The India-UAE Spat: A Cautionary Tale for New Delhi

India’s relationship with the United Emirates may not be the world’s most watched-relationship—and especially these days, amid a raging global pandemic

Michael Kugelman May 11, 2020
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India’s relationship with the United Emirates may not be the world’s most watched-relationship—and especially these days, amid a raging global pandemic. But in recent days it experienced a significant spat. And it tells an important tale about how New Delhi’s policies at home can have rare but real ramifications for its policies abroad.

In recent weeks, about half a dozen Indians living in the UAE were fired from their jobs for posting Islamophobic content on social media. Several blamed Muslims for the coronavirus pandemic. This content did not go down well with at least one highly placed leader in the UAE. “The ruling family is a friend of Indians, but as a royal, your rudeness is not welcome,” tweeted Princess Hend Faisal Al Qassemi on April 15. “You make your bread and butter from this land, which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed. Anyone that is openly ‘racist and discriminatory’ in the UAE will be fined and made to leave.”

This sharply word tweet from a prominent Emirati royal is no small matter. The UAE is an important country for India. It is a key source of energy imports as well as of remittances that draw on the earnings of the more than 3 million Indians based there. India is heavily dependent on overseas energy supplies and was suffering through its worst economic slowdown in years even before the coronavirus pandemic set in. Accordingly, its relations with the UAE can’t be taken for granted.

The UAE is also a key locus of Indian diplomatic outreach; the Narendra Modi government is keen to seize economic partnership opportunities in the broader Arab Gulf region. One of its signature—albeit not yet actualized—achievements in this regard is an agreement in 2015 that entails a joint India-UAE investment fund totaling a whopping $75 billion to provide infrastructure—a critical need—to India.

Soon after Princess Hend’s tweet, New Delhi moved quickly to do damage control from the very top. On April 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted a blog on LinkedIn that called for unity in India’s response to the pandemic. “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking,” he declared. “Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”

Modi’s comments were just a small part of a blog focused on how the coronavirus has impacted office life, and on how the pandemic provided opportunities to launch more digitally focused professional models. However, Modi’s conciliatory words—not typically uttered by the leader of a government and ruling party notorious for its communal and divisive rhetoric—were likely meant in part to constitute a response to Princess Hend’s tweets just a few days earlier. And indeed, the very next day, the Indian ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, offered a statement that more directly responded to her criticism. He tweeted: “India and UAE share the value of non-discrimination on any grounds. Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this.”

What transpired in this tale is a double rarity. First, India was excoriated by another government for the toxic and communal messaging that accompanies the Hindu nationalist agenda aggressively being pursued by the Modi government. Second, India actually took the harsh criticism to heart and sought to make amends.

Let’s take the first rarity first. Over the last few years, New Delhi has implemented controversial measures that range from the revocation of the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir to a new citizenship law that assists all religious minorities— except Muslims—from neighboring countries. These moves have been accompanied by ugly, divisive rhetoric from top ruling party officials—including using the word “termites” to describe illegal migrants—as well as by communal violence, mostly perpetrated by the Hindu majority against the Muslim minority, that is met with radio silence from the government.

Global media outlets are often critical of these developments, which appear to go against India’s constitutionally enshrined democratic principles of secularism and pluralism. However, the international diplomatic community has been relatively muted. Some senior politicians in the West have issued statements that are critical of India, and several parliaments have passed resolutions expressing concern. However, few governments have spoken out in a big way—not even those in the Muslim world. India, in effect, gets a free pass from the international community for pursuing policies that would generate global opprobrium if carried out by many other countries.

There are several explanation for this relative international silence. One is that Indian diplomats have successfully presented their case to foreign governments. Another is that there has been no organized campaign to spearhead a formal global response to India’s actions. Islamabad has sought to rally international concern by describing New Delhi’s policies as modern-day Nazism, and it has routinely flagged the Kashmir issue in global forums. However, Pakistan’s not-so-stellar image abroad undercuts these efforts, and it has attracted few supporters to its cause.

However, the main reason why the international diplomatic community hasn’t pushed back against New Delhi is that it doesn’t want to rock the boat. Put simply, the world sees India—rightly—as an important country for geopolitical and economic reasons. And it doesn’t want to risk antagonizing an Indian government notoriously averse to external criticism about its internal policies.

And this brings up the second rarity reflected in India’s diplomatic crisis with the UAE: New Delhi responded to criticism in a way that was conciliatory, not confrontational. India hasn’t received much formal criticism from the international diplomatic community, but it doesn’t take well to the criticism that it does get. It dismisses foreign media coverage as biased, and it mocks foreign government bodies that take issue with Indian policy. For example, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom recently released a report recommending that India be designated as a “country of particular concern” due to religious freedom violations. The Indian foreign ministry responded with a statement that rejected the criticism as “biased and tendentious,” with “misrepresentation [that] has reached new levels,” and it sarcastically labeled USCIRF as “an organization of particular concern.”

The tone of such responses stands in sharp contrast to the conciliatory words of Modi and Kapoor, the Indian envoy in Dubai.

The good news for New Delhi is that its damage control appears to have worked; its relationship with the UAE is still in a good place. On May 2, the UAE ambassador to India, Ahmed Abdul Rahman Al Banna, announced a large shipment of medical supplies to India to help fight COVID-19. The assistance, he said, “comes in recognition of the profound and brotherly ties our two countries have shared throughout the years.”

Princess Hend, for her part, said on Twitter on May 3 that “India is my friend” (though she has continued to post tweets decrying the plight of Indian Muslims).

Still, there is a cautionary tale for New Delhi in this episode. While India may escape a lot of criticism, its government isn’t immune from it—and that includes criticism from key partners. The spat with the UAE is reminiscent of what happened with Bangladesh back in December. This is another country important to New Delhi, and one on which the Modi government has expended ample diplomatic capital. But Dhaka reacted unhappily to India’s citizenship law because of the insinuation that Bangladesh discriminates against religious minorities on its soil, and because of Dhaka’s concern that Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in India—fearful about the implications of a citizenship law that excludes Muslims—could flee back to Bangladesh. In response, the Bangladeshi government cancelled several high-level meetings with New Delhi.

Additionally, the offensive comments of Indian expatriates in the UAE, and the angry reaction to them there, provided a useful opportunity for India’s rivals to exploit. A number of Twitter accounts claiming to be people from the Arab Gulf—including a few purported royals—posted messages similar to Princess Hend’s that were critical of India. However, most of these accounts turned out to be fake, with many actually operated from Pakistan.

The takeaway? India may be spared a lot of criticism from the international diplomatic community, but when it is criticized, its enemies will take advantage.

Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

(Reprinted with permission from the Wilson Center)

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