External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is a good moment to reflect on the structural changes taking place in the Gulf and the region’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean. One of the contributions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy over the last six and a half years has been to elevate the Gulf and the Indian Ocean in India’s strategic priorities.
For decades, India’s mercantilism saw the Gulf as a source of oil and a destination for labour exports. Delhi’s narrow bureaucratic approach to the Gulf was incapable of a political engagement with the region’s interests. Although the Gulf kingdoms were eager to build strong and independent political ties with Delhi without a reference to Islamabad, Delhi viewed them through the prism of Pakistan. Over the last few years, Delhi’s mercantilism has morphed into a strategic embrace. Modi’s personal outreach to the Gulf rulers has helped crack open immense possibilities for political and strategic cooperation. But India has barely come to terms with the significant rise of “Khaleeji” or Gulf capitalism.
During the last six years, India’s perspectives on the Western Indian Ocean too have changed. Delhi’s traditional focus was riveted on Mauritius and the large Indian diaspora there. Modi’s visit to Mauritius and Seychelles in March 2015 saw the articulation of a long-overdue Indian Ocean policy and an acknowledgement of the strategic significance of the island states. Since then, South Block has brought Madagascar and Comoros along with Mauritius and Seychelles into the Indian Ocean Division. India also unveiled a maritime strategic partnership with France, a resident and influential power in the Western Indian Ocean.
During his visit to the Gulf, Jaishankar’s task is five-fold. First is the immediate need to shield India’s interests in the post-pandemic turbulence that is enveloping the region. The threat to the region’s economic stability is real, and as the Gulf considers cutting back on foreign labour, Delhi would want to make sure its workers in the region are insulated. The UAE alone hosts nearly three million Indian expatriates. Delhi is also eager to improve the working conditions of its large labour force — close to eight million — in the Gulf. Second is to focus on the new and long-term possibilities for economic cooperation with the Gulf, which is looking at a future beyond oil. The Gulf states have embarked on massive economic diversification and are investing in a variety of new projects including renewable energy, higher education, technological innovation, smart cities, and space commerce. Delhi must get its businesses to focus on the range of new opportunities in the Gulf.
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