Rethinking the relationship between India and the Arabs
The launching by the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center of a two-year research programme known as the GCC-India Research Group reflects the growing interest on both the Indian and Gulf sides in widening and deepening their relationship in many spheres.
The project was launched at a symposium held at the Gulf Research Centre, an independent think tank, on June 16. It is a joint initiative of Saudi businessman Abdel Aziz Sager, who is the founder and chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, and the Indian ambassador to the UAE Talmiz Ahmad. A workshop on the programme is expected to be held in India towards the end of this year.
The co-director of the GCC-India Research Group ,Christian Koch [pictured], told Al-Hayat that Centre aims in its research to be “very practical”, and that its research on the Gulf and India is not intended to be merely academic but to lead to specific policy recommendations.
Koch is currently drawing up a draft action plan for the project. The research will focus on politics, security, economics and energy, and social and cultural aspects. Koch’s fellow director of the Research Group, Ranjit Gupta, was in the Indian Foreign Service for 36 years and is India’s former ambassador to Yemen, Oman and several other countries.
The GCC-India Research Group project is one sign of a wish to put the relationship between the Gulf States and India on a more systematic and productive footing, beneficial to both sides. In a highly uncertain world where the old superpower balance no longer exists there are powerful new actors on the international political stage, including India. India is part of a group of four fast-growing developing economies known as BRIC –the initials of first names of Brazil, Russia, India and China. On June 19 the four BRIC countries held their first summit, in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
The Arab and Indian sides have vital mutual interests. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, total exports and imports between the Arab countries and India was $102 billion in 2007-08, and the figure is expected to rise to $500 billion in the next 10 years.
For India, which imports 75 per of its rapidly growing oil consumption and is the world’s fifth largest consumer of oil, there is a need to try to ensure security of oil supplies. The GCC is India’s second largest trading partner after the US.
India is very keen for increased investment from the Arab world. The president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Harsh Pati Singhania, recently told the Financial Express newspaper that “more than $2 trillion investable funds are lying at the disposal of Arab countries, which can be targeted for further growth and development of India’s infrastructure, industrial and services sectors on a sustained basis.”
India has the world’s second largest population of Muslims after Indonesia, of around 150 million. The employment of Indians is an important aspect of the GCC-India relationship. It is estimated that there are at least 4 million Indians in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, although considerable numbers have been leaving as a result of the economic downturn.
Beyond the economic issues, there are vital political and strategic considerations in the relationship between the Gulf and India. Since the ending of the Cold War, the international political and security map has been changing and power has been shifting towards Asia. India and the GCC are located in an area of high instability, which encompasses Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East crisis. At the same time the area is home to much of the world’s vital oil and gas resources.
This century so far has seen a major upswing in Arab Gulf contacts with India. King Abdullah’s visit to India in January 2006 was the first visit to India by a Saudi monarch for 51 years. There are some 1.7 million Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, and more than 100,000 Indians visit Saudi Arabia for the hajj every year.
The ‘Delhi Declaration’ signed during King Abdullah’s visit allowed for a “reliable, stable and increased volume of crude oil supplies to India through long-term contracts.” Both sides agreed on joint ventures and the development of oil and natural gas. A Saudi-India joint business council was also set up.
The high-level GGC-Indian contacts continue. In the second week of June the UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on a tour of seven Asian countries, became the first foreign minister to visit New Delhi since the new Indian government was formed following the elections.
One of his meetings was with India’s Minister of New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah. Abu Dhabi is seeking India’s support for the location of the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi wants to host the new agency in MASDAR City, the world’s first carbon-neutral city. But it is competing with three European countries – Germany, Spain and the Netherlands – to host the agency.
During his visit Sheikh Abdullah praised the role of the more than 1.5mn Indians in the UAE. The UAE has been looking at opportunities for investment in India, in infrastructure and other sectors. It is reported to have invested already over $4.5 billion there, and is among the top 10 investors in India. The two sides agreed to exchange cooperation in the energy sector, and especially in oil.
On the wider Arab level, India and the Arab League agreed last December to set up an India-Arab Cooperation Forum. The agreement was signed in New Delhi by India’s then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. The agreement is intended to strengthen relations in fields including culture, trade, energy and human resources. Moussa reiterated the Arab League’s condemnation of the terror attacks in Mumbai in November, and Mukherjee express strong concern over Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Mukherjee said India had always supported the Palestinian cause, and that there was much support for the Palestinian people among Indians.
It is not only Arab countries of the Gulf that hope to benefit from an improved relationship with India. Last year Syria’s president Hafez al-Assad visited India, the first visit there by a Syrian president since his father Hafez Al-Assad visited three decades earlier. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, Bashar Al-Assad urged India to play a bigger role in the Middle East peace process, and also expressed interest in India’s massive developments in the information technology field. He hoped India would be able to help Syria in this field. He also hoped for more Indian investment in Syria, where the Indian public sector company OVL is already deeply involved in oil exploration.
