Modi’s Bahrain Visit Affirms Strong Mid-East Ties
Bahrain conferred on Modi their highest honor, the King Hamad Order of Renaissance. (Photo: IANS/PIB)
By Aditi Bhaduri

Modi’s Bahrain Visit Affirms Strong Mid-East Ties

Sep. 11, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Bahrain came amidst much fanfare and interest. He is the very first Indian prime minister to visit the Gulf state, considering that the two countries have shared close ties for centuries. The Hindu temple whose restoration Modi inaugurated in the capital Manama is two hundred years old, testifying to the centuries-old ties between the Gulf region and the Indian subcontinent. Students from Bahrain have been coming to India for higher studies since the 1970s. Indian workers have been calling Bahrain home since the Gulf boom began but also even earlier. It was a matter of pride for most Indians when their Prime Minister inaugurated the renovations of the 200 years old Srinathji Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, during the festive days celebrating his birth.


Bilateral trade increased by 20 percent for two consecutive years and now stands at USD 1.28 billion. Invest Bahrain is looking to invest USD 500 million into India and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. signed an expression of interest for joint exploration in the newly discovered tight oil and shale gas reserves in the Khaleej al Bahrain basin.


Modi traveled to Bahrain from the UAE, which was his first visit to the region since assuming office in his second term as PM of the country. In Abu Dhabi, amongst other things, he was honored with the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian order. It had been conferred on him just on the eve of the parliamentary elections, and he was formally awarded it when he visited. Not to be outdone, Bahrain too conferred on him their highest honor – the King Hamad Order of Renaissance. Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Shaikh Abdallah Al Khalifa called Modi’s visit of “exceptional importance” to the Kingdom.


For Modi, the trip could not have come at a more opportune moment – facing flak from the opposition at home, unflattering international press, and hysteria from neighbor and arch rival Pakistan over his most recent bold move to reorganize the state of Jammu and Kashmir – India’s only Muslim majority state and strip it over its privileges.


To be received on the red carpet by two powerful Muslim countries which have significant clout over Pakistan, as over much of the Muslim world, made for good diplomacy and valuable photo-op, signalling an endorsement of his actions. Both countries had made their position clear that it was a domestic matter and relations with Pakistan were to be dealt with bilaterally between India and Pakistan.


But why did Bahrain – and the UAE – for that matter give Modi this cover?


No doubt, such visits were decided days in advance and it probably was a stroke of good luck that the timing turned out to be soon after Modi’s Kashmir move when Pakistan was majorly playing spoiler, trying to drum up diplomatic pressure on India to revoke its decision, even taking the matter to the UN Security Council (where it came to naught).


Nevertheless, the Gulf states had their own reasons too for wanting to provide Modi this cover. Here it is important to heed the words of Abdul Nabi Al Shola, Bahrain’s former Minister for Labor when he said, “Bahrain had a very long relationship with India and we are doing extremely good when it comes to cultural trade and commercial relationships.” But, he added, “It is time for us to make vital relationship by cooperating in areas related to security and defense.”

It is clear to analysts and observers of the region that after decades of depending and outsourcing its security concerns to its Western allies – primarily the US – the Gulf countries are having a rethink and coming into their own as far as the security architecture of the region is concerned. The rivalry with Iran and the Shia country’s widening footprint in the region has forced the countries to hedge their bets.


For all the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), regime survival is the top priority and much of their defense is geared up to that end. Iran’s backing of political Islam, and its increasing closeness with Sunni Turkey and Qatar who back the Muslim brotherhood is ominous for the GCC countries, all of whom are primarily Sunni but with pockets of Shia population.

India has long signed strategic partnership with the UAE and has robust defense, security, and counter-terrorism cooperation with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

If during the Syrian civil war, it was then US President Barack Obama who dithered and refused  to decisively intervene to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad as the GCC would have wished for, then now it is the season for President Donald Trump to dither as tensions escalated in the Gulf region between the GCC states like UAE and Saudi Arabia and Iran on the other hand. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s presence at the G7 summit in August 2019 also did not bode well for them. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed rebels are gaining in strength, with increasingly bolder attacks at targets inside Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, President Bashir who had been propped up with GCC money has been overthrown, while a stalemate persists in Libya. Iran is also increasing its influence in Iraq, and its proxies are strewn across the region.


For long now countries across the Middle East have been scouting for non-western allies. Whether Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, or Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or Shia Iran, the region has increasingly been looking east – Russia, China, India, South Korea.


Against such a backdrop, it has become easier to forge ties with India given the country’s closeness and proximity to the Gulf region, with ties dating back centuries, strengthened especially during the British Raj. The modern Gulf’s development occurred on the backs of South Asian labor. The allure of Indian labor increased after the second Gulf War – Indians were good workers, kept a low profile, demanded lower wages and harbored no political ambitions in their host countries, unlike many Arab and non-Arab Muslim workers. In turn, this labor pool became one of the leading sources of hefty foreign remittances back to India.


Increasingly, India with its growing economic clout and currently the world’s third largest energy consumer which imports 80 percent of its energy requirements, has become a coveted market and an attractive destination for investments from the GCC. Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC became the first foreign company to build strategic oil reserves in India. In turn India has also emerged as a source of FDI into these countries. Soon after Modi’s announcement of his Kashmir move, Saudi Aramco signed a USD 15 billion agreement with India’s Reliance Industries Ltd. Acknowledgement of India’s other achievements are also reflected in the agreements signed between India and Bahrain for cooperation in outer space and in space technology.


But more importantly, the region has also been increasing cooperation with India in defense and counter-terrorism since 9/11 and deepened after the Mumbai 2008 attacks, with joint naval exercises and intelligence sharing.


The Gulf states has been spooked by the increasing sectarian rifts and conflicts in the region, especially the rise of the Sunni terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which has vowed to change the status quo in the region, even targeting the Saudi kingdom. Since ISIS, by most estimates, remains far from being vanquished, the Gulf states all have a stake in engendering pluralism and tolerance to blunt the religious radicalism that has been harbored and stoked across the region for decades.


Bahrain, as a Sunni regime ruling over a large Shia population, is in particular invested in this. The kingdom also has been playing a greater diplomatic role in the region’s politics. It hosted recently a workshop on an economic peace plan mooted by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump, to settle the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Raising many eyebrows, the kingdom also issued visas for Israeli journalists to travel there to cover the workshop. Bahrain has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Furthermore, its foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa also invited flak from rivals Turkey and Qatar. In an interview to Israeli journalists, he affirmed the existence of Israel and its acknowledgement by the kingdom, wishing “better relations and eventually ‘peace’ with Israel” which was “a part of the [Middle East] region and “there to stay”, soon after its embassy in Baghdad was targeted by alleged supporters of Iran. The kingdom, like other GCC states, has been cultivating ties with Israel, as both have a common enemy in Iran.


Therefore, it is not surprising that India, the third largest energy consumer in the world, with its galloping economy, fourth largest army in the world and a responsible nuclear power, is a coveted partner for states in the region it considers to be its extended neighborhood. India has long signed strategic partnership with the UAE and has robust defense, security, and counter-terrorism cooperation with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Bahrain is the latest country, with a security dialogue already underway with India. The joint statement signed between the two sides confirmed their “condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators and their motives, and they agreed to further enhance cooperation in the field of security, counter-terrorism and the exchange of intelligence and information”. The two sides also exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual interest.


The issue, therefore, is not one of the Gulf states turning a blind eye to Kashmir, it is that none in the region really wish to see the emergence of yet another entity which is in the grip of radical Islam. And Modi, with his resounding electoral victory, comes across as a strong leader, someone the Gulf states can do business with.

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