When he visits Bahrain this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have visited all the Gulf nations, and most importantly strengthened Indias close connect with the six-nation powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Indias “extended neighbourhood” with which ties have blossomed beyond hydrocarbons.
Though this August 24 visit is a first ever prime ministerial visit by India to Bahrain, the Modi government has been maintaining close ties with Manama since its first term. Late External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had chosen Bahrain as the first stop of her Gulf tour in September 2014. Her visit in July last year was her third visit to Bahrain, to co-chair the second Joint Commission meeting.
Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain from August 23-25, will seek to keep up the tempo of bilateral ties with the region that is critical to India, economically and politically. The visits come amid the close backing that both nations have given to India over Kashmir — with the UAE terming it as New Delhi’s internal matter, and the Bahraini government cracking down on Pakistanis, who were holding an anti-India protest.
The visit to the two nations will not just mark India’s close cooperation with the GCC states, which account for over 40 per cent of its oil imports, but also another step up the ladder of its ties with the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). India’s growing bonding — economic and political — with these Muslim-majority nations also signals its effective squeezing out of whatever little voice Pakistan has got left in these powerful bodies.
India, which has observer status of the Arab League, has been seeking to build closer ties with the bloc. In January 2016, Sushma Swaraj had attended the first ministerial meeting of the India-Arab League Cooperation Forum in Manama. At the OIC too, India’s position has been recognised, with then EAM Sushma Swaraj being invited as ‘Guest of Honour’ at the March 2019 meeting of the OIC Foreign Ministers’ meet.
India’s participation had come days after the February 14 Pulwama terror attack and amid escalating tensions with Pakistan, which had boycotted the event in protest at Sushma’s presence.
Though the OIC’s Kashmir contact group, with Pakistan’s prodding, continues to pass anti-India statements, it has virtually no voice in the larger grouping.
The UAE had invited India to be Guest of Honour at the Foreign Ministers meet in March, in “welcome recognition” of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world.
India through its outreach to the Muslim majority nations, under the Modi government, has managed to not just silence debt-stricken Pakistan’s plaints against New Delhi, many of the Gulf nations also see India as a strategic counter to the worrying rise of the Pakistan-China axis.
Modi’s visits to the Gulf nations, with his forthcoming visit to the UAE set to be his third to Abu Dhabi, have led to both sides looking beyond oil in their bilateral relations — to partnerships in fields like security, anti-terror cooperation, military-to-military cooperation, and maritime interests.
India holds joint military exercises with Oman and also with the UAE. In fact, in January 2017, a unit of the UAE Armed Forces marched side by side with the Indian armed forces on Raj Path for the Republic Day parade during which Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was chief guest. The marchpast was accompanied by an Emirati military band.
With China aggressively pushing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and its development of the Gwadar port, as part of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, it stands to negatively affect Dubai’s Jebel ‘Ali port. Closer ties with India would help boost the Dubai port, as the Jebel Ali Free Zone hosts more than 800 Indian companies.
The Indian diaspora also comprises the Gulf countries’ largest expatriate community, with an estimated 7.6 million Indians living and working in the region. Saudi Arabia has 2.8 million, while the UAE has 2.6 million Indians. Bahrain has a 400,000 strong Indian diaspora.
India has maintained a strategic balance in its ties with the Middle East, especially between the three major poles of power — Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, through Modi’s outreach to strengthen ties with these nations. PM Modi has visited all the three countries — which are the power centres of Jews, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.
During his visit to the UAE, Modi will receive the Order of Zayed, the highest civil decoration of the UAE which was conferred earlier in April 2019 in recognition of his distinguished leadership for giving a big boost to bilateral relations between the two countries.
The fact that the Gulf nations and other Muslim majority nations like Malaysia and Turkey have chosen to ignore Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, is a clear indication of India’s deep ties with them, and in turn marks New Delhi’s strategic sidelining of Pakistan.