Former Ambassador Navdeep Suri: “The UAE is our third trading partner; there are enormous economic stakes in the links with it’

In this edition of explain.Live, former Ambassador Navdeep Suri analyzes how the damage done to India’s image in GCC countries will require long-term public diplomacy to undo. The session was moderated by Deputy Head of National Office Shubhajit Roy.

On the importance of relations between India and West Asia

Many people in India do not understand the importance of the relationship with West Asia, especially the wider arc of the Gulf countries, from an Indian perspective. The first dimension of this relationship is historical. If we go back a hundred years, the only point of reference for people here was Bombay, where they came for trade, education, health and tourism long before they discovered London, Paris and New York with the oil boom. We need to reclaim this space, which we lost for a few decades after our independence in 1947. The trauma of partition blinded us to the reality that we had traditionally been a maritime nation. About 25 years ago the government launched the Look East policy, through which we improved our relations with Southeast Asia and now we have the Look West policy to resume our relations with the Gulf countries.

Our business ties anchor this relationship. While the United States is our number one trading partner, China is our second and the United Arab Emirates our third. In fiscal year 2021-22, trade amounted to $72 billion. Our trade with the GCC countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – is greater than our trade with the European Union. Last year, our exports to the United Arab Emirates amounted to approximately $32 billion, which is our second largest export destination after the United States. So there are huge economic stakes in the relationship. Major sovereign wealth funds like the PIF in Saudi Arabia, the Qatar Investment Authority in Doha and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority are pouring billions of dollars into the Indian economy and this is the kind of patient, long-term capital whose Indian economy needs.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is the second largest sovereign wealth fund in the world with assets of nearly $900 billion and they have invested in our national infrastructure fund. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy, highways, logistics and a range of new sectors.

Almost 60% of India’s imports from GCC countries are crude oil and natural gas. In the longer term, Gulf oil will always be more economically viable than the temporary situation with Russian oil. Therefore, our energy security critically depends on the Gulf countries.

Nearly 80 lakh Indians call either Gulf country their home. Unlike the Indian diaspora in the United States, Canada or elsewhere, virtually all are Indian passport holders, placed in premium groups like Lulu and Landmark. They are now investing in India. According to the World Bank, our total remittances worldwide last year were around $84-85 billion, two-thirds of which came from the Gulf.

From a strategic and military point of view, maritime communication routes in the Red Sea or the Gulf are crucial for us. Our ships can go even further by refueling and securing further facilities at Duqm in Oman, which then becomes a crucial strategic partner for the Indian Navy. Our intelligence cooperation has helped us break up terrorist networks like Dawood Ibrahim’s and bring back gangsters like Farooq Takla.

On the evolution of relations since 2014

I was ambassador to Egypt when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected. Their rulers then thought that his government would affect India’s relations with the Muslim world. Eight years later, with the exception of this recent incident (the Nupur Sharma incident), India’s relations with the Muslim world in general have never been better. The Modi government has invested enormous energy in the relationship. No Indian prime minister visited the UAE for 34 long years after Indira Gandhi in 1981 until Modi did in August 2015. Modi’s recent visit to Abu Dhabi was his fourth. Usually in diplomacy, relationships change gradually, but you can see the transformation this engagement has brought to our relationships. The Gulf was considered Pakistan’s strategic backyard because it is an Islamic republic. This has been true for a long time but has changed since the UAE moved to greater religious tolerance with now a dedicated ministry. Saudi Arabia has made great strides in changing its attitude towards terrorism. Posture changed dramatically after 9/11 when they started to see Pakistan as the problem and India as a secular and stable country in which they would like to invest. You have seen the transformation to such an extent that when Section 370 was revoked, none of the Gulf countries spoke against us. The UAE, in fact, said it was India’s internal affair. When the United Arab Emirates was hosting the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), they invited Sushma Swaraj, who was not just India’s foreign minister at the time, but a woman Hindu, as the main guest of honour. I want people to understand how far we have come in such a short time.

On Pakistan and terrorism

When 9/11 happened, it came as a shock to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudis and three Emiratis. They realized the influence not only of the Muslim Brotherhood through educational institutions, but also the reach of radical groups like Al-Qaeda through social media. They decided it was an existential threat and today there is zero tolerance for anyone who supports terrorism. They have taken significant steps to translate this intention into reality and in doing so, Pakistan has become part of the problem as a country harboring so many terrorist groups. The Emiratis have not forgotten or forgiven the fact that their ambassador to Afghanistan was blown up in Kandahar and there was a lingering suspicion that the trigger had been pulled across the border in Pakistan.

On the diplomatic side of Gulf relations

We should never put ourselves in the situation of either. We should have relationships with anyone who works with our national interests. Even in the worst of times, over the past two decades, we have spoken to Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Iranians and Qataris, even when they disagreed with the Emiratis.

There is no contradiction between the fact that we have excellent relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, even if the two do not necessarily speak to each other.

On the impact of Nupur Sharma’s remarks

The remarks were odious and of the nature of a personal purpose. It is very discouraging that such remarks come from members of the ruling party when the Prime Minister himself has invested so much in developing relations. It’s almost like saying the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Beyond that, isn’t it in our culture to respect other religions? Similar comments were made in France, the Netherlands and Denmark. Our notion of laïcité is different from the French notion of laïcité and it is worth looking at that separately. If in a single day, three Indian ambassadors are summoned, reprimanded and handed over a note of protest, that’s a big deal. For this to happen in Qatar, on the day our Vice President was in that country, is a great embarrassment. It was not a diplomatic failure, it was a political failure. We have to limit the damage.

I believe government-to-government (G2G) relations are resilient as there are deep national interests at stake. The damage to G2G relations is transitory, but the damage to India’s image in these countries is deeper and it will take a long-term public diplomacy effort to put the clock back to where it was. The slapped image is palpable in the Arab media with questions like: “Is the new India disrespectful to other religions? Far-right trolling hasn’t helped either.

I saw the Twitter feed of the Assistant Foreign Minister of Qatar, who simply retweeted her statement from the Foreign Ministry. But the abuse was unjustified. I am also aware that some of this is amplified by Pakistanis, bots and others with vested interests in embarrassing us. But our own people have no shortage of posting truly odious comments on social media without realizing that they are harming India’s interests. It will take time to undo this as we have shown an ugly side of India which may have been hidden before.

Questions from the audience

Which country is most dependent on the other

I don’t think we should put it in that wording. Today, if we want gas, I don’t think we have many options if the Qataris want to replace the Indians. There are a lot of other nationalities that could come to replace the Indians. There are interdependencies. Interests run deep on both sides. No diplomat would want to fall for the binary that you are trying to propose, which would go completely against our interests in the region.

Countering the influence of China

Over the past 10 years, China has made sweeping inroads into the Gulf, and it has done so on at least three levels, if not more, taking advantage of US disinterest. The first is major investments in infrastructure projects, some through the Belt-and-Road initiative, others through state-owned enterprises in key areas. The second is trade, with India having been supplanted by China as the UAE’s main trading partner. The third is the transfer of strategic military technologies to the Gulf.

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