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The important role of Indian diaspora in country’s Gulf policy

By Dr Anisur Rahman

Indian diaspora is emerging as a vital factor in our foreign policy which was not the case in the 1950s and the 1960s. It is interesting to note that there was a visible shift in India's foreign policy since the 1970s which was clearly seen with each successive government. Events like 1970's global financial disruption and balance of payment crisis compelled India to alter its policy. It is now evident that India's Diaspora policy has evolved over time from disengagement to active engagement. Several initiatives have already been taken for the benefit of India and for its Diaspora. Recently a landmark bill has also been passed by the Parliament that extends voting rights to the overseas Indians. They will now be able to actively participate in Indian elections.

Diaspora is considered as a soft power in the foreign policy strategy which germinates from India's moral and political philosophy shaped by Indian thinkers like Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. It is also considered as a catalyst for economic development in India and host countries. There are over 31 million Indian Diaspora that is spread over more than 134 countries in the World. The Gulf is one of the strategically important regions where more than 8 million Indian diaspora community lives. It is clear that more than one-fourth of the total Indian diaspora lives in this region. It is thus important to develop a more cordial and stronger relationship with this region. Keeping it in view, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting the UAE and Bahrain from August 23-25, 2019 for strengthening bilateral relations.

Concerning India's foreign policy, it is primarily based on its cultural legacy, historical linkages, geopolitical and economic considerations. Its deeper relationship with the Arab countries is civilizational, as its roots could be traced for many centuries. Indian astronomy, numeral science and Ayurveda were well known to the world that attracted several Arab travellers to the coastal region of India. Many Indian merchants went to this region for trade and investment. Thus, people to people contacts have been found to be strong for a long time. Our relations have been strengthened further especially with the Gulf countries that include Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These bonds are still improving and they are coming closer considering their mutual interests in terms of trade, energy and Indian diaspora.

Our priority to the Gulf is mainly due to a large influx of labour from India to the GGC countries. There are over 8 million Indian community living in the Gulf region. The oil boom of 1973 led to a migration of both skilled and semi-skilled workers from India to the Gulf countries. The boom not only led to the unprecedented economic advancement of the region but also attracted a large labour force from abroad to meet its growing labour requirements. Therefore, it is important on the part of the policymakers to make Indian Diaspora a reference point in formulating India's foreign policy. On the other side, Saudi Arabia and UAE are in search of investment partners, so maintaining cordial relations with the region becomes vital. The proportion of non-citizens in the Gulf has steadily increased which is contrary to the plans and desires of the Gulf countries. The percentage of expatriate workers in the GCC countries grew from 22.9 per cent in 1975 to 38.5 per cent in 2002. The total percentage share of foreign nationals in the GCC countries accounts for 51 per cent today. The composition of Indians is more than 30 per cent of the total expatriate workers in the region.

Remittances are considered to be one of the important sources of income in many developing economies including India. This is because remittances contribute significantly in foreign exchange earnings, GDP growth of nations and improved conditions of the migrants' families. India is the world's largest remittance recipient country with $79 billion in 2018. With regards to the Gulf, the total share of remittances from Saudi Arabia was $11.2 billion, Kuwait $4.6 billion, Qatar $4.1 billion, Oman $3.3 billion and UAE $13.8 billion in 2018. In addition, the role of social remittance is also significant as Gulf migrants bring them home. Social remittances refer to new ideas, know-how, work culture, discipline, knowledge, scientific outlook, new skills, etc. As a result, it is noticed that there is a visible positive change in the attitude of migrants'families towards Indian society.

On the other hand, protecting the rights of Indian workers in the Gulf region, several memoranda of understanding (MoUs) have been signed between India and the Gulf countries. In spite of these MoUs signed one cannot overlook the violations of Human rights of the migrant workers. The workers employed in the destination countries are subjected to abuse and exploitation, long tedious working hours, delays in payment to name a few. Public sector jobs are reserved for the nationals and private sector jobs for the migrants who come under the system of Kafala an 'employment framework in the Gulf' whereby a national employer sponsors a migrant. This framework has been criticised by human rights activist as it leads to exploitation of the migrant worker in the host countries.

There is a need to further strengthen our relations with West Asia, especially the Gulf countries. The West Asian countries have fully realized the economic and diplomatic potentials of India. They are willing to widen their ties with India in strategic fields. Working together would enable them to meet the challenges of contemporary times. India can be instrumental in promoting stability in the region, which also helps its own energy and security requirements, and workforce employment. It would be in our own interests to further develop economic, diplomatic and cultural relations with these countries. Emphasis should be given to diversify relations beyond trade and energy and focus on human resources. We must develop a sound bilateral labour policy that addresses the issues concerning the Indian labour working in the region for our mutual benefits.

(Author is Professor and Director, UGC- Human Resource Development Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal)