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Modi’s Burning Bridge to the Middle East

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin, May 2022
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin, May 2022
Lisi Niesner / Reuters

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, in 2014, India has seen a marked uptick in hate speech and violence directed at its Muslim minority. Western officials, including from the United States, have urged Modi and his BJP government to reaffirm India’s avowed pluralism, but they have exerted little pressure on New Delhi; India remains too important an economic and geopolitical partner in the wider contest with China.

In June, however, the darkening atmosphere of majoritarianism and illiberalism in India earned its strongest international rebuke so far. It came not from liberal Western governments but from a slew of Arab countries. In late May, Nupur Sharma, a BJP spokesperson, made disparaging remarks about the Prophet Muhammad in a television interview. Another BJP official, Naveen Jindal, soon amplified those comments on Twitter. They incensed many Indian Muslims, leading to protests and even riots. But they also upset governments in the Middle East, many of whom lodged formal protests with New Delhi.

The current fracas threatens to upend nearly a decade of deft diplomacy by Modi that had led to cordial relations with most Middle Eastern states. Modi is the only prime minister to have visited Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in one term. Under Modi, India has worked to secure its oil and gas requirements from the Middle East, which are critical to its energy security, and to ensure the welfare of the approximately nine million Indians residing in the Gulf states. This more active diplomatic engagement has also furthered trade, investment, and security ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, are consistently ranked among India’s largest trade partners. These ties are bound to grow following the recent free trade pact signed between India and the UAE, and the ongoing negotiations for a broader trade pact with the GCC. In a break with previous Indian governments, Modi has also promoted cooperation with the Gulf states to address shared concerns such as terrorism and maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. These interests have been reciprocal as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have increasingly seen India as an important emerging market for their energy exports, foreign investments, joint venture opportunities, and security provisions.

UNDER FIRE

Sharma’s remarks led Iran, Kuwait, and Qatar to summon India’s ambassadors, and led Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to issue statements of condemnation. Chastened, the Modi government was spurred into action. Within 24 hours, the BJP described Sharma and Jindal as “fringe elements,” suspending Sharma and expelling Jindal from the party.

The BJP’s quick and resolute reaction was striking for a number of reasons. Modi and other party leaders have been reluctant to rein in Islamophobic rhetoric from its officials in the past. In 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah described Bangladeshi Muslims as “termites.” In 2020, BJP members falsely accused a Muslim religious group of spreading COVID-19 in India. Just this June, a BJP member of Parliament likened the historical invasions of India by Muslim forces to the Holocaust. Those comments attracted no censure. The BJP has also shrugged off criticism from foreign governments about the majoritarian turn in India. In June, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar dismissed the concerns of his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, about the deteriorating environment for religious minorities.

But this time the criticism of Middle Eastern Muslim states stung New Delhi. India had seen many moments of troubling communal violence before Modi rose to power, and Arab countries and other Islamic states have denounced the policies of the Indian government and events in India in the past. The difference now, though, is that much more is at stake.

TOEING A BLOODY LINE

Since its independence, India has always been careful to proclaim its commitment to secularism in order to reassure its Middle Eastern partners about the well-being of its Muslim minority. India has long been home to many Muslims; its Muslim population, numbering some 200 million people, is the third largest of any country in the world, behind Indonesia and Pakistan. In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian outreach to Muslim countries was designed mainly to counter Pakistani rhetoric about the treatment of Indian Muslims, most notably in the context of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 1969. During this period, the Indian government was concerned about the security of key strategic maritime chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf, and the Suez Canal, in Egypt, and about regular access to oil to support its growing industrial sector. It adjusted its Middle East policy accordingly to preserve and protect these trade and energy interests. It was in this context that India initially sent a delegation to the first meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the OIC’s predecessor, in Rabat in 1969. Because of Pakistani opposition, however, the Indian delegation was forced to leave the conference and India never formally joined the organization.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a period of mounting Hindu-Muslim discord in India, with the Meerut riots of 1986, the insurgency in Kashmir in 1989, and finally the demolition by a Hindu mob of the centuries-old Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Middle Eastern states began to express growing concerns about the status of Indian Muslims. The condemnation of India’s behavior in Kashmir intensified in the early 1990s and went beyond the routine accusations of violation of human rights. The destruction of the Babri Masjid incited communal riots across the country and alarmed many governments of Muslim countries. The OIC meeting in Karachi in 1993 issued a resolution equating Indian human rights violations in Kashmir with atrocities in Bosnia, the Palestinian territories, and South Africa. The resolution also asked all member states to push India to permit the Kashmiris to exercise their right to self-determination. The OIC decided to grant observer status to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of various political, social, and religious organizations in Kashmir committed to self-determination. The condemnation at the OIC and the perceived animosity of Arab states also encouraged India to reassess its relations with Israel, with which it established diplomatic ties in 1992. The normalization of ties with Israel helped New Delhi to develop economic and defense ties with Tel Aviv. Over the span of the last two decades, Israel has emerged as one of India’s key weapons suppliers.

In 2002, bloody riots in Gujarat killed over 700 Muslims when Modi was the state’s chief minister. India came under scrutiny from Middle Eastern states and Modi endured a good deal of criticism. At the time, however, Modi was still not a significant figure in the international arena. Despite the bloodshed, the ambassadors of Gulf states in New Delhi during that period did not demand a briefing from the Ministry of External Affairs on the riots. By 2002, India’s economic growth, rising international influence, and new status as a nuclear weapons state had made it a major destination for exports and a venue for investments for most Middle Eastern states, which were no longer as vocal in their condemnation of the treatment of Indian Muslims.

