Shifting Sands? Arab-India Ties in Strain

PM Modi was conferred Saudi’s highest civilian honour in 2016.

Basit Amin Makhdoomi

IT IS an old adage that building relationships and trust takes ages, while destroying them takes few seconds. Recently Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and several other Gulf countries raised red flags demonstrating concerns over instances of Muslims being targeted in India amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Calling on the Indian government to take steps to protect Muslim minorities who are being “negatively profiled,” facing “discrimination and violence” amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the 57-member OIC criticised what it called “growing Islamophobia” in India. These remarks came amidst an unhealthy trend of attaching corona virus in India with Muslims and suffixing names like “Jama’ati Virus”, “ Cororna Khan”, “Cororna Jehad” et al on social media platforms and associated media with rightwing leanings. These recent incidents of toxicity might go a long way in tearing apart the hard earned relationship of trust, faith and reliance that India and the Gulf countries have successful built brick by brick since many years.

Arab-India Ties

History bears testimony to the fact that the relations between India and Gulf have been at its best among all in recent few years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put a considerable effort in building India’s relations with the Arab World and all this started right away from his first tenure way back in 2014. He envisioned a new policy called “Link West” (west of India) which gives it a bigger geographical connotation but it precisely maintained its focus on the Middle East to catapult the relations between the two.

Quite early in his first tenure itself PM Modi deputed the then External Affairs Minister to make frequent trips to Gulf countries in order to cement India’s relations with them. Even PM Modi himself made multiple trips to the region, including three visits to the UAE, a trip to Saudi Arabia, as well as the first ever visit to tiny kingdom of Bahrain by an Indian prime minister. The Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) grouping, as a region, is India’s largest trading partner and  has more than 7.5 million Indians work in the larger region, sending back over $55 billion in remittances. PM Modi was  also quite successful in balancing his relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia despite they being at constant loggerheads with each other. This can be gauged by the fact that the day Iranian President was in Delhi meeting with the President of India, PM Modi’s External Affairs Minister late Sushma Swaraj was in Saudi Arabia goes on to demonstrate the balancing act Modi Government has been able to achieve which is quite rare in present day diplomacy.

Another remarkable feature of Modi’s diplomacy was de-hyphening the relations with Israel and Palestine. Similarly Modi in 2016 visited  Doha on a two-day visit which focused on giving a new push to the economic ties, particularly in the hydrocarbon sector since Qatar country is India’s largest supplier of LNG requirements, accounting for 65 per cent of the country’s total imports last financial year.

Relationship Dividends

Enormous amounts of benefits have been reaped by India in the past as a result of hard work that has been put up by the current dispensation in Delhi by cementing these vital ties. Keeping aside the economic benefits, Arab countries have been successful cushion to fall back upon whenever and wherever Pakistan has played its diplomatic ante against india. The personal equation that PM built with two powerful Arab princes like Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan known as MBZ and Prince Muhammad bin Salman aka MBS played a pivotal role when India went ahead to scrap Kashmir of its special status. When Pakistan upped the ante against India before the international community and countries like US, UK, France and European Union expressed concern on the alarming situations in Kashmir, Arabs by and large kept quiet. They rather went a step ahead and dismissed Pakistani pleas and extended direct support for Indian actions in Kashmir. Despite Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visiting Riyadh after abrogation of Article 370 and seeking support for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia showed a cold shoulder. UAE on the other hand went even set a new precedent and defended India’s position on Kashmir. Abu Dhabi declared August 5 move an internal matter of New Delhi which was aimed at “reducing regional disparity and improving efficiency”.They also stated that reorganisation of states is not a unique incident in the history of independent India.

All this goes on to show the diplomatic capital India has built with the Gulf countries and the loyalty Gulf has reciprocated to India in times when it needed it the most.

Drifting Apart 

But recent events of Muslim bashing and which hunt, especially after the outbreak of covid-19, it appears has shaken the Arab conscience. Amidst religious connotations being attributed to the spread of Corona Virus The trigger was a five-year old misogynistic/racial tweet of Bengaluru South BJP MP Tejasvi Surya which had hurled slurs on Arab women. This upped the bitterness in an already toxic environment. Surya hurriedly deleted his offensive tweet but the damage had already been done. A screenshot of his tweet was picked up by activists like Abdur Rahman Nassar from Kuwait, who has a large following on social media, and circulated. Nassar then went on to tag the PMO and Modi’s personal account and tweeted, ‘Prime Minister…An Indian Member of Parliament accuses Arab women, and we Arabs are asking for his membership to be dropped!!

Thankfully the de facto head of the nation was spontaneous enough to brush aside this brewing animosity and hate by a tweet which urged  unity and brotherhood in the response towards Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted….

“COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together”

Even though there was a little delay, but this message can be taken as a big assurance by the global community that this hysteria of mixing religion with a spreading pandemic wasn’t a government policy but an idea propagated by rabid fringe and devoid of any political patronage. Furthermore it’s also expected of a PM with a large following, elected with a massive mandate be more proactive in sticking to the ideals of dharma and snub any such activity that has the tendency to breed venom between communities integral to the edifice of idea of India.  More importantly, he is also duty bound to communicate to the citizenry that the toil and labour invested in building good diplomatic relations cannot be squandered on the whims and fancies of right wing fringe. As Barak Obama once opined that in a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy, we too must adhere to the principles of a principled diplomacy for a successful and vibrant democracy.

Author practices law at the J&K High Court and can be reached at: [email protected]

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