India’s carefully cultivated Gulf policy has been at risk of unraveling over the past fortnight, with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Kuwaiti government, a UAE royal princess, and the Arab intelligentsia decrying hate speeches by Indian nationals accusing the Tablighi Jamaat of deliberately exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic as well as a crude tweet by a BJP MP on the sexual impulses of Arab women.
Sharjah royal and businesswoman Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, who first called out Saurabh Upadhyay, an Indian national working in the UAE, for his disconcertingly racist remarks against Muslims, followed up her several assertive tweets with a front-page opinion piece in the Dubai newspaper Gulf News Sunday, titled: “I pray for an India without Islamophobia.”
The highly unusual front page article drew attention when it was tweeted by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Abdul Hamid Ahmad. Although the Gulf News is privately owned – and over the decades has employed several Indians, including in senior editorial positions — there is no question that it, like other media organisations in the Gulf, broadly reflects the sensibilities of the region’s all-powerful royal families on sensitive matters like religion.
String of backlash
Saurabh Upadhyay, who described the Tablighi Jamaat members as “radical Islamic terrorists” and asked all Muslims to accept they are the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, has since deleted his tweet. But the reactions from Hend Al Qassimi and others have certainly made Delhi sit up and take note.
“I knew India, the country of Gandhi…but the hate should stop,” the Sheikha said. While Kuwaiti lawyer Khalid Al Suwaifan described violence in India as a “crime against humanity”, Saudi scholar Abidi Zahrani suggested listing all militant Hindus working in the Gulf and “spreading hate against Islam and Muslims or our beloved Prophet”.
We call on international organizations, especially the United Nations, the Security Council, the Organization of islamic cooperation and all human rights organizations, to intervene immediately to stop the violations committed against our Muslim brothers in India #India
— خالد السويفان (@alsuwaifan) April 20, 2020
Then there was the Omani princess, Mona bint Fahd, who also tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in her diatribe. But she turned out to be fake when the real Princess Mona Fahad called her out and a relieved ambassador to Oman Munu Mahawar publicly expressed his gratitude:
“I thank HH @MonaFahd13 for clarification on fake social media posts attributed to her,” he said.
India-UAE ties, and an active EAM
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar was going to leave nothing to chance, and so on Friday he decided to work the phones. There were “few better examples” than India’s relationship with the UAE, Jaishankar said, and thanked the Qatari deputy prime minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani for “taking care of the Indian community.”
Only eight months ago, Modi was conferred UAE’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Zayed, “presented to kings, presidents and leaders.” It was supposed to be the high point of an incredible, symbiotic relationship between India and the UAE that has stood the test of time. India’s blue-collar workers as well as its middle class have helped build several cities in the region into the powerhouses they are today and been rewarded manifold with both affection and wealth by their employers.
After Sheikha Hend pointed to the UAE’s non-discriminatory laws and India’s ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor sternly warned that “discrimination was against India’s moral fabric” — former ambassador to the UAE Navdeep Suri tweeted last week that the UAE is a strategic partner of India, its third largest trading partner, source of FDI, partner in energy security, and home to 3.4 million Indians who send back $17 billion annually as remittances.
Arab world is now watching
As the Gulf News article by Sheikha Hend shows, the tension remains. Over the weekend, Kuwait’s ambassador to India issued an anodyne statement on ties between the two countries. The statement referred to a Kuwaiti cabinet note issued on 3 March asking the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to put pressure on India to stop the “Islamophobia” against its minorities. And the OIC duly acted upon it.
Interestingly, the most powerful figures in Delhi may be taking note of the consternation in the Arab world. PM Modi followed up his Ramzan greetings with comments on his Mann Ki Baat radio address, exhorting people to “pray more this Ramzan” to get rid of the coronavirus, while RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat came out in indirect condemnation of Islamophobic comments.
As he becomes the most followed leader on Facebook, overtaking US President Donald Trump, Modi knows his reputation as a global leader is at stake. Bill Gates has sent him his compliments on ably dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, anti-Muslim hate speech has been restricted within the borders of India. But as it spills over, Modi knows the world is watching. And that he won’t be able to ignore it the way he has been able to so far at home.
Views are personal.