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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Middle East And India: Symbiotic Friendship And Compulsions Of Narratives

India's trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, was USD 87 billion in 2020-21

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Let’s say that an individual from the outsourced PR agency of a corporate communications team of a far-out lower-rung-step-down subsidiary says something on record, on a subject that they have no business speaking about. Or if they thought that what they say would appeal to their bosses. And that messaging bombastically goes viral and negatively and how. And now everyone expects the client organisation to formally apologise. For their own domestic agenda as well as appealing to their internal constituents, rightfully. 

A situation is familiar to many leaders in the corporate world. It is now playing itself out in the Indian political arena, especially in the external affairs domain.

The controversy

The controversial remark made by a BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma in a TV debate last month just went viral. To add to it, another party spokesperson Naveen Jindal, had posted a debatable tweet on the issue. This went unchecked until the Middle Eastern countries took a rampage over it. 

Qatar’s foreign ministry summoned New Delhi's envoy to Doha. Many of the other countries on the Middle East summoned the Indian envoys to convey their displeasure. Ahead of the Iranian Foreign Minister's first-ever trip to New Delhi, Iran summoned the Indian ambassador to Tehran over what their state media called an "insult against the Prophet of Islam in an Indian TV show". Oman, Libya, Maldives, Indonesia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Afghanistan (and even Pakistan) also joined the list.

In a statement issued by the BJP, as delayed like an after-thought that it got, it said, "The BJP strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion. The BJP is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy."  

The Indian Embassy in Qatar said Ambassador Dipak Mittal observed that  "tweets do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India. These are the views of fringe elements".

"In line with our civilisational heritage and strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity, the Government of India accords the highest respect to all religions. Strong action has already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks," read the statement.

The official statement could have avoided referring to “… action has been already taken against those …”. First of all, it is not a ministry issue, and ministry did not (or cannot) censure the individuals involved. The action against those who created the controversy was taken by a political party, and hence official governmental reference cannot be based on that.

Politics - international

To the loud protest by OIC, the Islamic nations' body, the MEA reacted quickly to quell any of the religious overtones with a crisp:  "regrettable that the OIC Secretariat has yet again chosen to make motivated, misleading and mischievous comments. This only exposes its divisive agenda being pursued at the behest of vested interests."

India's trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, was USD 87 billion in 2020-21. In terms of the relative importance of India’s global trading partners, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are its third, fourth and fifth largest partners. 

The GCC nations account for nearly 65 per cent of India’s annual remittances of more than $80 billion in the last three years. Over 9 million Indians live in those nations. The region is also the top source of India's energy imports. 

India has already signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in talks with the GCC for a similar if not, a wider deal.

Qatar is India’s leading supplier of LNG. Last financial, the bilateral trade between India and Qatar crossed the USD 15 billion. Over 15,000 Indian businesses are registered in Qatar. The Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, is an important investor in Indian businesses, including startups.

India is also a large consumption market for the Middle East nations to ensure their energy exports; this is even more important as the relationship between the West and Arab oil has changed (for the worse) over the years. For the Middle Eastern nations, the West is not a strategic partner and hence this drives their keenness in scaling their existing partnership with India - for economic impetus, consumption size, and potential investment opportunities with returns in sight for many years ahead. 


China has been operationalising its ‘Sinicization of the Islam’ project that entails demolishing mosque domes, deleting the halal certification concept and banning the Azan. To add to it, China’s treatment of its citizens - the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province - has been deplorable and worrisome, to say the least. 

Yet in a response to a letter written by 22 democratic countries against China to the UN Human Rights Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council wrote an alternative letter classifying the Uighur issue as an “internal matter" of China. The letter didn’t stop there, it eulogised China for its “excellent human rights record". Qatar, Kuwait and other GCC countries have reportedly detained or deported nearly 300 Uighur Muslims to China since 2002. 

One should also remember the incident of the famous artist MF Hussain. In February 2006, he was charged with hurting the sentiments of Hindus because of his nude paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. 

He had also made one obscene painting of Bharat Mata. He got refuge in Qatar. For a nation that rarely grants citizenship to outsiders, it granted him one in 2010. Assumably the nation did not worry about another nation’s worries or decry the insult to its mother-icon (the country’s). 

Qatar has also been accused of promoting the religious cleansing of the persecuted Baha’i community. Baha’i International Community (BIC) had complained to the United Nations - “This pattern of deportation is tantamount to religious cleansing – if it continues, an entire religious community could be erased in a few years.”

However, religious minorities continue to face bias or discrimination in the Middle East region. Those nations also have difficulties in dealing with appropriate human rights, and women's rights and have discrimination or even criminalisation of the LGBTQ community.

Economic implications

India is a strategic ally and has a labour force that the Middle East needs. There is a large Indian ex-pat population that they also need to send messages to, or rather keep in check (in terms of the local ideological and religious beliefs). Hence a quick political reaction to this controversy, as it deserves. 

Indian air passengers using the Middle East as a transit hub to travel west have been on the raise over the past few years. With the covid unlocking, those airlines would need to get the Indian passengers back on their airlines.

Domestic house in order

This controversy should not undo the efforts of the Indian government which has painstakingly worked on the GCC - India initiatives for over 8 years now.

While the political compulsions might push for actions and reactions, strategic relationships go beyond these, and in the polarised world order, it has an economic mutual need as a balm.

The Indian government has demonstrated deft maturity in handling the situation. This incident indicates how external nations pay attention to our internal discussions and matters, especially when religion is an underpin.

However, the message is ample and clear; those domestic politics and global relationships are getting deeply intertwined. Of course, it is time that as a society, we control any bile-spewing or vile-induced rhetoric against any ideology. Politics has to be subordinate to our Constitution and its fundamental core values. 

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