Aside from the late renowned Saudi Minister and literary figure Ghazi al-Gosaibi, I had another particularly close friend, Yousef al-Shirawi, the former Bahraini Minister of Development and Industry, who has also passed away. Al-Shirawi used to emphasize to us that, “India will never cease to surprise you, as it represents the future.” Back in the late ‘90s, none of us would have shared his vision or taken his expectations seriously.
Our skepticism about al-Shirawi’s prediction stemmed from India’s economic challenges, particularly as it was on the rise toward the end of the last century. Moreover, there were concerns about potential internal conflicts among India’s diverse linguistic and religious communities that could potentially lead to disintegration. On the other hand, al-Shirawi’s optimism was rooted in the reform program announced by the Indian government in 1999. Fast forward a quarter of a century, and al-Shirawi’s prediction and the success of the reform plan have been vindicated.
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The country has achieved a remarkable transformation, propelling itself into one of the world’s top three economies, alongside China and the United States. It’s truly astonishing to compare India’s recent accomplishments with its historical role as a key colony of the British Empire, which once administered a significant portion of the Arab world.
These reflections occupy my thoughts as I attend the G20 Summit, taking place in Delhi from September 9 to 10, 2023. Unlike the more vocal approaches of the Americans and the Chinese, the Indians tend to maintain relative silence about their progress across various domains. Similar to China, another emerging global power, India harbors ambitious plans akin to Beijing’s Belt and Road mega-project.
Delhi’s own initiative, known as the East-West Corridor, is expected to be unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Summit. This ambitious plan encompasses the construction of a railway connecting Delhi to Riyadh, other major Arab cities, and Europe.
Historically, Arabs have maintained close ties with Indians, and today, more than eight million Indians reside and work in GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. These Indian expatriates play a pivotal role in the region, with their monthly money transfers accounting for approximately half of India’s foreign remittances.
Additionally, India, as the world’s sixth-largest energy consumer, relies on the GCC nations for a third of its fuel imports. With India’s economy experiencing steady growth, fuel consumption is expected to increase further.
It’s worth noting that these accomplishments represent just the initial outcomes of the reform plan that prompted my late friend al-Shirawi’s prescient prediction. Another significant indicator of the plan’s success is India’s economic growth outpacing that of both China and the United States.
From a political perspective, the United States is actively endorsing India’s ambitious plans across various domains, particularly in the economic and political arenas. It is evident that Washington aims to cultivate a formidable global competitor to China, particularly in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Delhi is steadfastly pursuing its ambitions, regardless of Washington’s encouragement, especially given its complex relationship with China. Border disputes, military clashes, and economic rivalries have fostered a sense of mutual distrust between India and China, further shaping their interactions.
Furthermore, several geopolitical factors contribute to the intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry. India possesses the world’s seventh-largest land area but boasts the largest population, while China ranks third in land area and second in population. Nevertheless, both countries are vying to cultivate and maintain special relations with Saudi Arabia.
Addressing another related matter, there has been considerable discussion about Prime Minister Modi, who has held office in Delhi since 2014. He has faced accusations of being a Hindu fundamentalist with antipathy toward Arabs and Muslims. However, it’s important to note that while he may have had a somewhat limited understanding of the Arab region initially, it has become evident that he quickly adapted and opened up to the Arab world. Thus, such accusations appear to emanate from extremists aiming to tarnish his image at any cost.
Modi has developed particularly close ties with GCC countries, primarily due to the significant Indian expatriate community in the region and the substantial volume of trade between Delhi and the Arabian Gulf.
As a result, Modi has become historically significant as the Indian official with the closest ties to the region, a stark contrast to his predecessors who maintained more distant relationships.
Historically, the strong ties between GCC countries and Pakistan have posed a significant obstacle to closer relations between the GCC and Delhi, given Pakistan’s status as India’s arch-enemy. Additionally, sectarian tensions occasionally arise within India itself, particularly between the Muslim minority and other religious groups. It’s essential to recognize that the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, originating from external sources but with an impact within India, has further complicated matters.
Nevertheless, both the GCC countries and India have found common ground in respecting each other’s political sovereignty and choices. This approach means that the GCC countries’ relations with Pakistan resemble India’s strategic ties with Israel and its relations with Iran. Such relationships are to be respected by both Delhi and the GCC nations as long as they do not undermine the interests of any party.
Relatedly, Modi now understands that extremism is not limited to any one religious group, as it can also be found among adherents of other ideologies in his country. He recognizes that extremism harms not only India but the entire world, including Muslims themselves. The solution, he believes, lies in global efforts to combat extremism collectively.
This is another area where Saudi Arabia can make a significant contribution, especially considering that India boasts the third-largest Muslim population globally, numbering around 200 million people, trailing only Indonesia and Pakistan.
India has firmly established itself as a stable nation, serving as a shining example of successful coexistence among a diverse array of religious and ethnic backgrounds within its densely populated borders. Its citizens have transcended numerous differences, collectively propelling the nation forward with a remarkable awakening.
In fact, well before the 1999 reform plan, India embarked on an early phase of national rejuvenation in the early 1950s following its independence. At that time, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, laid the foundation for the first seven national technological institutions. Subsequently, six additional institutions specializing in business administration were established.
However, due to administrative challenges persisting for many years, these early initiatives only began to flourish in the past couple of decades. This transformation is evident in the significant number of Indian high-tech specialists who now hold leading positions in major US tech companies, as well as in the ongoing high-tech revolution occurring within India itself.