New Delhi: Economies around the world will face an adverse impact due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown and Saudi Arabia will not be an exception, said Indian ambassador to the Arab nation Ausaf Sayeed.
He said some Indian workers there might face job losses, which will dent the annual remittances that India receives from them.
India has 2.6 million expatriates spread across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the largest in any foreign country, and they annually remit a big amount of money to India.
“Covid has a wide impact all around the world. There are impacts on the economy, healthcare and generally lifestyles later on. Even Saudi Arabia is not immune to those kinds of impact, which most of the countries are facing. So because of that, there will be a likelihood of some retrenchment, some people losing their jobs and coming back to India. Once that happens, obviously there will be an indirect impact in terms of remittances and other things,” Sayeed told ThePrint in an exclusive interaction over Skype.
India remains the largest receiver of such remittances in the world. Indians working abroad sent $83 billion back home last year, and a bulk of it came from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The amount is expected to fall by 23 per cent this year due to Covid-19, according to the World Bank.
“Since we have not done any detailed analysis of this (dip in remittances), it will be too premature to talk about this at this juncture,” the envoy said.
According to Sayeed, as many as 17 Indians, who were based in Saudi for a long time and were working there, have died due to the novel coronavirus.
Over 17,500 people have been found Covid-19 positive in Saudi so far, the envoy said. The Saudi government does not share nationality-wise Covid-19 data and so, the exact number of Indians infected there cannot be determined.
The ambassador said the Indian mission in Riyadh is reaching out to the community and also engaging with some of the bigger Saudi companies to ascertain the condition of Indian employees working for such firms, who are living in labour camps.
“We are concerned about the Indian workforce who are in labour camps of big employers. That is another engagement we have with their employers in terms of working conditions, maintaining social distancing, whether there is a problem of food, etc. Some labour camps have complained of shortage of food, which we are addressing by delivering food and medicines in some cases,” he added.
He also said the mission is providing food and medicines from the Indian Community Welfare Fund for the “destitute Indians” living there.
Compiling list of stranded Indians in Saudi
On the condition of Indians who do not live there but got stranded due to the lockdown announced in India and travel restrictions, the ambassador said a list is being made of all those who want to return home.
There are many Indians stranded in Saudi, including those who went there on short-term visas or for travelling purposes. Those stranded include families, dependent parents, students and also some nurses who are pregnant, according to the envoy.
Sayeed said the Indian mission is “ready” to send them back “as and when the lockdown is lifted” and the Modi government resumes flight operations.
“We are compiling all categories and hopefully whenever a decision will be taken to resume the flights post the lockdown, we will be ready to send these people back,” he added.
The Modi government has decided not to bring back Indian nationals stranded abroad to prevent the virus from spreading. The Ministry of External Affairs is preparing a strategy to bring them back after the lockdown, but before normal flight services resume.
‘Not a single case of Islamophobia here’
According to Sayeed, there hasn’t been a single case of ‘Islamophobia’ in the country within the Indian diaspora.
“Fortunately, the Indian nationals in Saudi Arabia have been responsible in their behaviour and have not engaged in any hate speeches or posts in social media. There have been stray messages here and there but those were from fake handles… The mission is carefully monitoring such social media posts,” he said.
The envoy said the Indian diaspora in Saudi is in fact “happy” due to the facilities provided by the government despite a lockdown there.
“We have told them (Indian diaspora) to focus on the purpose for which they are in this country, which is their livelihood, and support their families and not to spread any message that can spread any discord and not to react to forwarded messages,” he added.
Over a week ago, Pavan Kapoor, Indian ambassador to the UAE, had reminded its nationals based in that country about the “values of non-discrimination” in the wake of some tweets targeting Muslims over the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi that led to a spike in the coronavirus cases here.
The tweets were posted by an Indian national based in the UAE. The posts invited the wrath of Princess Hend Al Qassimi, a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, who warned that such tweets “will not go unnoticed”.
India maintained oil, LPG purchases from Saudi
Despite the demand for oil falling 60-70 per cent in India owing to the lockdown and limited travel coupled with oil prices crashing globally, New Delhi has not reduced its purchases from Saudi, the envoy said, adding the oil ministers of both the countries are in regular touch with each other.
“We have not reduced our intake from Saudi Arabia despite demand reducing. So our intake has been maintained… Being a big consumer (of oil) ourselves, a big importer ourselves, we have a deep interest in maintaining the stability of oil prices and ensuring that supplies are not disrupted. So we are in touch with Saudi Arabia to maintain price stability and supply continuity,” Sayeed said.
A future course of action on the oil dynamics after the pandemic will be ascertained by the G20 nations and OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), he added.
The ambassador also said India’s demand for LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) has seen an uptick despite the lockdown and this requirement was met by Saudi Arabia.
But whether sourcing of the gas, which is used for cooking at Indian homes, will continue in the future, will depend on India’s demand in the coming months, he added.
Flights with essentials operating regularly
As the coronavirus outbreak in India deepened in March, there were concerns that India may not be able to export its basmati rice to Saudi. Nearly 80 per cent of Saudi rice imports constitute the Basmati variety from India.
“There were initial concerns on food supplies from India, especially as you know that Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest consumers of Indian basmati rice. We facilitated the supplies (of rice) and ensured that there is no disruption in supplies,” Sayeed said.
This apart, India has also supplied anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol to Saudi for treatment of Covid-19 patients there.
The ambassador also said cargo flights carrying food, medicines and other essential items are regularly operating between both the countries.