SRINAGAR: Indian paramilitary soldiers man a temporary checkpoint on a deserted road on Thursday.—AP
SRINAGAR: Indian paramilitary soldiers man a temporary checkpoint on a deserted road on Thursday.—AP

DUBAI: Gulf Arab countries have remained mostly silent as India’s government moved to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its limited autonomy, impose a sweeping curfew in the disputed Himalayan region and cut off residents from all communication and the internet.

This muted response is underpinned by more than $100 billion in annual trade with India that makes it one of the Arabian Peninsula’s most prized economic partners.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia urged restraint and expressed concern over the brewing crisis. Other Gulf countries Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman do not appear to have issued any statements. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone a step further by apparently siding with India, calling the decision India’s internal matter.

Saudi Arabia’s response to the military clampdown in India-held Kashmir is complicated by its close ties with both India and Pakistan, as well as its rivalry with Turkey and Iran.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has reached out to leaders in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in recent days to discuss India’s actions in Occupied Kashmir, but it’s unclear whether he would find Arab backing on the issue at the United Nations Security Council.

The brief Saudi statement on held Kashmir made no direct reference to the curfew or the communication blackout in the disputed territory. It said the kingdom “is following up on the current situation” and called for a “peaceful settlement” in line with international resolutions.

Gulf Arab states are home to more than seven million Indian expatriates who help drive the region’s economy and keep its cities teeming with doctors, engineers, teachers, drivers, construction workers and other labourers.

Nowhere in the region is this relationship more pronounced than in the UAE, where Indians outnumber Emiratis three to one. Bilateral trade surpassed $50bn in 2018, making India the UAE’s second-largest trade partner. Indian investments in the UAE amount to $55bn and Indians are the largest foreign investors in Dubai’s real estate market, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

Meanwhile, DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, has plans to develop a logistics hub in India-held Kashmir.

The UAE doubled down on this strategic relationship when it signalled support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as New Delhi rushed to send tens of thousands of additional soldiers to Kashmir, already one of the world’s most militarised regions.

The troops were deployed to prevent unrest and protests over the Aug 5 decision to strip the disputed territory of its special constitutional status.

The UAE’s ambassador to India, Ahmed al-Banna, was quoted in media in both countries as saying the changes in held Kashmir “would improve social justice and security ... and further stability and peace”.

Turkey, which has less than $7bn in annual bilateral trade with India, has thrown its weight behind Pakistan. A readout from a recent call between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Khan emphasised Kashmiri self-determination.

Iran permitted a symbolic protest of around 60 students outside the Indian Embassy in Tehran last week, and a senior cleric there told worshippers during Friday prayers that India’s actions in Kashmir were “an ugly move”. However, both President Hassan Rouhani and the foreign ministry have issued more tempered statements, calling for dialogue and peace between Pakistan and India. The varied response comes as bilateral trade plummets following India’s decision to stop buying Iranian oil due to US sanctions on Iran.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia is home to 2.7m Indians and is India’s second biggest supplier of oil after Iraq, according to Indian government statistics. Saudi oil exports to India dominated $27.5bn in bilateral trade last year.

On Monday, the eighth day of the curfew in Occupied Kashmir, India announced one of the biggest foreign investments in the country: a $15bn purchase by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Aramco in India’s Reliance oil and chemicals business. Beyond that, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has vowed $100bn of investments in India by 2021.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2019