Pandemic and Beyond India’s soaring ties with Gulf
True friendship, as an Arab proverb says, is tested in times of adversity. The deepening of India’s multi-faceted partnership with Gulf countries during the Covid-19 period exemplifies this spirit of solidarity in times of crisis. Right from the time the coronavirus pandemic struck the region and the world, over a year ago, India emerged as the first provider of humanitarian assistance to friendly Gulf countries and promptly provided emergency medical supplies to several countries in the region. India sent medical teams to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE to help them address the challenges of Covid-19. India and the Gulf countries also forged cooperation in Covid research and testing.
Vaccine Maitri: Caring & Sharing
The same spirit of caring and sharing is now evident in the supply of vaccines from India to Gulf countries under the “Vaccine Maitri” programme. Three million doses of Made-in-India vaccines were provided to Saudi Arabia and 2,00,000 doses were sent to Kuwait and the UAE each. India gifted 1,00,000 doses of the anti-Covid vaccine each to Oman and Bahrain. The supply of vaccines to Gulf countries on this scale reflects India’s deep sense of universal humanitarian desire to fight the pandemic together. In a statement at the Rajya Sabha on the “Vaccine Maitri Initiative” on March 17, 2021, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar said, “Quite appropriately, Vaccine Maitri began in the immediate neighbourhood, starting with the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as also Mauritius and Seychelles. The extended neighbourhood followed thereafter, especially the Gulf…. To date, we have supplied ‘Made in India’ vaccines to 72 nations across geographies.”
The pandemic period saw sustained diplomatic outreach between India and the energy-rich Gulf countries. Defying constraints imposed by the pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EAM Dr S Jaishankar held telephonic conversations with their counterparts from nearly all Gulf countries. When the pandemic situation eased slightly, Dr Jaishankar visited the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, and Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan travelled to the UAE and Oman. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan visited Kuwait in October 2020 to offer condolences to the Kuwaiti leadership on the sad demise of His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the former Amir of the State of Kuwait.
Caring for Diaspora
What stood out during this difficult period was the exceptional compassion and care shown to the Indian community by the Gulf countries. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, collectively host around 8.5 million Indians, forming the largest expatriate community in the region. Indians are highly valued and appreciated in the Gulf countries. Leaders and ministers of the GCC countries have often showered praise for Indians and highlighted their contributions to their respective countries’ economic growth and development. Most Indian professionals, who returned to India last year due to Covid-related difficulties have gone back to their adopted home in the Gulf countries. The demand for Indian migrants in the region is expected to revive significantly as the pandemic eases. Qatar is looking to employ 15,000 workers/managers in construction and hospitality connected to the FIFA World Cup, which it will be hosting in 2022. The Indian government is also in the process of aligning its e-migrate platform with GCC countries to spur the return of Indian workers to these countries. In this regard, pilot projects have already been launched with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The government is already negotiating for “prior recognition of skills” with GCC countries that will enable quicker employment and deployment of Indians.
Energy security remains a key driver of India’s Look and Act West Policy that is designed to strategically engage and expand the collaborative matrix with the Middle East, especially the GCC countries. Increasingly, energy partnership between India and the Gulf countries is acquiring a strategic orientation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE planning to partner with India in the next phase of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) programme. During Prime Minister Modi’s historic visit to the UAE, a consortium of Indian oil companies was awarded a 10 per cent interest in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakum concession. Moving beyond hydrocarbons, India is also looking to deepen a new partnership with the Gulf region in renewables. Many countries in the region have backed the India-led International Solar Alliance. In October 2020, Indian engineering conglomerate Larsen & Toubro unveiled its portfolio of power and water projects in the GCC region, which also included its first large-scale renewable energy project. Besides economic and energy ties, India and the Gulf countries are poised to transform their defence and strategic relations. The visit of Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in December 2020 was the first such visit in the Gulf region. The trip highlighted increasing strategic cooperation with countries in the region and opened avenues of defence cooperation.
While energy security remains at the heart of the blossoming India-GCC partnership, the relationship is diversifying into new areas, including cutting-edge technology. In the backdrop of global economic churning, the two sides are aiming to forge an “ahead of the curve” partnership with the energy-rich West Asia region focussed on Industrial Revolution 4.0, technology collaboration, R&D and high capital-intensive projects. This new transformed partnership between India and the Gulf will focus on new emerging technologies, especially ICT, consultancy, fin-tech, logistics, edu-tech and health-tech..
The Road Ahead
India’s multi-dimensional ties with the Gulf region, supported by centuries-old historical and cultural connections, found a new energy and resilience during the pandemic period. Sustained diplomatic outreach, accompanied by growing trade and investment, continued apace, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading India’s diplomatic outreach from the front. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to nearly all Gulf countries over the last seven years have decisively transformed this mutually-empowering partnership and imbued it with a strategic vision. Prime Minister Modi provided a quintessential personal touch to this reinvigorated and transformed Gulf diplomacy. He broke protocol to receive Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2017 and repeated this special gesture for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to India in 2019. “Further west, we have redefined, in a short span of time, and despite uncertainty and conflict, our partnerships with Gulf and West Asia, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Iran. This has helped us protect and promote our security interests, nurture strong economic and energy ties and advance the material and social welfare of around 8 million Indians,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the second Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on January 17, 2017. Looking ahead, India-Gulf ties are set to scale new frontiers as India seeks to collaborate across the spectrum with all countries in the region for the post-pandemic global economic recovery process, and to stimulate the resurgence of each other’s economy. As India pursues its plans of becoming a USD five-trillion economy, Aatmanirbhar Bharat, with its emphasis on promoting Make in India-Make for World mission, offers exciting opportunities of joint ventures in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors. Partnering in future-looking innovation and start-ups is set to keep India-Gulf ties humming with new ideas and entrepreneurial energy. And at this rate, India-Gulf ties can only move to a higher trajectory.