From vaccine collaboration to preparing for an FTA and shared vision of multilateral world order, virtual meeting underscores New Delhi′s vital role in promoting peace, prosperity and progress in immediate neighbourhood.
India's annual political dialogue with the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) came this year under exceptional circumstances - but the virtual meeting was a vital exercise in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic for its triple-track focus on key issues between New Delhi and the world's most influential alliance of Islamic nations. While External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar headlined the discussions from the Indian side, the GCC was represented at the troika-level by Dr Nayef Falah Al Hajraf, Secretary General of GCC, Dr Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Bahrain Minister of Foreign Affairs. Senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar also participated in the meeting. https://twitter.com/DrSJaishankar/status/1323605410805329925 India's historic relations with the GCC as well as its dynamic role in promoting peace and stability in the region came in for praise from the GCC troika, and Dr Gargash underscored the crucial role of India in the international community, the depth of Gulf-Indian relations, and the importance of strengthening them in various ways: economic, investment, tourism, cultural, as well as in education, scientific research, healthcare, artificial intelligence, environment, space exploration and industry. He clarified that the UAE and GCC countries are keen on "more coordination and cooperation in various fields and at all levels."
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One of the key issues to emerge at the summit was the cooperation between India and the GCC states in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has thrown up unprecedented and unexpected situations between countries. India urged members of the GCC Troika to facilitate the return of Indian workers to Gulf nations through sustainable travel bubble arrangements.
“The EAM (Dr Jaishankar) mentioned that a large number of Indian workers and professionals are now eager to return to the GCC countries to resume their work. He urged the GCC leadership to facilitate their return through sustainable travel bubble arrangements with India,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement.
With an estimated 6.5 million Indian workers in the GCC, the region is one of the “immediate neighbourhood” of India and remains one of the biggest sources of remittances to the Indian subcontinent. The GCC also accounts for 34% of crude imports of India.
Another key foundation of cooperation that came up for discussion was the progress made by India in coronavirus vaccine development and manufacturing of diagnostic and other equipment to fight the virus. With their aggressive quest to roll out a viable Covid-19 vaccine at the earliest opportunity, both India and the UAE have been at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic.
“On its part, India has extended support to the countries in the region by providing Hydroxychloroquine tablets to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar; sending a 15-member medical team to Kuwait at the request of its government; and another team of 88 medical and healthcare professionals to the UAE to help the country fight against the pandemic,” said Prasanta Kumar Pradhan, Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “By quickly providing medical aid and expertise to the GCC countries, India has reinforced its image of a strong and reliable friend standing alongside in an hour of crisis,” he noted in a comment.
At the dialogue, describing India-GCC relations as at their zenith, Dr Jaishankar expressed his gratitude to the bloc for their care and support for Indian communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. All attendees agreed that the post-COVID-19 era requires “our solidarity to enhance stability and security by reducing tension and resolving contentious issues through political means.”
With the GCC being a key trade partner of India boasting annual bilateral trade of around $121 billion in 2018-19, it is of enormous strategic importance for both sides to maintain that momentum and continue to nurture the close economic links while taking measures to avert the economic fallouts of the spread of COVID-19 in both India and the Gulf.
Among the GCC countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the two key trade partners of India with annual bilateral trade of $60 billion and $34 billion, respectively. The disruption of industrial and commercial activities in the GCC countries would, therefore, have had an impact on the bilateral trade and commerce with India - but India has adroitly managed to keep the key supply chains to the Gulf alive and active even during the height of the pandemic.
Addressing joint cooperation in various fields, especially on the economic front, Dr Gargash noted the prospects for strengthening Gulf-Indian cooperation in the economic, commercial and investment sectors through joint projects amid an optimistic view of doubling trade exchange upon the signing of the forthcoming free trade agreement (FTA) between the two sides.
From a modest $13 billion in 2001 to approximately $109 billion in 2018, trade between India and the GCC has grown by leaps and bounds in the recent years - and the impending FTA would be the icing on the cake.
A major boost for India in the meeting was the GCC's continued firm commitment to New Delhi's role at the United Nations and other multilateral platforms. The GCC welcomed India's inclusion in the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member from January 2021. “The leaders also exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual concern. They agreed that the India-GCC partnership in political, economic and other domains would be further strengthened. Both sides affirmed their commitment to reform multilateral institutions to reflect the realities of the 21st century and to work together to address contemporary challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, sustainable development and terrorism,” the MEA said.
While India-GCC relations go back by centuries in terms of people-to-people contacts and trade, in the past 6 years they have scaled new heights thanks to robust government exchanges and visits by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE, as well as a recalibration of India's strategic objectives in the global arena.
Noting the same, Dr Gargash stressed the desire to enhance cooperation and coordination between GCC countries and India to achieve shared interests, adding that the GCC states view India as an important partner to promote peace and stability at the international level, especially in conflict areas. He particularly praised the efforts of Dr Jaishankar to develop relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which appreciates Indian support for GCC efforts to reduce tension in the region, its positions in support of peaceful solutions, its positive stance towards the Abraham Accords, and its support for peace, coexistence, and stability in the Middle East.