It is imperative for India to be a stabilizing, friendly, non-patronizing force in the Middle East by emphasizing our ancient ties of commerce.
Watching the television coverage of PM Modi’s visit to the UAE, one could not but reflect on the vagaries of history and the dozens of ironies embedded in the contemporary Middle East, Persian (or Arabian?) Gulf and beyond.
One gets tempted to look at countries/regions/peoples as having subjective agency, while also being objects in imperial designs, some of which are grand and deliberate, others somewhat obscure and accidental. First of all, it is good to know that our PM considered it an important and worthwhile task to visit the Gulf—a region which has impacted us substantially in more ways than one. The state of Kerala would be bankrupt several times over if there were no Gulf. Cricket matches in Sharjah are of great importance. Bollywood holds so many functions in the UAE. The UAE is one of our most important trading partners, both as a destination and as a trans-shipment centre.
Even our underworld is supposed to have UAE connections. NRIs based in the Gulf usually do not qualify for local citizenship unlike their counterparts in places like Canada and the US. They therefore retain strong emotional and financial links to India. So, if nothing else, for contemporary practical reasons, it was necessary and overdue for an Indian PM to visit the UAE. Let us step back a bit from today’s perspective and take a walk through the by-lanes of history, contending with sometimes less understood facts and nuances. Our trade with the Gulf goes back to Harappan times. The west coast of India, all the way from Kachchh to Malabar, has had extensive maritime connections with the Gulf. It is true that in medieval times, the words “Gulf” and “Basra” became almost synonymous. Pearls which many a time came from Bahrain, were referred to as Basra pearls. First Surat and later Bombay became the world’s great trading depots for natural pearls.
While the Ottomans controlled Baghdad and Basra (modern Iraq) quite firmly, their control over other sparsely populated oases and ports of the Gulf tended to be loose and nominal, but could sporadically become more ruthless and dominating. When the Portuguese who held Oman for a while, were driven out from there, they were replaced not by an Ottoman Governor, but by local Yariba Sultans. The British were interested in trade through Basra and the Persian port of Bandar Abbas. This increased greatly in the 18th and 19th centuries. The great merchant David Sassoon started life as an Ottoman official in Basra. He migrated to British-ruled Bombay and amassed a fortune as a trader in opium and other commodities. Sassoon Docks in Bombay have been named for him. He endowed schools, hospitals and synagogues in Bombay and Poona.
The British, being arch-imperialists were dead set on ensuring that their interests were properly protected and defended. They occupied and ruled Aden directly. This was important in the context of the shipping route to India. They simply ignored Northern Yemen as it was mountainous and as its people were too intractable and fanatical to conquer or even to dominate. One source of imperial migraine—Afghanistan, was enough! With the other Gulf locations, the British experimented with indirect rule, just as they did with the “native” states in India and with the nominally Ottoman province of Egypt. Local chieftains were recognized as “Sheikhs” and “Emirs”, provided they let themselves be guided by the British.
Occasional visits by Royal Navy gunboats ensured that the rulers were “kept in check” and an elaborate bureaucracy spanning imperial London, viceregal Simla and provincial Bombay (for Bombay Presidency had the most direct interest in the Gulf) made sure that the Gulf was in “control”. This of course does not mean that the Gulf rulers lacked all agency. Throughout the 19th century, British administrators kept ranting and raving that Oman encouraged gun-running, or the arms trade, if you will. Belgian, German, French and even English arms manufacturers managed to get around the Royal Navy’s restrictions. The guns that passed through Oman usually landed in Afghanistan and Peshawar and were used to kill Indian soldiers and British officers of the great British Indian army!
Meanwhile, the Al-Sabah dynasty which had been running Kuwait pretty autonomously since the mid-18th century was persuaded/arm-twisted/ forced to become a British protectorate in 1899. The elegant yoke called the “subsidiary alliance” which the Marquess of Wellesley had invented a century earlier in India came in useful.
