Old Friends, New Partners: India- Arab Relations in an Emerging New World

There is something refreshing about an old friendship that is renewed and rekindled; new vistas of opportunity open up and there is renewed warmth. Like with individuals, so with civilizations – the story of India and the Arab world is an ancient one, but that which bears value in repetition. India and the Arab world gained immeasurably from our historical interaction – thinkers, philosophers, traders traversed the seas bearing knowledge and merchandise. Emperor Ashoka is believed to have sent Buddhist scholars to Egypt and Syria, and this interaction would continue over millennia. These exchanges would result in advances in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and agriculture, even as the mutual trade enriched both civilizations. The Sanskrit book on Astronomy ‘Surya Sidhhanta’ was translated into Arabic and spread across the Arab world, as did works by famous Indian physicians, the Charaka Samhita, and the Susrud. Conversely, Arab influences on India, in architecture, philosophy, music and the arts are well known.

As the ancient and the medieval spilled into the modern, anti-colonialism became a rallying point for emerging nationalist leaders. Finding common cause, the founding fathers of the Indian Republic built relationships with nationalist leaders like Saad Zaghloul, sharing and learning from each other in their common struggles. Over time, and with the growth of technology and transportation systems the interactions intensified - today India can no longer talk about its foreign relations, or mention international trading links without the Arab world featuring prominently. The numbers say it all – trade with the Arab world stands at over $180 billion (2012-13), ranging from every possible product and service. The Gulf region accounts for more than 60% of India’s oil and gas imports, but we have also found new complementarities in pharmaceuticals, automobiles, infrastructure, power and renewable energy. The Maghreb region is a major source of phosphatic and other fertilisers, a significant factor in our food security. The economic linkages also encompass Indian companies that have invested heavily in the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa. Straddling the Arabian Sea, multinational companies from both jurisdictions recognize the value of reaching out to a combined market of 1.6 billion people, almost a third of humanity.

The movement of goods and services has also meant the movement of a large workforce. The Arab world is home to a majority of Indians abroad – more than 7 million Indians work and lives in the Gulf and other Arab countries, sending home remittances of more than $40 billion annually. These close ties have blurred the boundaries between home and away, especially when one factors in the great love for Indian culture in the Arab world. India’s diaspora in the Gulf provide a critical bridge and an economic link – many of them have found entrepreneurial success, re-importing to India the brands they established abroad.

As economic relations flourished at a bilateral level with individual countries, there was a felt need to engage at a broader political level between India and the League of Arab States. The process of dialogue began in 2002 with a series of political consultations that resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) where regular meetings were envisaged between the External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India and the Arab League Secretary General (ALSG) either in New York (during the General Assembly) or in Cairo or New Delhi. This institutional relationship got a further impetus during the Secretary General Dr. Amre Moussa’s visit to India in December 2008, during which a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) was signed for the establishment of Arab India Cooperation Forum (AICF).

The MoC heralded the beginning of a broad based cooperation between the two sides with regular political consultations (the establishment of a High Level Joint Committee in which a ‘troika’ of the League would meet with the EAM), an Arab India cultural festival, and most significantly, a Partnership and Investment Summit that would bring together Minsters of Commerce and Trade, leading business houses, to share knowledge and experience on selected themes. When the MoC was reviewed in 2013, both sides agreed that it was imperative to raise the level of engagement. The political landscape of the Arab world had significantly altered on account of the events since 2011, and there was a felt need to institutionalize consultation between all the members of the League rather than merely with the Secretariat or the ‘troika’ formula. Renewed consultations culminated in a new MOC and an Executive Programme that were signed in New Delhi during the visit of Secretary General Dr. Nabil el Araby in December 2013. A format of biennial Ministerial and annual Senior Officials meetings involving all the member states and the Arab League Secretariat was adopted, and the new Executive Programme (EP) of the Arab-Indian Cooperation Forum for 2014-15 includes specific cooperation in a number of fields, including media, energy, education, and agriculture.

Today, the Ministry of External Affairs is engaged with member states of the League in broad based cooperation. On the 7th November, 2014, the first Senior Officials meeting will take place in New Delhi. This will be precursor to first Ministerial between India and the League member states due for next year. The Senior Officials Meeting will also set the stage for the 4th India-Arab Partnership Conference in Delhi. Along with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the Ministry has held three Partnership and Investment Conferences, two in Delhi, in April 2008 and Feb 2010, and the third in the United Arab Emirates, in May 2012, with the participation of large delegations led by the Ministers of Commerce/Trade, and significant contributions from prominent business houses. As we prepare for the fourth Partnership Conference in Delhi on 26-27 November, 2014 there is definitely a buzz in the air – an Indian economy on the upswing will give a fillip to renewed investments and forge creative partnerships. The Partnership Conference has identified key areas in manufacturing, services, human resources, and the energy sector as the focus.

The Partnership Conference will follow another equally important engagement will be simultaneous with the 2nd Indo-Arab Cultural Festival taking place in the last week of November in Algeria. A Media Symposium also created a useful platform for interaction, collaboration and exchange of ideas between Indian and Arab journalists when they met in New Delhi in August 2014. More events – a University Presidents Conference, an Energy Partnership – are taking shape. But beyond the nuts and bolts of visits and engagements, beyond this renewed enthusiasm, lies the firm conviction that India and the Arab World have much to learn and share for the future, even as we celebrate our historical friendship.

Egyptian Gazette/ by Ambassador of Egypt Navdeep Suri

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