Of the multiple countries that are a part of the Middle East region or what is also termed as the ‘Near East’ or ‘West Asian’ region- two of the pioneering positions are taken by the United Arab Emirates (henceforth referred to as UAE and Saudi Arabia. These two countries occupy top positions in almost all matters in the Middle East region- thus, occupying an important role in the vast region. For this very reason, these two countries also hold considerable value at the Global level as well. Through this piece, an attempt would be made to highlight the history of the two countries, the culture that the residing citizens practice, the political scenarios in the two countries and special emphasis would be paid on understanding these countries’ relation with India.
The UAE is actually a federation of seven states, which in the past were barely a quiet backwaters.1 Seeing the extent to which it has today developed and has turned into an extremely economic centre, this fact does leave eyes wide open! The country is spread over an area of 77,000 sq.km- with a population of 8.1 million people residing in the country.
Located in the Arabian Peninsula, the country borders Persian and Arab Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. 2 Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, and Fujairah- are the seven states that together come to form the United Arab Emirates, or what is also referred to as the Emirates.
Next to UAE lies its neighbouring country of Saudi Arabia- which is located along the Red sea. To the country’s east lies the Perisan Gulf , the treasure of oil reserves and what increases the importance of these two countries by multitudes. 3 In the north, the country shares its borders with Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait; while it shares its borders with UAE and Qatar in the east.
The country currently houses 34.8 million people, which is spread over a vast area of 2,149,690 sq.km. 4 Such an area makes the kingdom the largest country in the Arab Peninsula.5
History of the two neighbours
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia goes back in history where it has its roots in the Arabian Peninsula- which goes back 15,000-20,000 years back in time. 6 Clearly, Saudi Arabia has an immensely important historical connection as well- which needs to be widely acknowledged.
The first Saudi state came into being when a religious teacher and schoar, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab entered itno someting lke an agreement with the ruler of the town of Diriyah, Muhammad bin Saud. Bth of these indviduals vowed to dedicate themselves to the cause of restoring the true values ad principles of Islam among the Muslim community. Therefore, with the intent to promote and profess the ideals of Islam, the first state of Saudi came into being- uner the spiritual guidance of Abdul Wahhab, who was also known as the ‘Sheikh’. 7 subsequently, by 1788, the Saudi state came to expand and practically ruled the whole of the Central peninsula, called the Nujd.
Moving ahead in time, by 1824 the al-Saud had regained control over the Central peninsula, as they had initially held. A few years into rule, the Saudi ruler- Turki bin Abdullah Al-Saud, in a bid to expand the Al-Saud empire, shifted his empire’s capital to Riyadh, which subsequently was established as the second Saudi state. In 1865, the Saudi kingdom witnessed an invasion by the Turks, who were successful in gaining control over some parts of the Saudi empire. However, these successes were temporary as the Saudi were able to hit back with a larger military.
The history of Saudi Arabia, as we know it today begins with the reign of Abdul Aziz al-Saud- who went on to consolidate the empire and also displaced great military strength in being able to recapture the parts of the empire that were taken over by the Turks. In a time period of three decades, Abdul Aziz reunified and reorganized the country. Ultimately, in 1927- he was officially proclaimed or declared as the King and in 1932, the country was named as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 8
Like it’s neighbour, the UAE has a deep historical connection as well. The region can be dated back to about 6,000 BC. Starting from the 16th century, there was a growing European interest in the region where the Emirates is presently located. The region saw invasions and interest from the Dutch, the Portugese and the British. However, these were not very stable attempts and it was only for a short while that these colonial powers could get into agreements for commercial purposes.
The present day UAE, is a constitutional federation. It was on December 2, 19719 that this independent sovereign and federal state came into being, comprising seven emirates, as also highlighted above, : Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah.
The foundations of a federation were first laid in the year 1968, when the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, H. H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan met with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then Ruler of Dubai on February 16 of that year. A pertinent decision was taken in this meeting wherein both the rulers decided to merge their emirates, which would also remain open for other emirates to join. 10 the agreement involved that both the emirates would jointly conduct their foreign services, would join defence or military forces and would also have one common immigration policy. This agreement ultimately came to be termed as the Union Accord .
