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10 Jan, 2012

India Again Presses The Point, Cites High Economic Cost of Gulf Conflict

Jaipur, January 9 – For the second day running, India reiterated its concern for the safety and welfare of its six million strong diaspora in the Gulf, this time couching it in terms of their importance to the national economy. Addressing representatives of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), the annual convention of the overseas Indian diaspora, the Minister of State for External Affairs Mr. E. Ahamed stressed the Indian government’s position that it favoured a peaceful, negotiated solution to any outstanding issues in the Middle East, a clear reference to the gathering storm clouds over the Gulf.

The policy was also briefly cited in a final valedictory address delivered by the Indian President Mrs Pratibha Devisingh Patil at the end of the 10th PBD convention. The event was attended by just under 2,000 delegates and spouses, with sizeable representations from the Indian diaspora in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. A number of distinguished Indian professional and business personalities in the Gulf also were awarded high honours for their contributions to socio-economic development in India as well as culture and communications in the Gulf.

The comments took on additional significance in view of External Affairs Minister SM Krishna arrival in Israel for a two-day official visit. Israel has been at the forefront of the campaign against Iran over its nuclear programme. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mr Krishna arrived in Israel on January 9. As the delegates at the PBD are being repeatedly reminded, this is also the same day on which the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, finally returned to India from South Africa in 1915 and then went on to end British colonialism via a new form of non-violent protest that is attracting much attention in the emerging new world economic order.

The Indian statements should be heard by the governments of numerous other countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia which have sizeable migrant workers in the Gulf. They also need to be heard by the US travel and tourism industry as well as the numerous US expatriates working both in the Gulf and around the world so that they may better understand the consequences should the US government become embroiled in conflict with and in yet another Islamic country.

In his speech, Mr. Ahamed couched his statement within the framework of the need to address the numerous concerns of the Indian workers in the Gulf, mostly local issues such as being cheated, their working conditions, and giving them access to legal and consular help. He said this was the duty and responsibility of the Indian government to its people. However, he indicated that there is no better way of ensuring their welfare than by protecting their jobs.

He said the Gulf countries were a source of half of India’s oil and gas supplies, and one of its biggest trading partners, worth about US$145 billion a year. More importantly however he noted that the vast majority of the 6 million Indians in the Gulf were migrant workers, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled whose remittances help support another 40 to 50 million people in India itself. Total remittances from the Gulf to India amount to US$5 billion a year. For several decades, this income has played a critical role in India’s development, especially for states like Kerala, Rajasthan, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh which benefit from both the remittances as well as millions of dollars in investment by numerous businessmen working in the Gulf.

Indeed, the entire Indian diaspora caucus has been dominated by discussions of India’s economic progress and the financial, intellectual and technical contributions that could be made by the 27 million strong diaspora of Indians and people of Indian origin scattered across more than 100 countries. Between the lines, and without mentioning any country names, a clear message is being conveyed that the Indian government does not favour any man-made external shocks that could further complicate the numerous problems it is already facing in overhauling its economy.

Mr Ahamed stressed India’s policy as per the statement made by the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh at the 66th UN Gen assembly session in New York last September. The full text of that speech is available here. After citing the various challenges facing the world, Dr Singh said: “We have no choice but to meet these challenges. We will succeed if we adopt a cooperative rather than a confrontationist approach. We will succeed if we embrace once again the principles on which the United Nations was founded – internationalism and multilateralism.

“More importantly, we will succeed if our efforts have legitimacy and are pursued not just within the framework of law but also the spirit of the law. The observance of the rule of law is as important in international affairs as it is within countries. Societies cannot be reordered from outside through military force.

“People in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future. The international community has a role to play in assisting in the processes of transition and institution building, but the idea that prescriptions have to be imposed from outside is fraught with danger. Actions taken under the authority of the United Nations must respect the unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of individual states.”

The principled stand being taken by India, in line with its growing stature on the world stage, should open up a window of opportunity for the leaders of the travel and tourism industry to follow suit. They cannot now claim to have any logical excuse to avoid doing so. Travel and tourism will be one of the most significantly affected sectors by any further conflict in the Gulf, especially the rapidly growing airlines such as Qatar Airways, Etihad and Emirates and the millions of travellers they transport through the respective hubs.

Indeed, travel and tourism is already facing numerous problems as a result of the economic crisis in the West. Travel companies in the West are feeling the pinch. In addition to the Gulf countries themselves, Iran too has become a major source of inbound visitors for countries such as Malaysia, Turkey and Thailand. There will be a devastating impact on safety and security issues worldwide, leading to a further ratcheting up of visas and travel curbs, more nuisance airport checks and racial profiling.

The British government is also involved in the sabre rattling against Iran. As three global travel industry organisations, the International Air Transport Association, the World Travel and Tourism Council, and the Pacific Asia Travel Association, are headed by Britons, it would behoove them to start earning their salaries by getting their own government to calm down. In the Middle East, there is growing concern about an attack on Iran becoming part of the U.S. presidential election discourse. Most of the parochial, ignorant, misguided U.S. politicians have no idea of the realities on the ground and perhaps need to take a few pointers from the Indians.

The ruling families of the Gulf also need to be alert to a wider danger. In the event of conflict and the ensuing chaos, the millions of migrant workers would have no qualms about taking advantage of the security breakdown to run amok. It is no secret that the workers endure terrible working conditions, in sharp contrast to the citadels of luxury and opulence that they help to build. This is a rich-poor income gap at its worst, breeding a high level of frustration and resentment that is only kept under control by draconian deportation laws. If hostilities break out, the indigenous populations of the Gulf countries may find that Iran will be a lesser problem to deal with.