Although the Arab side has hoped for India to do more in the Middle East peace process, there is some unease over its growing relationship with Israel, which this year became India’s largest military supplier.
It was in 1992 that India upgraded its relations with Israel to ambassadorial level full diplomatic status, after the October 1991 Madrid peace conference. In 2003 Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Israel.
In February this year India signed a $1.4 billion anti-missile system deal with Israel, the largest-ever arms deal between the two countries. Israel will develop and manufacture seaborne and shore-based systems against missile attacks on India. The deal has caused considerable controversy in India, including allegations of bribes. In April India launched an advanced spy satellite bought from Israel to keep watch on the country’s borders; the satellite will also help Israel boost its intelligence gathering on Iran.
On the cultural side of the relationship between the Arab world and India, the India Arab Cultural Centre at the Jamia Illia Islamia (National Islamic University) in New Delhi has been playing a particularly active role. The foundation stone of the Center was laid by the then Saudi ambassador to India Saleh Mohammed al-Ghamdi in February 2007.
The centre’s director Zikrur Rahman[pictured] is a former diplomat who in a 35-year diplomatic career served in various Arab countries. He was at one time located in Ramallah, serving as Indian ambassador to Palestine. After retiring from the diplomatic service Rahman, who speaks Arabic fluently, decided that he wanted to promote Arab culture in India. “It was very unfortunate that in India, such a big country, there was not a single Arab cultural centre.”
The centre is playing a role together with Abu Dhabi’s huge translation and publication project Kalima, part of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, in translating books by Indian authors to Arabic. The centre translated a first batch of nine books over a period of six months, and they were published by Kalima.
The books by Indian authors writing in English which were translated to Arabic include “The Argumentative Indian” by the Nobel prizewinning Indian economist Amartya Sen; “The Shade of Swords: Jiihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity” by M J Akbar; “Moderate or Militant: Images of India’s Muslims” by Mushirul Hasan; “Being Indian” by Parvan K Varma, and “Nehru: The Invention of India” by Shashi Tharoor.
At the same time the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage is helping with the translation of Arabic works into Hindi and Urdu, including six books by Arab women writers.
Rahman told Al-Hayat that the centre is planning a four-day Arab film festival in August, with films from many Arab countries, and a retrospective of the films of the late Egyptian director Yousef Chahine. The inaugural film is expected to be “Al-Sefara fi El-Imara” starring Adel Imam. Before the screening of the film there will be a joint cultural programme presented by Arab and Indian dance troupes.
Rahman stresses the need for attention to be paid to the estimated 3 million Arabic manuscripts in Indian libraries, many of them unedited and unpublished. In October this year it is planned that a seminar on documents on the Arabian peninsula in Indian archives will be held at the India Arab Research Centre in cooperation with the King Abdulaziz Research Center of Riyadh.
In addition, the centre is planning to hold an international seminar on “understanding Arab culture”. Rahman says: “There seems to be an urgent need of such an event in particular after the neo-conservatives during the Bush era tried their best to distort the image.”
Indian film is very popular in some Arab countries. Dubai has hosted several Indian film award ceremonies and festivals, with Bollywood stars travelling to Dubai to take part. While a number of Bollywood films have been shot in Dubai, it was only this June that the first Bollywood film to be shot in Kuwait was released. The film [pictured] is entitled “Kahin Na Kahin Milenge” meaning “We Will Meet Somewhere”.
There are thought to be around half a million Indians in Kuwait. The film, which is in Hindi with Arabic subtitles, tells of an Indian family that has lived in Kuwait for 25 years. The only daughter of the family, Joyee, does not want to return back to live in India with her parents. The actress Manisah Kelkar, who plays Joyee, says the girl “loves her birth place, Kuwait, as much as her father loves his native country, India”. Kuwaiti ambassador Ajai Mathotra said that he hoped more Indian films would be shot in Kuwait. Some of the dance numbers are performed by local Kuwaiti men in dishdashas.
Despite the growing momentum in Arab, and particularly Gulf, interactions with India problems remain. Negotiations on a GCC-India free trade agreement began in 2004 but are still some way from a conclusion. There have been tensions over the relationship of Gulf countries with Pakistan, and on attitudes towards the Kashmir conflict. Terror attacks in India, and especially those in Mumbai last November, have raised security anxieties over the growth of Islamist extremism in the Indian sub-continent. There are also long-standing concerns about the treatment of Indian workers in certain Arab countries. The frank discussion of such issues will be an important part of attempts to deepen GCC-India relations.
original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat June 28 2009