocol to receive the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman—popularly known as MBS. Saudi Arabia’s smart leader called Modi his “elder brother”, and said, “I am his younger brother, I admire him”.
When Kuwait’s most revered leader Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah passed away in September 2020, the Indian government declared a day’s state mourning throughout the country. The gesture was observed very positively in Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti government appreciated it.
Upon the demise of UAE’s president Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in May 2022, the Indian government observed a day’s mourning. Again, a gesture appreciated by the UAE royals and citizens.
India and the Gulf nations share a huge chunk of mutual economical dependencies, which include food security, renewable and nuclear energy, education and skill development, the defence industry and counterterrorism, biotechnology, space, electronics, and information technology, which includes artificial intelligence and machine learning (AIML), cyber security, Cloud-based solutions, and more.
Rahul Roy Chaudhury, a senior researcher at International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), explained the Energy, Expatriates and Economy (EEE) relationship between Gulf nations and India.
There are over 8.5-9 million Indian expatriates throughout the region, whose skill-sets benefit the Gulf, while their impressive annual remittances benefit India—which is about 65 per cent of the nation’s total remittances.
Roy explained, “India is dependent on the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for 42 per cent of its overall oil imports; three of the top five oil suppliers to India are Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia, the largest, providing 20 per cent of India’s total oil imports. Qatar is also India’s dominant supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Any disruption in energy imports from the Gulf will have serious implications for India’s economic growth”.
According to the Business-Standard report, UAE was also India’s second-largest export and import market in 2021-22. Likewise, Saudi Arabia was India’s fourth-largest trading and import partner in the last fiscal year.
In February 2022, India and UAE signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)—the trade pact was implemented last month. Meanwhile, India and Oman have agreed to undertake a joint feasibility study, before they could sign a preferential trade deal on limited goods.
During 2019-20, India’s hydrocarbon trade with the Gulf region was worth $62 billion—which is 36% of the total hydrocarbon trade.
In short, Gulf countries account for almost 15 per cent of India’s global trade.
Defence And Security Ties
Gulf regions especially Saudi Arabia and UAE have held deep military and intelligence ties with India. Moreover, it improved remarkably in the recent past.
Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ausaf Saeed—who worked as the ambassador from April 2019 till March 2022 in the Kingdom, extensively worked on various political, economic, consular and cultural issues, besides Hajj management.
During his tenure, India and Saudi Arabia witnessed a great deal of cooperation in the areas which were unexplored before.
In March 2021, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Modi were connected via teleconference. Then in September, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan visited India.
The first bilateral Naval exercise “Al Mohed-Al Hindi” was conducted in August 2021 on the Eastern Coast of Jubail in Saudi Arabia.
In February 2022, Saudi land forces commander Lt. Gen. Fahd Bin Abdullah made a historic visit to India and held extensive talks with former Indian Army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane.
Interestingly, during the 2019 US-Iran escalations in the Gulf waters, Iran seized and attacked the UAE oil-tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, in response to that India deployed its naval ships to contain the Iranian aggression, and to guard the Arab oil-tankers.
Back in June 2012, India’s most-wanted terrorist Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Jundal—the handler of the ten terrorists involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. He was deported from Saudi Arabia, and was arrested upon arrival at the Delhi airport.
Those who call for sanctioning India usually forget how hypothetical the statement is, as this step not only strains ties with India but also the Indian Muslims won’t be able to visit Mecca and Madina.
When the diplomatic ties are wrecked—there would be no embassy functioning inside Saudi Arabia, and there would be no diplomatic missions inside the Kingdom to hold the hands of the Indian pilgrims who desire to perform the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, having a moderate Islamic leadership, would never take such a drastic step to ban Indian Muslims from performing rituals, for the sake of some political spat.
India-Gulf relations have witnessed a great reset in the post-pandemic period. Former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Talmiz Ahmed noted in 2021, about the Gulf’s investments in the agriculture industry of India.
He wrote for the Observer Research Foundation that India loses about 21 million tonnes of wheat annually, worth $8.3 billion, due to inadequate storage and distribution facilities. Also, India loses about 21 million tonnes of vegetables and 12 million tonnes of fruits annually due to the absence of requisite cold storage amenities.
Due to these harsh realities, UAE invested in India’s farm-related logistics sector and this cooperation could boost domestic stocks for India, and partly meet the needs of the UAE as well.
Moreover, in May 2022, India promised to export wheat to Saudi Arabia and UAE, despite the grain ban it announced for the rest of the world.
In the field of electric automobiles, this month Saudi Arabia’s leading automobile company Abdul Latif Jameel, famous for Toyota cars, committed an investment of up to $220 million in India’s Greaves Electric Mobility, which is one of India’s leading two-to-three-wheeler mobility players.
Resolving Mutual Disputes Amicably
In October 2021, Saudi Arabia commemorated its presidency of the G20 summit by publishing the map of G20 nations on its new 20 Riyal note. However, the map showed Jammu and Kashmir as separate territory from India.
The then Indian Ambassador Dr. Ausaf Saeed raised the issue to his counterparts, and later India learnt that Saudi Arabia withdrew the currency.
India and the Gulf nations have always been an unbreakable unit irrespective of their reservations and disagreements. Both the regions have always resolved the issues without any unpleasant outcome.
A couple of media outlets are trying to stir a sense of anxiety that India may face a heavy backlash from the Gulf nations for the recent controversy. But it’s never been the case.
Those who used unrefined language for the Prophet were brought to book immediately, while India displayed maturity and the relations are back to normal.
Those who hold desires to watch a fallout between India and the Gulf nations will only return home in despair.
Article first published as Opinion Piece in CNN News18.
Zahack Tanvir is a Saudi-based Indian national. He is Director of Milli Chronicle Media London. He holds a PG-Diploma in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI-ML) from IIIT. He did a certificate program in Counterterrorism from the University of Leiden, Netherlands. He tweets under @ZahackTanvir.