Since his accession to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have embraced blatant Islamophobia as a core pillar of their governing strategy. Given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, it not surprising that high-ranking BJP officials often make hateful comments about Muslims. Nonetheless, until recently, the Indian government’s Islamophobic policies and rhetoric have not damaged the country’s strong and multifaceted relationships with the Gulf Arab states.
Rooted in thousands of years of history, Indians and Gulf Arabs have enjoyed deep cultural and economic ties. The lack of any condemnation from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states following the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, which for decades gave Jammu and Kashmir special autonomy, underscored the extent to which Gulf Arab officials prioritized good relations with New Delhi over taking a stand against rising Islamophobia in Modi’s India.
A Step too Far
Throughout its most recent period in government, the BJP has pursued fiercely nationalist and anti-Muslim policies, including wide-ranging restrictions on Muslim places of worship in India. One of the most severe flashpoints in the country is the Gyanvapi mosque, which Hindu nationalists argue was constructed on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. On May 26, after India’s Supreme Court ruled that the mosque should be protected, BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma made remarks that mocked Islam and insulted Muslims. Naveen Kumar Jindal, the BJP spokesman for the Delhi region, also tweeted insults against the Prophet Muhammad. These statements sparked a diplomatic firestorm that has strained India’s relationship with the Gulf Arab states.
On June 5, the Qatari foreign office summoned New Delhi’s ambassador to Doha, Deepak Mittal, for a meeting in which “concerns were raised with regard to some offensive tweets by individuals in India denigrating the religious personality.” Kuwait took similar action, and the next day, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) foreign ministry slammed what it called “hate speech” that ran “contrary to [its] moral and humanitarian values and principles.” Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded “respect for beliefs and religions,” emphasizing that Riyadh “reaffirms its permanent rejection of prejudice against the symbols of the Islamic religion, and refuses to prejudice all religious figures and symbols.” The Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad Al-Khalil, responded to the “obscene” remarks from BJP officials by taking to Twitter to demand a boycott of Indian products.
The backlash came not only from the Gulf Arab states, but also from other non-Arab Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, the Maldives, Pakistan, and Turkey. Muslims in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have taken to the streets in protest. In countries as far away as Algeria, many Twitter users have used the hashtag “Anyone but the Prophet, oh Modi.”
Arguably, this backlash from governments and societies throughout the wider Islamic world represents the most difficult diplomatic test with Muslim countries that Modi has so far faced during his time in office. In response to the diplomatic firestorm, the BJP leadership suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal from the party. GCC member states welcomed this move.
A Manageable Crisis
Ultimately, the odds are good that the Gulf Arab states and New Delhi will find a way to limit the damage caused by the controversy, mindful of the importance of India’s relationship with the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab states seek greater autonomy from the United States and other Western powers, as they prepare for the “post-American Gulf era.” India is a major trade partner for the Gulf states and an important pillar of GCC members’ “Look East” policies.
Moreover, “India is also a large market for Gulf states to hedge their energy exports as the West continues to outlive its utility of Arab oil. The decline of the West and static economic growth rates have also made India…necessary for Gulf countries to court,” writes Monica Verma, an expert on the political economy of South Asia and regional integration. Indeed, with the GCC’s trade with India on the rise and a potential free trade agreement on the table in the future, Gulf Arab states recognize the benefits of maintaining ties with a market of 1.4 billion people.
During an interview with the Gulf International Forum, Dr. Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, remarked that “India can provide a lot of soft-power influence to the Gulf countries, and [GCC officials] will be careful not to antagonize the Indians too much.” He continued: “I think [the repercussions are] going to be verbal. I think most of it is happening on social media. Government officials [in GCC states] have also called it out, condemned it, but that’s the extent of it. We need to look at this in the context of the East-West divide, particularly when the Saudis and Emiratis are looking to alternatives to the West. So, India is an important trading partner. India can provide a lot of soft-power influence to the Gulf countries, and they will be careful not to antagonize the Indians too much.”
Although he has not personally apologized for the Islamophobic comments, Modi has responded to the crisis by taking steps to distance himself from the BJP officials who made them. Although the Indian prime minister has used his movement to incite anti-Muslim hatred in the public sphere, he also has a record of often disassociating himself and the BJP from such inflammatory rhetoric when backlash occurs. Considering that his country depends on energy imports from the Gulf and that half of India’s foreign remittances are sourced from GCC countries, Modi realizes that this row could potentially impact India’s economic outlook. “In the energy crisis right now, it’s not a good time to antagonize the Qataris,” explained Dr. Krieg. “I don’t see this going any further because neither side has an interest [in further worsening the situation]. This is a partnership in the making and India has traditionally been a very strong partner for the Gulf.”
It is worth considering the timing of the Gulf Arab states’ diplomatic moves. As GCC states never condemned the BJP’s Islamophobia in the past, why is it that the Gulf governments have taken such a public stand against the BJP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric now? There could be several factors that explain the Gulf Arab states’ strong response to the current controversy. With energy prices soaring, GCC officials “likely feel they can pressure India to adjust some of their rhetoric, and maybe even defuse some of the anti-Islamic ideology that fuels Modi’s base, because India very much needs access to the Gulf states’ oil and gas reserves in the wake of the war in Ukraine,” explained Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor/RANE, in an interview with Gulf International Forum. “Right now, India needs the Gulf Arabs more than the other way around.”
Despite this leverage, Bohl predicted that GCC pushback against the BJP’s Islamophobia would remain limited. “New Delhi could, in the extreme, try to offset Gulf Arab economic pressure on energy by trying to buy Russian energy instead. That is part of the reason I don’t expect a full-scale economic boycott of India, at least not anytime soon.” In spite of the ongoing tensions, the Indian Prime Minister and Emirati president are still scheduled to attend the first summit of the “I2U2” group in July, alongside the U.S. President and Israeli Prime Minister.
In the grander geopolitical context, it is notable how the Gulf Arab states (as opposed to Western powers) have successfully pressured India’s BJP into censuring two of its officials in the wake of their offensive remarks. It is all the more interesting considering India’s hostile response when similar concerns were aired by the United States. When the Biden administration spoke out against the Modi government’s Islamophobia and the rise in violent attacks against Indian Muslims several weeks ago, the leadership in New Delhi reacted defiantly and accused U.S. officials of “ill-informed comments.”
By contrast, the GCC states have proven that they have sufficient leverage over New Delhi to force the Indian foreign ministry to label Sharma and Jindal “fringe elements” of the Indian government. Ultimately, the current trade and energy ties between India and the Gulf Arab states are so important that officials in New Delhi cannot brush the crisis aside.
While the wider Arab-Islamic world suffers from so many political divisions and conflicts, the speed and cohesion with which governments of Muslim-majority countries united against the BJP’s Islamophobia is notable. To this end, the GCC states acted firmly, using their energy leverage and deep economic relationships with New Delhi to play a leading role in condemning anti-Muslim hate and pushing India’s government to address behavior that the ruling BJP has traditionally abetted.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.