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Why India’s relationship with the Gulf is stronger than you think

Nicolas Blarel and Sumit Ganguly in a recent article for Foreign Policy Magazine argue that the diplomatic gains made by India’s “think West Policy” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi with respect to Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular) are threatening to unravel due to rising islamophobia in India in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They cite two key pieces of evidence; two tweets. First, by Princess Hend al-Qassimi of the UAE reminiscing about a “peaceful India” on May 4, and secondly from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), urging India to take strong action against the “growing tide of Islamophobia in India and to protect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority as per its obligations under international human rights law”. It is important to point out that the two writers accept that PM Modi’s and S. Jaishankar’s “emergency diplomacy,” which was an effort to assuage the concerns of Gulf countries in this respect, seems to have worked for the moment. But, they caution that if New Delhi is to maintain the strength of these diplomatic ties, it must quell hate speech against Muslims—particularly from Indians residing in the Gulf. This is an inference India’s policy makers agree with and are already acting upon.

However, what I seek to challenge here is the underlying contention that: (1) India’s relationship with Gulf countries is predicated on the status of Indian Muslims or the behaviour of diasporic Indian’s in the Gulf, or (2) that these factors could overwhelm the pulls of geopolitics and geo-economics that have brought Gulf countries closer to India. On the first point, while it is understandable that Gulf countries are interested in the well-being of Indian Muslims due to domestic audience considerations, these costs should not be overstated. For instance, despite the BJP’s Hindu nationalist credentials, PM Modi has received the highest state honours from six Muslim countries—Bahrain, UAE, Palestine, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the Maldives. Additionally, in light of the improvement in ties with India, OIC had invited India’s former Minister of External Affairs (MEA), Sushma Swaraj as a guest of honour to the “inaugural plenary of the foreign ministers’ conclave of the OIC” despite Pakistan’s protestations.

Even when the Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Bill was passed by the Indian parliament last year, UAE’s ambassador to India, Ahmad Al Banna, expressed hope that this move “would improve social justice and security and confidence of the people in the local governance and will encourage further stability and peace.” Pakistan’s demands for an immediate convening of the OIC was also turned down. Gulf countries turning a blind eye to India’s domestic policies is not merely an outcome of improving ties with India. They have of course long been notorious for using the doctrine of state sovereignty as a shield against external accusations of human rights violations. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to China in 2019, openly conceded Beijing’s right to re-educate its Uighur Muslims in camps.

On the second and more important point, it is vital to consider the political motives that have driven Gulf countries closer to India. The first reason is related to the economics of oil in the current global market. India is one of the world’s largest importers of crude oil and the Gulf region is collectively the world’s largest exporter of the commodity. Between 2018-19, India spent ₹8.81 lakh crore (US$120 billion) to import 228.6 million tonnes of crude oil. A major chunk of these imports was from countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, and Kuwait. Particularly as western economies move towards renewables and diversify their energy portfolio, India’s leverage, as a maritime neighbour with a 2.6 trillion-dollar economy, vis-à-vis oil exporting countries is likely to increase. In fact, FDI flows in energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure etc., such as the proposed $70bn investment being made by Aramco-Adnoc to set-up up an oil refinery in Gujarat, highlight the potential of India’s domestic markets as much as its dependence on the Middle Eastern oil to meet its energy needs. This situation has certainly been helped in India’s favour by oil prices turning negative owing to Covid-19.

The other compulsion is geopolitics, especially in relation to the on-going civil war in Yemen. Since 2015 (in response to Arab Spring), Saudi Arabia, and a coalition of eight others - mostly Sunni Muslim states - have been waging war on behalf of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for control over Yemeni territory. While Turkey was initially in favour of the Saudi-backed coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen, it seems to have changed its stance after backing Qatar during its diplomatic stand-off against the Saudis in 2017, and later playing up the Khashoggi affair. In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also refused to participate in the Mecca summit where he was to hand over the chairmanship of the OIC to King Salman. Most prominently, Turkey has emerged as the biggest ally of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Islamic world, which is a fundamentalist grouping the Saudis declared as a terrorist organisation in 2014. In response, Riyadh has placed an embargo on Turkish imports and sent a memo to “various government departments to look into the nature and scale of Saudi investments in Turkey.”

More importantly however, this has led to the Saudi-backed coalition now seeking more allies to balance the military potential of Iran and Turkey in the region. When the Saudis appealed to Pakistan to support its efforts in Yemen by providing “ships, aircraft and troops for the campaign”, the Pakistani parliament voted against being militarily involved. This has led to a rethinking of Pakistan’s strategic importance in Riyadh and a favourable repositioning towards India (due to the latter’s own strained relationship with Ankara). Saudi Arabia and India have already vowed to enhance anti-terror cooperation, and instituted various bilateral defence exercises. For instance, in India’s Milan naval exercise in 2020—which has now been postponed—Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Maldives, Iran among others were expected to participate. While it is unlikely that India will commit significant resources, and involve itself in any on-going conflicts in the Middle East in an active role, there is no doubt that actors such as Saudi Arabia New Delhi view New Delhi as a more dependable security partner than Islamabad.

Considering these trends, it seems unlikely that sub-national factors - such as the rise of islamophobia or hate speech amongst diasporic Indians or the status of Indian Muslims - will affect the strategic partnership between India and its allies in the Gulf. Particularly since both sides have shown an appreciation for the other’s domestic audience costs. As Michael Kugelman writes, in contradistinction to other forms of external criticism, New Delhi responded “to criticism [from the Middle East] in a way that was conciliatory, not confrontational.” Similarly, Gulf countries have evinced their commitment to weed out fake social media accounts that have “intended to create discord in the special relations between India and countries of the region.” India is also making a strong effort to aid Gulf countries’ counter efforts against Covid-19 by providing access to pharmaceutical drugs, medical experts, along with food and other essential items. Islamic nations have long shown a capacity to set aside doctrinaire ideological considerations, manage domestic audiences, and still prioritise strategic goals. It is time we saw them for the realpolitik practitioners they are.

(The author is a DPhil Candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford, and the founder of Young Bhartiya, a Mumbai-based think tank committed to bridging the gap between academia and popular media consumption).


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