The Ottomans sided with Germany during World War I. The British invaded Mesopotamia with an army largely made up of hapless Indian soldiers. The ill-led, ill-fated expedition was soundly defeated by the Turks at a place called Kut. The incompetent British General Townshend spent the rest of the war in comfortable captivity in an Istanbul palace, while the large body of Indian and small number of British soldiers were held captive under wretched conditions; many died of hunger, disease and privation; many were apparently even murdered by their captors. The surrender at Kut happened almost immediately after the allies suffered a disastrous defeat at Gallipoli— where about 1,500 Indian soldiers died—a largely forgotten footnote of history. As an interesting aside, an Iraqi acquaintance of mine told me in 1980, that his father’s generation always thought of Indians as being mercenary soldiers of the British!
Unfortunately for the Ottoman Turks, despite their victories, they ended up being on the wrong side in the war. The mighty Ottoman Empire was casually dismembered by the “victorious” British and French. The world now witnessed imperialism at its most intelligent zenith or at its most sordid nadir depending on how you want to view it. The British created a new artificial country called Iraq and had a glamorous spy called Gertrude Bell casually draw up its borders. Gertrude Bell almost certainly unintentionally helped Kuwait by blessing it with oil fields that were yet to be discovered even as another British agent Percy Cox gave away more than half of Kuwait’s territory to another British protégé Abdulaziz ibn Saud.
This sordid transaction took place at a meeting where the “protected” Kuwaitis were not even represented! The British repeated in the Gulf what they had done earlier in India. They saddled a Shia majority Iraq with a Sunni ruler and a Sunni ruling class merely because T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell felt “sorry” for their protégé—Faisal. They even included clearly Kurdish territory in largely Arab Iraq. They had done pretty much the same in India about a century earlier, when they bestowed the largely Muslim Vale of Kashmir on a Hindu Dogra ruler and went on to casually give him Gilgit as well. In the Gulf, they propped up another Sunni dynasty in Bahrain, where Shias were in a majority just as they supported Muslim rulers in Bhopal, Junagadh, Rampur, Tonk, Palanpur and Hyderabad, allowing them to rule over predominantly Hindu subjects. All the explosive and incendiary seeds of future troubles were put in place calmly and deliberately brick by brick. Even Gertrude Bell’s admirers later conceded that the inclusion of Kurdish Mosul in Iraq was a misplaced cynical move. Never mind that. It happened. And the people of that part of the world are still living with the consequences.
Between the wars, the entire Gulf region was dominated by the British. Petroleum gradually started acquiring importance. But the region remained poor. In 1937, the travel writer Freya Stark described Kuwait as one of the poorest places in the world. The 1920s and 30s were the heyday of His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was described by a British minister as “the most important sovereign in the entire Mohammedan world”. It is important to remember that hospices and other charities in places like Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Karbala and Najaf were endowed by Indian Nawabs, who have now slipped into irrelevance while the rulers of small oases in the Gulf are today among the world’s richest. The ultimate irony is that the descendant of the Nizam lives in an obscure apartment in a suburb of Istanbul. History clearly always has the last laugh.
World War II gradually brought about changes. By 1945, the Saudis had decided that American patronage and support was preferable to that of the British. Elsewhere in the Gulf, the British carried on, with less substance, but with a combination of bluff and bluster. An early body blow to British influence was the overthrow of their favorite Hashemite king in Iraq. Influence passed over to Republican leaders who remained Sunni, but who subscribed to Nationalist, Anti-imperialist, Pan-Arab, Socialist, Anti-western rhetoric. The loss of Aden seemed to complete the British eclipse. Aden styled itself as a People’s Democratic Republic, which of course was an oxymoron. It was actually a shabby, wretched communist dictatorship. Aden’s decline and the increasing importance of wealth from oil resulted in a set of tectonic shifts.
