Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Sunday. The trip has major strategic and economic dimensions, but its significance is wider — this will be the first visit to the Gulf Arab country by an Indian Prime Minister in over three decades, and Modi’s maiden visit to an Islamic country.
India is the UAE’s second largest trade partner; the UAE is number three on the corresponding Indian list. The UAE is one of the economic engines that power the Arab world, and it has over the decades been the preferred destination for Indian workers seeking jobs in the Middle East. Some 2.6 million Indians are thought to live in the UAE, even though the number officially given by the Indian government is just over 2 million. The Indian expatriate community is the largest ethnic community in the UAE — according to some estimates, they make up about 30 per cent of the country’s population.
As per Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs figures from January 2015, over 7.2 million — or a quarter — of the total overseas Indian population of 28 million lives in the six Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It is to this large expatriate population — both in the UAE and in the extended Gulf region — that the Prime Minister will speak during his visit. He has made it a point to address the Indian community on nearly all his trips overseas — choosing glitzy settings to tell them about domestic politics, share his vision of governance, and outline initiatives of his government such as Make in India.
But the profile of the expatriate Indian population in the UAE is very different from the one in, say, the US — where Modi addressed tens of thousands of screaming, cheering Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden — or, for that matter, in Germany or in China.
The typical Indian expat in the UAE is a blue-collar worker. Some 50 per cent are in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, and 30 per cent are in medium-skilled professions. Only about 20 per cent Indians are highly skilled professionals.
Almost no one is a permanent resident of the UAE. Unlike the Indians in the US, sooner or later, they will all return to India. (In 2011, Abu Dhabi opened the window to citizenship a crack — allowing the children of expat fathers and Emirati mothers to seek UAE citizenship.) They are likely to have a different set of expectations from Modi, and will probably assess him on parameters that are not the same as those of Indian Americans.
And yet, this is precisely where the Prime Minister also has an opportunity.
Dr S Irudaya Rajan, Chair Professor at the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs’s Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, says the visit to the UAE could be Modi’s “best trip” yet. “He will not be talking to the dispora, but to labourers… the real Indians,” he says.
These “real Indians”, according to Dr Rajan, have “real issues” — from poor working conditions to labour abuse and substandard or squalid living conditions to exploitation by agents and others. “They would want to listen to India’s charismatic and popular Prime Minister, and would want his visit to boost bilateral relations. But more than that, they would would hope that his visit has a meaningful impact on their lives,” Rajan says.
The Prime Minister will address thousands of Indians at the Dubai Cricket Association stadium on August 17. A majority of Indian expats are from the southern states where, barring in Karnataka, Modi’s BJP has not managed to break the political glass ceiling despite years of hard work. On Thursday, Modi said, “I especially look forward to meeting the large community of Indian workers based in UAE. No words will be enough to appreciate their hard work and sweat over the last many years.”
Perhaps for the first time, the Prime Minister may talk about the welfare of Indians alongside improving trade and bilateral relations, and seeking investment. The largest chunk of remittances to India comes from the UAE — some estimates put it as high as US $ 12 billion annually. Remittances from the Gulf power the economy of states like Kerala, and the state’s otherwise deeply divided politicians had come together to plead with the Centre to intervene after Saudi Arabia introduced its Saudisation programme, Nitaqat, in 2011.
Dr Rajan believes that Modi should also visit the other five Gulf countries “as soon as he can”. “It should be priority for him. Europe and all others can come later. Strengthening trade and commerce with Gulf countries is in India’s great interest,” he says.
Despite its traditional role in the Non-Aligned Movement, New Delhi’s engagement with West Asia has lost momentum over the years. Its diplomatic attention in recent years has been focused on Indians working in the region, besides oil trade. With the emergence of the IS as a global threat, the security and strategic dimensions of the relationship have become more pronounced.