Meeting the test of the times

A different kind of engagement is evolving between the time-tested friends, India and the Gulf-Arab region, says Talmiz Ahmad, India’s ambassador to the UAE, in an exclusive interview with T. Ramavarman of Khaleej Times. Excerpts of the interview

By (In Depth)

Published: Fri 20 Jun 2008, 9:13 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 6:33 PM

Can we look at some of the nuances of the historical aspects of the Indo-Gulf ties?

Over several centuries, India has had a deep relationship with countries in the Arabian Peninsula, which was mutually beneficial. However, since India was a large and prosperous country historically, the Gulf region got much of its daily necessities like food and clothing from India. The region was also getting luxury items like jewellery and silk from India. India used to be among their tourism destinations and a source of culture. Major mercantile families in the Gulf countries used to keep some of their family members in India to conduct their trade activities there.

How did such a deep trade relation evolve between India and the Gulf countries?

People in the coastal areas of the Gulf region had behind them no arable hinterland. Life in the Arabian Peninsula could not be sustained on the basis of domestic resources alone. The only life-supporting things available were fish from the sea, dates from the palm trees, some animals like camel, sheep and goat. So they had to reach out to other countries to meet their necessities. That’s how the people of the coastal regions became seafarers and merchants. Close to them, across the Arabian Sea, lay India, rich with resources.

The relationship between India and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula originated from the period of the Indus Valley Civilization. Omanis were navigators, and it is possible that they got the teak wood and coir for making the ships from India, Malabar in the south. Similarly, no metal was available in the region to make nails. The wooden sheets of the boats used to be sewn together with knots made of coir brought from Malabar.

These relationships were probably initiated from India, from Malabar. The people from there could have brought the teak and coir to the Gulf and it is after this that the Arabs possibly started making boats here. Subsequently, they would have started going to places like Harappa, in the north, to get foodstuff, particularly wheat. The remains of the containers that were used to bring wheat from India had been found in Sur in Oman. Some glass beads and ivory combs were also discovered in the region. There is much evidence of maritime connections between the Gulf region and Malabar, Kutch and Gwadar some 5,000 years ago. Arab traders were also carrying the items from other countries in the East to the markets of the West like Greece and Rome through land and sea routes. Even during the British colonial period, people-to-people relationship between India and the Arab countries continued, and trade continued to flourish.

When did the relationship change in the recent past?

The relationship underwent a qualitative change from the 1970s. The flow of huge funds from oil industry to the Arab region was the prime mover of those changes. The countries of the region no longer had to depend on India as the only source for items of necessity and luxury. India continued to export items like basmati rice, clothing, silk and jewellery to the Arab countries. But India was not their prime supplier.

The tourism interests of the GCC countries have also got globalised and Arabs started going in larger numbers to the West. The West was also providing the technology and the equipment required by the fast-growing oil industry and the other sectors that began growing in the region over the years. Infrastructure development, for instance.

But the countries in the region did not have the manpower to implement their gigantic projects. India could meet this requirement.

How did the flow of manpower from India to Gulf begin?

Dependence on India for manpower was slow in the beginning. Initially the Yemenis had the monopoly in the manpower sector here. Then came the Egyptians, and then the Pakistanis. India’s position was the fourth. In 1982, Saudi Arabia had a Yemeni population of 3million, Egyptians were more than 1million and Pakistanis were more than half a million. Indians were only a quarter of a million.

However, by 2,000, the population of Indians there (Saudi Arabia) grew to 1.5 million. The strength of the Indian population grew to 3.5-4million by then in the region as a whole--way ahead of every other country. In 2008, the number of Indians in the region is about 5million and is the largest, compared to any other country.

Today, the representation of Indians in the GCC countries is very strong. Every social stratum has that representation. We have Indians working here as businessmen, professionals, white collar non-professionals, and, of course, there is the labour, skilled and unskilled. No other country has such a spread and depth in terms of manpower representation in the GCC.

How do you see the role that the Indian manpower is playing in the GCC countries?

