The hard pushback by Arab Gulf nations to an unfortunate remark by the former Bharatiya Janata Party national spokesperson Nupur Sharma during a televised debate is an anachronism. Take, for example, India-United Arab Emirates relations. From trade relations between Indus and Sumerian civilisations to labourers for dazzling skyscrapers, there is a deep history of the circulatory movement in the two nations. It has kept alive the longstanding, nuanced and robust bilateral ties. And that could be where India picks up from after the storm has settled.
India-UAE ties were recently further stepped up by the fast-tracking of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), a modern trade agreement, which was signed on 18 February 2022, coinciding with UAE’s Golden Jubilee year celebrations.
It is noteworthy that the celebrations pay tribute to the enormous contributions of the UAE’s Indian community, which comprises a third of its population and is its largest expatriate community. Indians are largely responsible for building and staffing the UAE’s physical, financial, educational, and health infrastructure as entrepreneurs, white and blue-collar workers, and labourers.
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Migration and its legacy
This contribution is not just to UAE’s recent history but to centuries-old trade and migratory linkages that created cultural fluencies, making it easier for Indians and the Gulf Arabs to collaborate and cooperate even today. An outcome of this has been the booming trade between India and the UAE which stands at $72.88 billion (2021-22), and with CEPA, this figure is expected to touch $100 billion. UAE is not just India’s third-largest trade partner but also a key supplier of crude oil.
This people-to-people connection has been enabled by the almost two-century-old circulatory movement of people for trade, employment, and recreation between the Gulf’s littoral sheikhdoms and the Subcontinent’s west coast. This migratory movement accelerated further when Great Britain administered by virtue of a series of treaties the monetary, fiscal, defence, and external relations of the then nine Trucial (treaty) coast sheikhdoms from 1892 till 1971. By then, large swathes of the Indian subcontinent were also by then under British colonial rule which acted as an enabler for British Indian administrative, police and defence personnel being sent out to this region.
The city of Mumbai has been a business and shopping destination for most Gulf Arabs for almost 150 years. It was the onset of the annual monsoon rains that attracted them in droves, most visibly during the 1960s to 1990s. Arab families from the Persian Gulf were a common sight soaking in the wet Mausam [Arabic word for monsoon] on Marine Drive and the Apollo Bunder promenade.
This annual migration was attributed to oil and gas money flooding the Gulf Cooperation Council nations—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In turn, Indians streamed into the Gulf.
The big Indian names in the UAE today are those who flocked there during the first oil boom in 1974-75. Most of them belonged to communities on India’s west coast like Sindhi, Kutchi, Gujarati, Mangalorean, and the ubiquitous Malayali, whether Hindu, Muslim, or Jain. Some names include Yussaf Ali M.A. of Lulu Group International; the Joy Alukka family of the eponymous jewellery chain; the Bhatia brothers; Ram Buxani of ITL-Cosmos; the Chhabria family of Jumbo Electronics; educational entrepreneur Sunny Varkey of Varkey Group; Hiro and Mohan Jashanmal of Jashanmal National Co. LLC; Dr Thunabay Moideen of Gulf Medical College and late Bharathkumar J. Shah.
How did Indian businessmen, professionals, and labour who today number 3.5 million in the UAE alone and make up 30 per cent of that nation’s population become such a preferred migrant group?
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Cultural exchanges between India and UAE
Cultural familiarity between the Gulf Arabs and Indians from the Subcontinent’s west coast, in particular, is a significant bond, but so is the fact that the Indian rupee was legal tender in the region till late 1966.
The relationship began with the Indus Valley and Sumerian civilisations when Gulf Arabs and Indians from the west coast traded in textiles, spices, perfumes, teakwood, dates, horses, and pearls. In living memory, the Gulf pearl trade stands out, as Bombay became an important market for trade with Europe, especially the Parisian and London jewellers.
It is also important to note that the biggest pearling bed on the Trucial Coast was in the seas off Abu Dhabi. Pearl harvesting in the Persian Gulf was big business in the 19th and early half of the 20th century. From June to September, hundreds of Arab pearl divers and haulers took to the water whilst Indian merchants, financiers, and brokers intermingled with captains, sailors, and Arab merchants, closing deals. In the 19th century, Arab pearl merchants like Saeed bin Ali Alnooman and Hussain bin Essa from the Trucial sheikhdoms settled in Bombay, and seasonal Arab traders soon numbered 500 in the early 20th century thanks to the city’s Moti Bazaar and offices on Mohammed Ali Road.
Competition from affordable Japanese Mikimoto cultured pearls and a global recession in the 1930s hurt the Gulf’s pearl trade. However, the discovery of oil rescued these sheikhdoms’ economies. The richest reserves of oil on the Trucial Coast were discovered in the seas off the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi under an old pearling bed.
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The age of oil companies
The British company, Petroleum Development, was granted the first onshore concession in 1939; another, D’Arcy Exploration Ltd received the first offshore concession in 1952. As the oil and gas industry took off in the Gulf, Indian engineers and workers were recruited over locals to maintain the delicate inter-tribal balance in these thinly-populated sheikhdoms. Indians were also more educated than the locals, with a gift for accounting. Oil companies like Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) and the Saudi ARAMCO also opened recruitment offices in Bombay in the 1950s.
In the 1970s, contract labour from India was recruited to build the UAE’s dazzling skyscrapers in 50-degrees-Celcius heat. This cohort from poor, rural India continues to flow into the kingdom, despite miserable living and working conditions.
Indian professionals, blue-collared workers, and unskilled labourers form part of the circulatory migratory pattern, which meant they never settled in these sheikhdoms. But Indian business families did, residing in the UAE for generations although citizenship in the UAE is almost impossible to get except for a select few. Many are gold traders in the old Dubai Creek souk [bazaar] area and remember a flourishing trade. There were huge gold exports to India triggered by low prices in the Gulf. After India banned gold exports and imports in 1968, trade continued as smuggling until the ban was lifted in 1991. These families were close to Dubai’s late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (r. 1958-1990), and that is at the core of their loyalty and commitment to Dubai in particular.
This long-standing relationship between the two nations indicates that collaboration built on cultural understanding is a sure-fire way to a successful partnership. This old historic bilateral relationship like the one India shares with the UAE will hopefully weather the current setback.
Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)