In order to strengthen the federation, the two rulers invited the rulers of the five other Emirates along with Bahrain and Qatar for discussions on the possibility of them uniting. Discussions were held from 25th to 27th of February 1968, wherein all the participating members reached an agreement on 11 points to form the ‘Federation of the Arab Emirates’. As the official website of the country states, the purpose of this federation was understood as follows:
However, due to several events and breakouts in the federation- Bahrain declared its exit and therefore, independence from the federation in August 1971, following which later in September the same year, even Qatar opted to exit from the federation. Therefore, the seven emirates came together, with emirate Ras Al Khaimah joining in 1972, to form what we today know as the ‘United Arab Emirates’.
Traditions and Political Atmosphere
Although two different countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia share nearly the same cultural traditions. This cultural similarity can be traced back to the proximity of the two countries, wherein both the countries underwent the same historical developments and were essentially, the part of the same region in the history, that is, the Arabian peninsula. However, differences exist as well.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is defined by its core Islamic values and heritage- which is not a recent development but goes back way in time. This is because Saudi Arabia is the present day region where the advent of Islam actually took place. The Arab way of life and culture dominates the country and the citizen’s lifestyles. 12 Islam, thereforee, has a major influence in the daily lives and even political and adminisitrative functionings of citizens and the authorities in the country.
The official language of the Kingdom is Arabic 13, which is also the laguage in which the Holy Quran is authored, and is the Holy book of Islam. Islam is also the legally and officially recgnised relion of the Kingdom. The kingdom, which is kown to be the birthplace of Prophet mohmad, the founder of Islam- also houses two of the most reered places of worship in Islam- the Makkah and the al-Medina. 14
Having an eerily similar cultural background, the UAE too has its roots in the Islamic culture and tradition. Although English is widely spoken, the country’s official language is Arabic. All the political matters in the country are driven by the Islamic law or the Sharia- which serves as the background to all such political mtters. 15 However, despite Islam being the pre-dominant religion, the country, along with its government remains tolerant to citizens practing other faiths as well. However, in addition to this,there is a discouragement at the national level against Muslims converting to other faiths and there are also strong legal repercussions for individuals or groups trying to convert Muslims.
The inhabitants of the UAE follow a distinct set of traditions and practices- which in turn define their distinctness in a world of different cultures and traditions. This can be understood in terms of the prevailing traditions like the serving of the wide-known Arab coffee to guests, in the special Arabic coffee pot- known as the Dallah. 16 This is served as a welcoming and accepting gesture.
Focussing on the politics of Saudi Arabia, we discover that the Kingdom is an Arab and an Islamic sovereign state. This also reflected from the fact that the Kingdom’s constitution is the Holy Quran and the Sunnah- which are the religious books of the Islamic faith. The Kingdom’s king is also regarded as the Prime Minister of the Country and legislates state matters and makes sure that there is appropriate application of the Isamic law, or the Sharia’t. 17
In 1992, as the bylaws of the Kingdom were amended and new ones introduced- it was stated that the purpose or the duty of the state was to ensure the protection of its citizens. Even in the political discourse, there is a lot of emphasis on the nucleus and the unit of family.
The country follows a monarchical system, with the King being the ruler of the country. The present ruler of the country is King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, belonging to the al-Saud family which has been the ruling dynasty since the foundation and creation of the kingdom.
In the kingdom, the citizens have the right to elect half of the members of the Council of Ministers, while the King nominates the other half- which are usually the members of the Royal family. Since it is a monarchy, there is no culture at all of political parties in the country and no opposition is also encouraged in the country. In 2015, women were for the first time given the right to vote and also allowed for women to stand and contest in the municipal elections. 18 This marks an important and much-needed reform.
There is a strong influence of the Islamic religious leaders (ulama) in all the decisions that are made. The King is chosen from among the members of the Royal Family, but this choice is to be approved by the Ulama. This only proves the importance that the institution of the Islamic religious leaders holds in the Kingdom’s decisions.
The UAE, neighbouring to Saudi Arabia, is in contrast a constitutional federation of seven emirates. The Constitution lays down the major principles on which the political and social systems of the country operate. The Constitution comprises 152 articles- which provides quality to all citizens and equal rights and opportunities to them irrespective of their backgrounds.