COURTING THE MIDDLE EAST

After becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi sought to boost India’s ties with the Gulf and the Middle East in multiple realms, a process that had been started under his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. This outreach to the Gulf and other Arab countries stemmed from a number of factors: the long-term presence of nearly nine million Indian workers in Gulf states, who in 2019 contributed about $40 billion to the Indian economy in remittances—accounting for roughly 65 per cent of India’s annual remittances, or about three percent of India’s GDP—and the need to ensure a secure flow of commodities, crude oil imports, and investment from the Gulf. A third of India’s oil imports come from the GCC, and Qatar is also India’s leading supplier of natural gas. Beyond India’s energy requirements, bilateral trade with the GCC was estimated at $154 billion in 2021–2022, accounting for 10.4 percent of India’s total exports and 18 percent of India’s total imports. Modi has also sought to work with Gulf countries to crack down on Indian organized crime groups, as well as Indian and Pakistani terrorist organizations that found safe havens in the Gulf. Negotiations held during Modi’s numerous visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have notably led to key agreements ensuring the extradition of Pakistani and Indian terrorists, as well as limiting money laundering activities from these same groups in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Modi’s persistent diplomatic efforts to engage the Gulf states were also part of an effort to repair his tattered reputation following the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. Between 2015 and 2019, in an attempt to improve his image, he embarked on a series of high-level diplomatic visits to Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. He also resorted to some symbolic gestures, such as a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque during his Abu Dhabi trip in 2015, a visit that was perceived both as a homage to Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, and as a conciliatory gesture to the Muslim minority back home. Ironically, in early June, when the present controversy erupted, Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was on a similar visit to Qatar designed to burnish India’s image in the Gulf.

The growth of Islamophobia in India under the BJP has begun to alarm Gulf states more and more.

For their part, Gulf leaders were willing to embrace Modi no matter his role in the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Over the past two decades, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had started to strengthen relations with India, fearing a somewhat disengaged United States and an unreliable Pakistan. The 2006 visit of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to New Delhi was a watershed moment and quietly laid a strong foundation for bolstering ties. Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been investing in India’s national infrastructure projects, increasing non-oil trade with India, and expanding crucial imports from India ranging from vaccines to wheat.

Regional leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, saw their relations with India as essentially transactional; they cared little about the turns of domestic Indian politics. Additionally, the rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states under the auspices of the Abraham Accords further facilitated the Modi government’s engagement with various regional actors. For decades, India had carefully balanced its ties with Israel and Arab states in the region. The Abraham Accords enabled the Modi government to openly promote stronger multifaceted economic and security engagement with Israel and the Gulf countries simultaneously. Next month, India will also participate in a virtual summit known as I2U2, involving Israel, the UAE, and the United States.

NO GOING BACK

Out of ruthless pragmatism, Gulf leaders chose to remain mostly silent as the Modi government pushed forward measures that impinged on the rights of the Muslim minority, including a series of controversial laws that for the first time defined Indian citizenship on the basis of religion, threatening to strip many Indian Muslims of their citizenship. But the growth of Islamophobia in India under the BJP has begun to alarm Gulf states more and more. This is evident from the official statements of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the OIC condemning the remarks, and other states’ summoning of Indian ambassadors. Faced with this intensifying chorus of disapproval, India’s Ministry of External Affairs sought to emphasize India’s secular credentials. This time, however, the derogatory remarks made against the Prophet Muhammad, rather than policies or actions targeted specifically at Indian Muslims, have inflamed both elite and popular opinion across much of the Muslim world, and not merely the Middle East. The grand mufti of Oman, for instance, termed the BJP’s “obscene rudeness” toward Islam a form of “war” and called for a boycott of Indian goods. This call has been echoed through social media hashtags across the GCC and has put pressure on GCC governments to officially comment on the inflammatory remarks about the Prophet.

Modi’s deft diplomacy in the Middle East may now have run its course.

The Modi government may hope that it can insulate its bilateral strategic partnerships with the Gulf states from domestic political issues, but that approach may not be sustainable over time. Unlike earlier moments of discord when India was less invested in the Middle East, today it has extensive ties to the region. The growing socioeconomic links through migration and trade, as well the pace of information (and disinformation) shared through social media, have made it more difficult for the BJP and Gulf political elites to control public views of these fraught matters. These latest comments came from party functionaries rather than civilians, and as such have made Modi and the BJP directly accountable for the noticeable rise in Islamophobia in India.

Most important, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India is in the throes of a resource crisis as it grapples with rising food prices, a growing oil import bill, and a foreign exchange crunch. The welfare of the many members of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf is in question, as expatriates have expressed concerns about possible hostility and boycotts because of the derogatory comments. India is also wary of growing Chinese influence in that part of the Middle East, as China has invested in numerous local infrastructural projects. The Modi government’s insistence that it is committed to secularism is unlikely to mollify the aggrieved sentiments of many across the Muslim world in general, and Muslims in the Middle East in particular. Modi’s deft diplomacy in the Middle East, which had focused on the pursuit of common economic and security interests and sought to downplay events at home, may now have run its course.