So would ties between India and the Gulf region be adversely affected?

Now that the kerfuffle in the Gulf region over Islamophobia in India has subsided it is time to take a dispassionate look at events. In the wake of reports of boycotts and violence against some Muslims by some Hindu vigilantes in India, as a response to the callousness and irresponsibility displayed by the Tablighee Jamaat during COVID-19, some prominent citizens of GCC countries, including a member of parliament in Kuwait, began calling out Islamophobia in India. It began with some Islamophobic tweets by Indian expatriates located in the GCC states, and gained currency when an earlier distasteful tweet about Arab women by a member of the Indian parliament surfaced.

At the onset, it needs to be stated that Islamophobia anywhere and in any form is to be condemned. Several of those called out for their Islamophobic tweets have lost their jobs in the Gulf region.

So would ties between India and GCC be adversely affected?

There is every indication that ties are rock solid and will not be affected by the follies of a misguided few.

For instance, soon after the Kuwaiti MP’s appeal to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to intervene in India to take up the cause of alleged discrimination and Islamophobia in the country Kuwait’s Ambassador to India Jassem al-Najem in a statement to the Kuwaiti News Agency commended the historical relationship between Kuwait and India, stressing that ‘Kuwait and India share many principles in their foreign policies, like respecting UN Charter, non-interference in other countries’ affairs and respecting sovereignty of nations.”

Soon after, the UAE sent humanitarian aid to India - as it has been sending to numerous other countries. The UAE Ambassador to India said: "The UAE is committed to extending critical support to nations seeking to bolster their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. UAE assistance to India comes in recognition of the profound and brotherly ties our two countries have shared throughout the years."

It actually mirrors the deep ties that have been assiduously cultivated by successive governments over the years, but into which Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular has invested considerable effort and energy, in a bid to woo investments, shore up India’s energy security and ramp up regional security.

And there is every reason to believe that ties will remain unscathed. If bilateral ties between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) began with sourcing cheap labour and then expanding into energy security, then today they span almost every field.

Counter-Terrorism And Intelligence Sharing

Since 2003 defence cooperation between the two sides began, expanding quickly into cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing. After decades of depending and outsourcing its security concerns to its Western allies – primarily the US – the Gulf countries are having a rethink and coming into their own as far as the security architecture of the region is concerned, increasingly looking eastwards - to militarily strong countries like Russia, China, and India.

Countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have extradited those wanted by India on terrorism charges, including men with Pakistani passports. In 2018, India signed a pact with Oman that allows the Indian Navy to use the strategic port of Duqm, overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. In February this year 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.

Most of the GCC countries had agreed to participate in India’s MILAN 2020 naval military exercise, now postponed because of COVID-19.

India’s ties with not just the GCC but the Arab world, in general, had become so all encompassing that in 2016 the First Ministerial meeting of the Arab-India Cooperation Forum was convened in Manama, Bahrain, capturing both the momentum and the depth of relations that India had cultivated and begun enjoying with its extended neighbourhood.

A highlight of these ties was when UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan came to Delhi as the chief guest for the 2017 Republic Day parade, one of the many high profile visits between India and the region. The prime minister has undertaken several visits to the region, including to the State of Palestine – the first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister.

India has successfully navigated the region's tricky terrain and the many fault-lines, to enjoy good relations with all sides.

Undoubtedly a watershed moment in India-GCC ties had been Pakistan's refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen. That gave a great fillip to ties with the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with India. All three monarchies have honoured Prime Minister Modi with their countries' highest civilian awards.

However, the real cement in ties with the GCC is economic. There is, of course, the well known Indian expat community there – the region’s largest expat community at 8 million strong - and the billions of dollars they send home in remittances, which may see a significant downturn now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

India is the world’s second-largest oil importer and a significant market for the GCC countries. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are two of India’s top four trading partners. The UAE has been one of the top ten sources of FDI flows into India over the last one decade, while FDI flows from India to the GCC account for almost $3 billion. Total trade volume between India and the GCC have seen robust growth in 2018-19, with imports from the Gulf countries to India reaching $79.70 billion, almost double the $41.55 billion exports from India to the Gulf region.

Indian Expats' Role In Bolstering Ties

Indians have opened businesses in the region, become one of the major real estate investors, and are significantly involved in areas like healthcare, something that will continue in the foreseeable future. One million Indian tourists, for instance, visited Dubai in 2019. During his maiden visit in February 2019 to India Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced his readiness to invest $100 billion in India. Similarly, Invest Bahrain is looking to invest $500 million into India.

The GCC also figures majorly in India’s energy security. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) became the first foreign company to build strategic oil reserves in India. Saudi ARAMCO in partnership with ADNOC has entered into a joint venture for $44 billion worth Ratnagiri Refinery and Petro-Chemical project Ltd. Last year Saudi Aramco signed a $15 billion agreement with India’s Reliance Industries Ltd. India’s ONGC Videsh has acquired a 10 percent stake in an offshore oil concession in Abu Dhabi for $600 million and has signed an agreement for joint exploration in the newly discovered tight oil and shale gas reserves in the Khaleej al Bahrain basin.

In November last year Modi delivered the keynote address at the annual high profile Saudi Future Investment Initiatives Summit, when two agreements were also signed between Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd and Saudi Aramco for setting up a second fuel reserve facility in Karnataka; and between Indian Oil’s West Asia unit and Saudi Arabia’s Al Jeri company for downstream sector cooperation.

More recently, as part of its COVID-19 diplomacy, India has sent a rapid response team to Kuwait, medical personnel to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and COVID-19 related drugs to numerous Arab countries, including those of the GCC.

It may, therefore, be safe to say that ties remain on solid ground because India is what the GCC countries are looking for – a militarily and economically strong country. After all few Indians with their Islamophobic tweets do not represent the entire nation of 1.3 billion Indians as numerous Arab students, businessmen, professionals, tourists and patients who have visited or are living in India will testify.