The sudden visit of Kuwait’s Foreign Minister to India was motivated by a keen desire to overcome the awkwardness caused by anti-Citizenship Amendment Act activism by Indian diaspora, and their lobbying with members of the Government of Kuwait.
Kuwait’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of State of Cabinet Affairs, Sheikh (Dr) Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, met External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar on March 18 and discussed the gamut of bilateral relations between the two countries and the evolving situation in the Gulf region. In February 2021, India sent a consignment of 200,000 doses of Covishield vaccines to help Kuwait fight the coronavirus, for which Dr Ahmed Nasser conveyed special gratitude. Dr Al-Sabah arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday evening for a tight 18-hour visit at the invitation of the External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar.
The Ministers undertook a comprehensive review of the India-Kuwait bilateral relationship and regional developments. Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Nasser also handed over a letter from Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A Joint Statement after the meeting announced the establishment of a Joint Ministerial Commission at the level of Foreign Ministers to act as an umbrella for all bilateral institutional engagements such as Foreign Office Consultations and Joint Working Groups (JWG). Besides the existing Joint Working Groups on hydrocarbons, manpower and mobility, and healthcare, new JWGs are being envisaged for trade and investments, defence and security.
The sudden visit was motivated by a keen desire to overcome the awkwardness caused by anti-Citizenship Amendment Act activism by Indian diaspora, and their lobbying with members of the Government of Kuwait. On December 21, 2019, members of the Indian diaspora demonstrated against the legislation that aimed to provide succor to victims of the Partition of India.
On December 24, 2019, a group of 27 Kuwaiti lawmakers urged their government to ‘exert diplomatic efforts’ and approach the United Nations to address the situation, according to a report in the Kuwait Times. The lawmakers expressed “deep concern” over the alleged “abusive legislative and repressive security measures taken by the Indian government against Muslims.”
On April 27, 2020, the General Secretariat of the Kuwait Council of Ministers issued a statement expressing “deep concern” regarding alleged Islamophobia in the Hindu-majority country and urged the Organisation of Islamic Country to take “necessary and urgent measures”.
This was preceded by Kuwait’s Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Abdullah Al-Shoreka, condemning alleged mistreatment of Muslims in India, on Twitter: “Did those who commit crimes against humanity against Muslims in India and violate their rights think that Muslims in the world will remain silent about these crimes and do not move politically, legally and economically against them?” Earlier, Emirati Princess Hend Al-Qassimi warned that Islamophobic comments made on social media by Indian expats living in the UAE would not be tolerated.
As diplomats worked to correct the misapprehensions on this score, in April 2020, Middle East Eye quoted Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, as saying, “We have seen certain references to India in non-official social media handles in Kuwait. The Government of Kuwait has assured us that they are deeply committed to friendly relations with India. They also do not support any interference in the internal affairs of India.”
By July 2020, however, Kuwait’s National Assembly Committee approved a draft expat quota bill to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country. Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah had suggested in June 2020 that the number of expats should be reduced from 70% to 30% of the population. Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem pointed out that 1.3 million of the 3.35 million expats “are either illiterate or can merely read and write.” He favoured recruitment of doctors and skilled manpower, not unskilled laborers.
Kuwait’s current population is 4.3 million, of which Kuwaitis are only 1.3 million. Currently, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Ahmed Nasser, there are 900,000 Indians working in the country. He said the bill to restrict entry of foreign nationals was aimed only at illegal entrants. Indians, he said, “have contributed very much and are still contributing in our development and strengthening our cooperation.” In fact, “The Indian community is an element of security of Kuwait and also an integral part of the new generation ahead as they are very much involved in our education system.” He said that there are more than 170 nationalities present in Kuwait.
Kuwait is a top source of remittances for India ($4.8 billion in 2018). At Thursday’s meeting, Dr Jaishankar thanked the leadership and Government of Kuwait for hosting the Indian community and taking care of them during Covid-19 pandemic, and expressed the hope that Indians will be able to resume travel to Kuwait in larger numbers soon. He pledged continued support to Kuwait in its fight against Covid-19 pandemic. Both sides stressed the need for greater cooperation in the area of health security.
It is pertinent to note that all Islamic countries did not take a dismal view of the situation in India. In December 2019, the United Arab Emirates chastised a group of Indian expatriates after they raised slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Naif area. As the protest was very brief, they were let off with a warning.
An official said, “The UAE does not interfere in the internal affairs of any nation and has adopted a policy of political neutrality and tolerance. Using this land for gatherings and rallies against other countries is not acceptable.” A Malayali expat told Khaleej Times, “This was not a planned gathering. On Friday afternoon, we spotted a person suddenly raising slogans against the Act. We just joined him, but dispersed within minutes. Somebody took a video of the gathering, which went viral.”
In December 2020, Saudi Arabia deported several non-resident Indians for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, in Jeddah, violating rules that prohibit any kind of assembly and protest.
India’s profile in the Gulf region remains high despite concerted attempts to sully its image. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have honoured Prime Minister Modi with their highest civilian awards.
Deft diplomacy soon brought relations back on an even keel. In April 2020, Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman in rejecting attempts to spoil ties with India through ‘foreign sponsored’ social media handles and posts. At Kuwait’s request, India sent a Rapid Response Team in April 2020 to assist in the fight against Covid-19. Over two weeks, the team offered medical assistance in testing and treatment of afflicted persons and training their personnel. India also sent medical supplies including Hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol tablets, and set up a Covid-19 testing lab in Kuwait.
At an informal meeting with journalists, Dr Ahmed Nasser appreciated India standing by Kuwait in its “darkest moments and in our direst time”. He recalled, “Even when there was a total lockdown in India, the Indian leadership sent medical assistance to Kuwait and this was very much appreciated.” Kuwait’s envoy to India lauded the historical ties between the countries and stressed that “misuse of social media is not given credence.”
Oman also clarified that a tweet quoting Mona bint Fahad, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Sultan Qaboos University for International relations and daughter of Oman’s Deputy PM Sayyid Fahd, warning of the expulsion of one million Indians in Oman if the Indian government does not stop persecution of Indian Muslims, was fake. Mona bint Fahad also clarified: “Friends, First of all I thank you for your concern to verify the offensive post published through an account impersonating me, which you are sure that I have no connection with. With full trust in all of you in strengthening awareness among all regarding such activities, which are not acceptable to the Omani society, I confirm again that my presence in social media is restricted on the following accounts: @hhmonaalsaid and @MonaFahad 13.”
Several fake twitter handles, allegedly at the behest of a foreign security agency, suddenly sprouted with the aim of driving a wedge between India and the Gulf region. Unperturbed, Prime Minister Modi stressed the need for the world to remain united and focused on the fight against COVID-19.
Kuwait is India’s tenth largest supplier of crude oil and LPG, and India ranks among its top trading partners. The total bilateral trade with Kuwait during 2019-20 was US$ 10.86 billion. Last year, the Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, and Steel, Dharmendra Pradhan, visited Kuwait for Kuwaiti investments in India under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.
Both sides are looking to intensify ties in sectors such as energy, trade, healthcare, defence and security, science and technology, IT, cybersecurity, culture, education and tourism. India urged Kuwait to invest in energy, infrastructure, food security, healthcare and education. The two nations will jointly celebrate the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between them during 2021-22.
Chintan India Foundation blog, 19 March 2021