At this crucial juncture when almost every part of the globe is engulfed by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the current Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has taken a step forward by providing medical assistance to some of its international partners. Lately, India has been propagating the ancient Sanskrit dictum Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning “the world is one family.” Further promoting this philosophy, India, despite the existing domestic challenges emanating out of the pandemic, has decided to render possible help to countries like the United States, a few European, African, and Latin American countries, as well as countries in the Middle East by providing medicines and sending medical professionals. In addition to this, during the initial days of the pandemic, Modi took preemptive diplomatic steps by reaching out to India’s immediate neighbors in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), with the sole objective to kickstart collaborative measures and efforts to contain the spread of the disease in the region. Such a goodwill reflected the evolving nature of the Indian foreign policy, and this has gradually been acknowledged by other countries, including the United States.
While the current Indian government has been placing immense importance on promoting its “Neighborhood First” policy (mainly focusing on South Asia), it is simultaneously strengthening overall cooperation with its “extended neighbors.” This is where the Middle Eastern countries come to the fore. Lately, India’s cooperation with this region has become more comprehensive, moving beyond the oil-energy trade to include military-security ties, maritime cooperation, strategic oil reserves, joint energy exploration projects, and mutual investments. For instance, with total bilateral trade of $34.03 billion (2018-2019) and $60 billion (2018-2019), Saudi Arabia and the UAE are India’s fourth and the third largest trading partners, respectively. Both these Gulf countries are aspiring to increase their trade volume and investments in India during the next couple of years. Alongside this dimension, which is important for India’s economic growth, both sides have also taken note of the need to strengthen bilateral engagements in the health and medicine sectors. During the last few years, India has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with Oman (February 2018, during Modi’s visit to Muscat), Israel (January 2018, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s India visit), Saudi Arabia (October 2019, during Modi’s Saudi Arabia visit) and Jordan (March 2018, during Jordanian King Abdullah II’s visit to India). These agreements have encouraged cooperation in a wide range of fields, including health, medical science, medical education, and research, as well as the establishment of joint working groups for smooth and regular discussions on these issues.
As early as April 1, Modi and his Kuwaiti counterpart, Sheikh Sabah Al-khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, held a phone call to discuss “the domestic and international aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” Both these leaders flagged the need to maintain regular contacts during the crisis as well as to exchange relevant information on the pandemic, and to jointly explore possible cooperation to tackle this problem. It was following this that India dispatched 15 of its doctors and healthcare professionals to assist the efforts of the Kuwaiti government in its fight against the pandemic. The quick decision taken by the Indian government was timely considering the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Kuwait, including 785 Indians infected in this Gulf country alone (as of April 16). Indeed, out of the total 3,336 Indians who have tested positive for COVID-19 across 53 countries, 2,061 are in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Amid this development, the repatriation of unauthorized Indian residents from Kuwait to India poses a challenge for both countries. In view of the outbreak, however, Kuwaiti authorities “started processing applications from Indian workers under the amnesty scheme declared by its government.” This initiative would allow such people until April 30 to leave the country without paying any fines.
On a similar note, India has discussed COVID-19 with Jordan, which is one of its strongest partners in the Middle East. This “semi-rentier and resource-starved country,” so far, is managing the pandemic satisfactorily with the involvement of several authorities, including its security forces. Having signed an MoU for cooperation in the field of health and medicine in March 2018, both countries, during an April 17 phone call between Modi and King Abdullah II, have “agreed to support each other’s efforts to the maximum possible extent, by sharing information and best practices and by facilitating needed supplies.” Jordan is also one of the countries to whom India has supplied hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which shows promise as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Oman also receives the same medicine. It is, therefore, timely and significant that India lifted the ban on the export of such drugs in early April this year.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), another strategic partner, is also in close consultation with India on the COVID-19 pandemic. Following a request from the Emirates, India is reportedly fast-tracking required procedures to supply the former with HCQ. Amid the grave situation, however, there is the possibility of India-UAE ties getting strained over the issue of expat repatriation to India. While certain difficulties under the current scenario are understandable, it’s not expected that a true bone of contention will emerge from the issue, at least at this juncture. Both countries are mature enough to handle the issue amicably, keeping in mind their respective national interests. In fact, the reported indication that India’s director general of civil aviation (DGCA) will consider “specially approved flights” to bring home Indians stranded in the UAE and other Gulf countries before the end of the Indian lockdown on May 3 ushers in a new hope in this regard.
Modi also held a phone call with Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, king of the Kingdom of Bahrain, where both sides agreed to support each other in dealing with the pandemic.
Apart from the above-mentioned Arab countries, India has also provided medical-related and humanitarian assistance to Israel, which is one of its largest arms suppliers. Following Netanyahu’s request in mid-March for his Indian counterpart to allow the export of masks and pharmaceutical raw materials, India sent five tonnes of medicines, including HCQ, to Israel, in early April 2020. Beyond this, the Indian government successfully evacuated over 500 Israeli citizens in two separate trips conducted by Air India on March 26 and 27, earning praise from Israeli Ambassador Ron Malka. Meanwhile, in Israel, Indian students have “volunteered in collecting and testing blood samples” and are helping the Israeli authorities in the fight against the pandemic. These acts in a time of severe crisis will undoubtedly help forge closer relations between India and the mentioned countries.
In view of the above-discussed developments, India has accorded significant importance to its relations with the countries in the Middle East, where approximately 10 million Indians currently reside, sending home nearly $40 billion in remittances annually. Indeed, the outbreak of this pandemic has made both sides realize the need to intensify cooperation in the healthcare sector. As most of the major countries have already signed health-related MoUs or agreements with India, it should not be a herculean task to augment engagements in this sphere.
Although the immediate concern of governments on both sides for now is to contain the ongoing pandemic, the time is ripe to start serious discussions and cooperation on multifaceted aspects of healthcare and medical sciences. This could include joint collaboration in the production of medicines, funding of research projects, exchange of research papers on various diseases/illness, regular exchanges of professionals between institutes and laboratories, and sharing and exchanges of best practices. It is already evident that a disease like COVID-19 could kill millions in a relatively short period of time. Simultaneously, there is a need to have a comprehensive understanding of the security challenges COVID-19 could pose to the international community, let alone India and the Middle East. Finally, regardless of the growth in India-Middle East relations, one of the major challenges that India will continue to face during any crisis, whether a military conflict or a pandemic, is safeguarding the welfare of the Indian diaspora in the wider Middle Eastern region. From now on, India and it regional partners should begin working on evacuation and rehabilitation strategies for use not only in times of war, but also during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a nontraditional threat that cannot be ignored any longer.
Dr. Alvite Ningthoujam is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.