Former ambassador Navdeep Suri: ‘UAE is our third largest trading partner; there are huge economic stakes in ties with it’

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

On the significance of the relationship between India and Western Asia

Many people in India do not understand how important the relationship with Western Asia, especially the greater arc of the Gulf States, is from an Indian perspective. The first dimension of this relationship is historical. Going back a hundred years, Bombay was the only point of reference for people here, where they came for trade, education, health care and tourism, long before they discovered London, Paris and New York with the oil boom. We need to reclaim that space, which we lost several decades after our independence in 1947. The trauma of Partition blinded us to the reality that we were traditionally a maritime nation. About 25 years ago, the government started the Look East policy, which helped us improve our relationship with Southeast Asia, and now we have the Look West policy, to reclaim our relationship with the Gulf States.

Our trade links anchor this relationship. While the US is our number one trading partner, China is number two and the UAE number three. During the 2021-2022 fiscal year, trade totaled $72 billion. Our trade with the GCC countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, UAE and Kuwait – is greater than our trade with the European Union. Last year, our exports to the UAE alone amounted to approximately $32 billion, which is our second largest export destination after the US. So there are huge economic interests in the relationship. The major sovereign wealth funds such as PIF in Saudi Arabia, the Qatar Investment Authority in Doha and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority invest billions of dollars in the Indian economy and this is the kind of patient long-term capital that the Indian economy needs.

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

Nearly 60 percent of India’s imports from the GCC countries are raw gas 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 depends to a large extent on the Gulf States.

Nearly 80 lakh Indians call some country in the Gulf home. Unlike the Indian diaspora in the US, Canada or elsewhere, these are virtually all Indian passport holders, placed with top groups such as Lulu and Landmark. They are now investing in India. According to the World Bank, our total remittances worldwide last year were about $84-85 billion, two-thirds of the Gulf.

From a strategic and military perspective, the shipping routes of communication in the Red Sea or the Gulf are crucial for us. Our ships can go so much further by refueling and getting other facilities at Duqm in Oman, which then becomes a crucial strategic partner for the Indian Navy. Our collaboration with intelligence agencies has helped us break through terrorist networks like Dawood Ibrahim’s and bring back mobsters like Farooq Takla.

On the changing relationship since 2014

I was ambassador to Egypt when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected. Their leadership had then believed that his government would affect India’s relationship with the Muslim world. Eight years later, save for this recent eruption (the Nupur Sharma incident), India’s relationship with the Muslim world in general has never been better. The Modi government has put a tremendous amount of effort into the relationship. No Indian Prime Minister visited the UAE for 34 long years from Indira Gandhi in 1981 to Modi in August 2015. Modi’s recent visit to Abu Dhabi was his fourth. Ordinarily, relationships in diplomacy change incrementally, but you can see the transformation this engagement has brought about in our ties. The Gulf was thought to be Pakistan’s strategic backyard as it is an Islamic republic. That was true for a long time, but changed since the UAE moved towards greater religious tolerance with now a ministry dedicated to it. Saudi Arabia has made huge strides in changing its stance on terrorism. Attitudes changed dramatically after 9/11, when they began to see Pakistan as the problem and India as a secular, stable country in which they would like to invest. You have seen the transformation to a point where when Article 370 was repealed, none of the Gulf States contradicted us. The UAE even went out to say it is India’s internal affair. When the UAE hosted the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), they invited Sushma Swaraj, who was then not only the foreign minister of India, but also a Hindu woman, as the main guest of honour. I wish people understood how much distance we traveled in such a short time.

About Pakistan and Terrorism

When 9/11 happened, it came as a shock to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi and three Emirates. They realized the influence of not only the Muslim Brotherhood through educational institutions, but also the reach of radical groups such as al-Qaeda through social media. They decided that this was an existential threat and that today there is zero tolerance for anyone who supports terrorism. They have taken great strides to turn that intention into reality and in the process Pakistan became part of the problem as a country that hosts so many terrorist groups. The Emirates have not forgotten or forgiven the fact that their ambassador to Afghanistan in Kandahar was blown up and suspected that the trigger had crossed the border into Pakistan.

On the Diplomatic Side of Gulf Relations

We should never put ourselves in the either-or situation. We should have relationships with everyone who works with our national interests. Even in the worst of times, over the past two decades, we have spoken to the Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Iranians and Qataris, even when they were at odds with the Emirates.

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

On the impact of Nupur Sharma’s comments

The comments were odious and had the character of a self-goal. It is very discouraging that such comments are coming from members of the ruling party when the prime minister himself has invested so much in developing the relations. It’s almost like saying that the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Apart from that, isn’t it part of our culture to respect other religions? Similar comments were made in France, the Netherlands and Denmark. Our notion of secularism differs from the French notion of secularism and it is worth looking at separately. If three Indian ambassadors are summoned, reprimanded and hand out a protest note in one day, it is a big problem. That it happens in Qatar, on the day our vice president was in that country, is a great shame. This was not a diplomatic failure, it was a political failure. We need to do damage control.

I believe that inter-government relations (G2G) are resilient because deep national interests are involved. The damage to G2G relations is transient, but the damage to India’s image in these countries is deeper and it will take an extensive long-term public diplomacy effort to put the clock back where it was. The image hit can be felt in the Arab media with questions such as: “Is the new India disrespectful to other religions?” The far-right trolling has not helped either.

I saw the Twitter feed of Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, who simply retweeted her statement from the foreign ministry. But the abuse was unjustified. I am also aware that some of this is reinforced by Pakistanis, bots and other people who have an interest in embarrassing us. But there is no shortage of our own people posting some really nasty 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 that may have been hidden before.

Questions from the public

Which country is more dependent on the other?

I don’t think we should put it in that wording. If we want gas today, I don’t think we have many options if Qataris want to replace Indians. There are a bulldozer of other nationalities that could replace the Indians. There are interdependencies. The interests run deep on both sides. No diplomat would want to fall into the binary you are trying to represent, which is completely contrary to our interests in the region.

On countering the influence of China

Over the past 10 years, China has made a huge breakthrough in the Gulf, and it has done so on at least three levels, if not more, taking advantage of the US disinterest. The first is major investment in infrastructure projects, some through the Belt-and-Road initiative, some through state-owned companies in key areas. The second is trade, with India ousted by China as the largest trading partner in the UAE. The third is the transfer of strategic military technologies in the Gulf.

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