If you consider the local community as the owners of the economy here, the Indian community complements them and makes them into a viable economic society. India brings into the region people from all strata it requires. All the other nationalities in the region are support factors in this integrated entity.

The profile of Indians varies from state to state. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the number of Indian professionals is relatively less in terms of the total population while in Oman their number is quite high. Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait have large numbers of Indian professionals and businessmen. In the case of UAE, especially in Dubai, we have a very strong Indian business community.

Aren’t changes taking place in the profile of the Indian workers in the recent periods?

Just like Indians were replacing the Yemenis, Egyptians and Pakistani workers in the 1970s and 1980s, Indians are now getting replaced by the Bangladeshis and Nepalese in the unskilled and semi-skilled areas. Indian workers are getting upgraded, from semi-skilled to skilled, from skilled to technicians, and from white collar non-professionals to professional. These changes are also happening within the families of the expatriate communities. A person from India who had first come to Saudi Arabia as a clerk, or attendant or salesman in the 1970s, now sends his son as an engineer or a professional in other branches.

You were also mentioning about the changes in the manpower needs of the region?

Yes, the region is shifting from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. Dubai, for example, wants to become a global service provider. So you should be able to provide the manpower equipped to meet those requirements, in large numbers. The region will require large number of engineers, architects, IT specialists, managers, accountants and the like.

At present, 65 per cent of the Indian expatriates are blue collar workers in the UAE. But as the needs of the knowledge-based economy expand, I foresee the emergence of a different profile of the Indian community here. In the UAE, for example, by 2010-2015, the Indian community could comprise 50 per cent of labour and at least 35 to 40 per cent professionals.

Why do you think should the Gulf countries rely on India for its changed manpower requirement?

Because India alone has the capacity to provide manpower in such large numbers. I have called India a 'treasure-trove' for manpower. There are about 200 nationalities working here. But India alone has the numbers.

How have the changes in India affected this?

India today is not only a robust economy, but a globally engaged economy as well. So the Indians are global players now. An Indian professional is not seduced just by the Gulf; his hunting ground stretches from Istanbul to Wellington.

India is also evolving in its own way. There is a construction boom in all parts of our country, with the rise of the middle class. India will continue to send large number of workers to the Gulf. But you will have to compete for this 'globalised' Indian. However, they will continue to remain the largest community here, as no other country has emerged to replace it.

What is the Unique Selling Point (USP) of Indian workers?

They are qualified. But one of the unique qualities that distinguish Indian workers is that they keep off from criminal activities, and they are very disciplined. Secondly, they don’t involve themselves in local politics. They are very strong political animals, but their political interests relate only to their home, say, New Delhi or Thiruvananthapuram, and not Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

They have no interest in extremism, confrontation or violence. No Indian has become a jihadi in the Gulf. Their approach is inherently accommodative. The Indian ethos nurtures in you the spirit of accommodation and multiculturalism. That is why the Gulf welcomes Indians. They find Indians adjusting very quickly to the cultural needs and life of this place.

What are the prospects of the revival of the ancient Silk Routes?

The emergence of India and China as significant economic players in the regional and world affairs is an important factor that is contributing to revival of the traditional Silk Routes. Emergence of Central Asian Republics as independent countries, from their earlier marginal stature of Soviet Empire is another factor.

The third factor is the enhanced role in the global economy of emergence of West Asian countries as a result of the high oil prices. They now possess astronomical resources with them, not just for parking in Western banks or financial institutions, but to invest in Asia. There is now a ‘Look East' policy. The booming economies of China, India and other Asian countries are certainly bright spots for luring those investments. Markets of Asia are getting integrated through the lubrication of energy, trade and investments.

Almost all the needs of the region are being met from Asian products. Energy product of Asia is being increasingly consumed inside Asia. For example, 55 to 60 per cent of the oil produced in West Asia is being consumed in Asia. Trade within Asia is far beyond the trade that Asian countries have outside Asia.

