Why Gulf States Are Backtracking on India

Islamophobia is undoing years of New Delhi’s diplomatic gains in the Middle East.

By Sumit Ganguly, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and Nicolas Blarel, an associate professor at Leiden University.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) arrives with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prior to a meeting  in New Delhi on Feb. 20, 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) arrives with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prior to a meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 20, 2019. Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last several years, especially under the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India had made significant strides in its relations with the countries of the Persian Gulf. And it achieved those gains while also maintaining cordial ties with two of the principal antagonists in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. For an unabashedly Hindu nationalist government, this was no minor accomplishment, especially since Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates were historical partners of India’s archrival, Pakistan. But the relationships that New Delhi so carefully crafted over the past five years—drawing on the efforts of the previous government—are now at substantial risk. Domestic developments targeting its 200 million Muslims are beginning to unravel India’s diplomatic feat.The blatant abuse of India’s Muslim communities now places at risk New Delhi’s carefully tailored diplomatic approach to the Middle East.

Official reports suggest that the coronavirus outbreak has only had a limited impact on India’s population—at least so far. But despite the relatively low reported numbers of infections and deaths, India’s Muslim community has faced online and physical assaults during the coronavirus crisis—incidents in which members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also implicated. The attacks came in the wake of news that an Islamic sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, held a large annual meeting in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin district in early March, right as countries were beginning to restrict public gatherings to prevent the virus’s spread. With nearly 3,000 pilgrims from over a dozen countries packed in cramped quarters, the coronavirus spread rapidly; the assembly has now been identified as a major source of infections in India. There is little question that holding this meeting—despite widespread knowledge of the virus—was reckless. But the blatant abuse of India’s Muslim communities now places at risk New Delhi’s carefully tailored diplomatic approach to the Middle East, and especially toward the Gulf states.

In a rare public move, Princess Hend al-Qassimi of the UAE has been expressing her dissatisfaction with a rising Islamophobia among Indians. “I miss the peaceful India,” she tweeted on May 4. And that came after she directly highlighted a tweet from an Indian living in the UAE as “openly racist and discriminatory,” reminding her followers that the punishment for hate speech could be a fine and even expulsion. These statements have followed other expressions of concern over the BJP’s treatment of Indian Muslims from across the Islamic world, including from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which urged India to take urgent steps to protect the rights of its Muslim minority. This last criticism is particularly damning, as India had actively worked to repair its historically problematic ties with the group and had managed to be invited as guest of honor at the annual Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in March 2019.

This turn of events must be of concern to the Modi government. Through its so-called Think West policy, India had built robust bonds with the UAE and Saudi Arabia while maintaining its long-standing relationship with Iran and elevating ties with Israel. In August 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister in 34 years to travel to the UAE and visited the Emirates again in 2018 and 2019. During his last visit, he received the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civil decoration, in recognition of his role in improving ties between the two countries. Modi also traveled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Iran in a calibrated outreach to the Gulf region’s powers. All these trips were reciprocated by visits of Gulf dignitaries to New Delhi during the same time period.

The relationships fostered during Modi’s tenure have gone beyond symbolic visits and public rhetoric to substantial deals and significant diplomatic benefits. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become India’s fourth- and third-largest trade partners, respectively, as well as some of its largest sources of oil. Over the last five years, the two countries have also pledged a combined total of $170 billion to help India develop its infrastructure in the energy and industrial sectors. An important factor in the growing economic relations between India and the Gulf is the vast Indian diaspora in the region, with 2 million Indian expatriates in Saudi Arabia and around 3 million in the UAE, who respectively send $11.2 billion and $13.8 billion in remittances back home every year.

The diplomatic efforts of the last few years served to dilute Pakistan’s traditionally strong influence among the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have effectively de-hyphenated India and Pakistan and no longer view ties with the two South Asian countries as a zero-sum game. While both of these Gulf states maintain their political ties with Pakistan, they prioritize investments in India. This subtle shift has had a geopolitical effect, as both Gulf states have toned down their rhetoric condemning India on its policy toward Kashmir, a region disputed between India and Pakistan. For example, the timing of the announcement of Saudi Aramco’s $15 billion investment in India in August 2019, one week after New Delhi’s controversial move to revoke Kashmir’s special status, seemed like a gesture indicating that Saudi Arabia was no longer willing to let the Kashmir issue be an obstacle to better ties with India. Similarly, the UAE also announced that it viewed India’s Kashmir decision as “an internal matter”—New Delhi’s preferred language for its dispute with Islamabad.For the moment, India’s emergency diplomacy seems to have worked.

The Modi government’s active diplomatic outreach to the Gulf states and the increasing acknowledgment of India’s growing economic opportunities had, until recently, shielded India from official criticism over the discriminatory nature of India’s new citizenship law, as well as mounting reports of anti-Muslim violence following Modi’s reelection in May 2019. But blaming Muslims for the spread of the coronavirus in India seems to be a step too far for important actors in the Gulf—and could even upend its relations with the region. One key factor is that India’s approach toward Muslims is no longer simply an internal matter if its citizens based in the Gulf also promote Islamophobic rhetoric.

Criticism from noted Arab commentators such as the UAE’s Qassimi has led India to launch a damage control campaign. In a tweet in English on April 19, which was certainly directed toward both domestic and international audiences, Modi wrote that the coronavirus “does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking.” Online hate speech from Indians based in Gulf states also led to an unprecedented statement from the Indian ambassador to the UAE warning against discrimination. Other Indian embassies also urged the Indian diaspora to remain vigilant against statements that could sow religious discord. Recognizing the need to further placate rising concerns, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s minister for external affairs, spoke to his counterparts in the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia to reaffirm that India would continue to provide food supplies to Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and would make available any medical treatment required to fight the pandemic.

For the moment, India’s emergency diplomacy seems to have worked. Most Gulf states have noted and welcomed the clarifications that New Delhi has offered and have communicated their desire to maintain and deepen friendly ties. The question is whether India can bottle up the mood of hate speech it seems to have unleashed—not only to calm things domestically but also to prevent further diplomatic embarrassments. If not, among many potential fallouts, it threatens to rend apart the deftly woven fabric of its ties with the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Nicolas Blarel is an associate professor of international relations and the director of studies at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University. Twitter: @nicoblar