Newly minted expatriate Indian millionaires would come from Dubai and Oman. Thanks to a series of oil price increases and an overwhelming American military umbrella, the monarchies of the smaller Gulf states actually became stronger. They were spared the fates of Idris of Libya and Farouk of Egypt. India inherited, at least partially, some of Britain’s imperial mantle. For decades after 1945, the Indian rupee remained the preferred currency in the Gulf. But as India turned inward and autarkic, the Gulf countries looked to the globalizing economy for their opportunities and options. India’s short-sighted “controls” on gold provided Dubai with the opportunity of becoming the gold-smuggling capital of the world. One can of course go along with Walter Scott’s Mannering who believed that smugglers are misunderstood free-traders! The Gulf monarchies have retained their legitimacy and grown in importance by shrewdly combining religious symbolism, political conservatism and economic liberalism. In social matters, there has been a continuum with conservative Saudi and liberal Dubai being at two extremes.
The decline of Aden and the rise of Dubai, as the Singapore of the Middle East, has many parallels in the history of the ports of the world. One can think of the decline of Venice and the rise of Rotterdam, or nearer home of the decline of Surat and the rise of Bombay. Even when the Government of India was caught up in its own amnesia, the rulers of the Gulf countries never forgot their symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with India and Indians. Their immigration policies encouraged hard-working Indians of all classes who needed to escape the dreadful environment of suffocating controls that we had imposed on ourselves. Arguably, the Indian expat in the Gulf is among our greatest national assets—more important than our steel plants or navaratnas. In return, the Gulf states have acquired a sober, hard-working, talented and apolitical work force.
The American military intervention in Iraq has, like all imperial actions, resulted in planned as well as unintended consequences. Their foolish viceroy, Bremer, was simply not in the same class as the cynical Bell or the charismatic Lawrence. The British would have promptly partitioned Iraq, which after all they had created. A Kurdish republic in the north, a Shia state in the south and a Sunni dispensation in the centre would have been their prescription. Having prior experience in partitioning Ireland, India and Palestine, the British would have found a way to pull it off with minimum opprobrium.
Mind you, a mere partition would not have solved everything for all time. But we might have had a decade or two of stability, instead of the present frightening chaos. Further, the upsetting of earlier Sunni-Shia equations has had its impact not only on Iraq. From Bahrain at one end, to Aden at the other, the entire coastline seems to have caught a flu, which although relatively mild right now, could easily become aggressively malevolent.
It is in this context that one needs to look at India’s options in the Gulf. Ignoring official Delhi’s weakness for florid and often meaningless contemporary rhetoric, we must go back to our archives and re-read Wellesley’s files and Curzon’s minutes. We must consciously accept the fact that even though times have changed and no current situation is an identical incarnation of the past, we are in however limited a sense, inheritors of the mantle of the Raj. The continued existence, stability and prosperity of the monarchies of the Gulf is what India should aim for. Silly leftists criticize monarchies. They should read Burke.
Monarchies are important institutions of legitimacy. Even in affluent countries like Belgium, the monarch plays a cementing role, being the only Belgian in a land of the Flemish and the Walloons. Hopelessly divided Thailand hangs in there because of the monarch. On the other hand, the descent into chaos which we have seen in Afghanistan for some 40 years and more recently in Nepal can be attributed in many ways to the hasty way in which these societies got rid of their kings. A king might have been an acceptable peacemaker even in a fractious Libya today.
Stability in the Gulf is in our interests. Instability is likely to impact us negatively in every way: economically, strategically and perhaps even socially and politically. We are not an imperialist power and we cannot dominate the region, even if we wish to. We can, on the other hand, be a stabilizing, friendly, non-patronizing force emphasizing our ancient ties of commerce, which are often the best antidotes to war and violence. The Prime Minister’s warm embrace of the Princes of the UAE is an excellent beginning. We need to demonstrate the same warmth with the rulers of places like Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and even Saudi Arabia. Geography and history have both made this an imperative for us.
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