India’s trade with GCC countries is $60 billion, including oil. If you add remittances to that, the value of the economic relationship comes to $75 billion. This is more valuable than the relationship that India has with any other regional grouping. China’s economic relationship with the GCC is valued at over $150 billion. So trade, energy and investment are the three pillars of the new Silk Route that is emerging within Asia.

What are its political implications?

I am not suggesting that the 'Resurgent Asia' is a political entity. Resurgent India and Resurgent China are all part of the global resurgence. Our approach is global.

However, our neighbourhood and region have often been the arena of power politics, imported into the region and damaging it. This is likely to change. The ability of the Western powers to intrude into the affairs of our region, like the US intervention in Iraq and the continued confrontation in Iran, is likely to be replaced with a more cooperative approach. The countries of the region will play a larger and more responsible role in such a scheme of things.

Asia today is poised to translate its economic capabilities into more active political and security role. The power equation of the world is likely to change; but which direction that change will take place, what shape or what is the likely time-frame, these are certainly matters of speculation. I am also not suggesting that the old order represented by Western imperialism is going to be dead. Imperialism never, never gives up.

Lenin described imperialism as the highest form of capitalism...

It (imperialism) reinvents itself, and will attempt to undermine the kind of consensus that is evolving within Asia. But it is for us to stand firm and ensure that the intra-regional conflict is not encouraged. We should be able to nurture a regional consensus through the spirit of accommodation for mutual benefit.

The countries in the region will have to address the problems of poverty and political conflict. We will be able to meet the promise of a larger role only if we are able to tackle these challenges effectively.

What are the prospects of the flow of investments from GCC to India?

They are looking at India as an attractive investment destination. India, with its huge economy, is a valued and desirable partner for the GCC countries. I am not thinking of India having a monopoly over the GCC investments. They have enough money to put in different countries. I am also thinking of their going with investments and our expertise to other countries in Central Asia, Africa and others. They would value our expertise, technology, educational facilities, and finance.

When you are sliding down, you are frightened, insecure, no new ideas come to you, and you are not sure of what is possible. But when you are on a resurgent curve, the opportunities are endless. You feel there is no limit to what you can achieve. And that is where we are today in Asia.

Is there adequate appreciation of these vital dimensions of Indo-Gulf relationships in New Delhi?

Our ties with the West Asian countries have not traditionally been government-led. They have been people to people, company to company, corporate to corporate. Governments at the end of the day, can only be guides to show the way and clear the obstacles.

The strength of the Indian expatriates in the Gulf countries doubled from 2.5million in 1990 to 5million in 2008. In 1980, you hardly had 1million people here. This astounding growth in our presence here occurred because of the decisions of the individual Indians and the companies over here. The governments had nothing to do with this. But today, when New Delhi looks at the region, it realises this is the country's largest economic partner. More than 5million of its people are there. Two-thirds of oil supply to India comes from here. That more is to be done promote political dialogue and understanding. Now, the political relationship has received a new impetus on both the sides because of the emerging economic realities.

Frankly speaking, the Gulf also showed little interest in entering into a substantive political dialogue with India for much of the 1980s and 1990s. It was only towards the end of the 1990s and beginning of this century that the Gulf countries started looking at the possibility of a political engagement with India. This was primarily in the background of the high growth rates achieved by the Indian economy, particularly in the services sector.

The visit of Jaswant Singh to Saudi Arabia in January 2001 was the first-ever visit by an Indian Foreign Minister to that country. This paved way for a new beginning to the political dialogue between India and the Kingdom. We had some delays in developing this initiative in the aftermath of 9/11 events. But since 2004, we had a continuous engagement at the highest political level between India and the countries of Gulf.

India has also recognised the need for more dialogue with the Gulf countries to institutionalise the growing political and defence cooperation.

Therefore, you have the foreign office consultations and specialised groups on various affairs like defence cooperation, internal security, trade and investments. There is now a tremendous enthusiasm on both the sides to build the relationship. We are looking at how far we can go, what direction we can go and what content we give into these ties. But the possibilities are infinite.

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