It was in 2006 that elections for the Federal National Council were introduced. Previously, from the period between 1972-2006, all the 40 members were nominated to the council. However, starting 2006, 20 members were elected to the Council, while the remaining 20 were nominated to the council by the seven Emirates. 19
The chief of the state of UAE is President Khalifa bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan, who has been in power since 2004 and is the ruler of Abu Dhabi. While the head of the government is the Vice President and Prime Minister, Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, who is the ruler of Dubai.
In 2019, UAE also made a shift to ensuring gender equality at the political level, by bringing in a clause that mandated that half of the members of the Council are women. Elections for electing half the members of the National Council are held every four years. The electoral college for these elections has rapidly expanded over the time, as the country expanded the voting rights to more and more citizens. In the first election in 2006, the electoral college comprised merely 7,000 citizens, subsequently, this number expanded to 224,000 people in 2015 and 337,000 citizens by 2019. 20
The political systems of both the countries therefore, can be interpreted that they are eerily similar. This is also because of how the rule in the two countries has been in the past as well. Although there is a completely centralised monarchy in Saudi Arabia, the UAE being a federation of Emirates, has separate rulers, who have an integrated power at the national level. At large, the Islamic law possesses a great influence in political decisions in both the countries. The degree of includene, however, does vary. One appreciative step has been regarding the incorporation of women at the political level national councils.
The economic gamechanger: Oil
Both the countries of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are a part of what is known as the Middle East region. What is iconic to this region is also widely known, and that is it’s vast oil reserves. And these vast oil reserves are specific and are found in large quantities in the two countries in discussion.
The discovery of such a vast and widespread reserve of oil has really transformed the economy of these two countries. Of all the reserves in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the largest known reserves in the region and the second largest oil producer in the world after Venezuela. 21
The oil reserves in the Middle East is so vast, that the regional countries have a separate organisation specifically dedicated to the trade of oil. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is an intergovernmental organisation of the oil producing countries in the region. 22 The organisation was formed in 1960 during the Baghdad Conference, by five countries: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. More countries joined the organisation subsequently, with the UAE joining in the year 1967.
As is stated on the OPEC’s official website, oil was first discovered in the kingdom od Saudi Arabia in March 1938 in the Dammam oil field.23 Whereas, in the UAE it was discovered in 1958 in the Bab-2 well. And since then the two countries have come a long way- this is evident from the number of current oil reserves the two countries have. As of 2016, Saudi Arabia owns 66,578,000,000 barrels of proven oil reserves, which contributes to 16.2% of the world’s total oil reserves. 24 The UAE, which is ranked 7th in the world in terms of oil reserves,possesses 97,800,000,000 barrels of proven oil reserves [as of 2016]. As a result of these oil reserves, UAE contributes 5.2% to the total oil reserves in the world. 25
The oil- trade and production is so integral to Saudi’s economy that it is known to be an ‘oil-based economy’. The earnings from oil and petroleum production contributes majorly to the economy. The petroleum sector is 87% of the total budget revenues. It contributes 42% to the GDP and 90% of the export earnings. 26 In the case of the UAE, 30% of the Gross Domestic Product of the country is due to the oil and petroleum reserves’s production and sale.27
However, the story about the trade and production of oil is not as simple as it might seem. There are global oil wars from time to time, with the most recent one being in the last year itself. The battle so as to capture the global oil market is ongoing virtually every time at the international level. There was a major oil war between two major oil producers of the world- Saudi Arabia and Russia- both of whom were determined to increase their oil production. 28 Consensus is difficult to reach in such situations as even Russia refused to agree to OPEC countries about reducing its oil production by 1.5 million bpd. This led to further price plumbing in the global oil market.
Placing India in the picture
India and Saudi Arabia
The relation between India and Saudi Arabia goes back in time to the period when India had gained independence in 1947. A few years after independence, the top leaders of both the countries visited each other’s nations simultaneously in 1955 and 1956. In the latest visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, between October 28-29, 2019, on the invitation of His Majesty King Salman- the ‘Strategic Partnership Council’ was signed between the two countries. This made India as one of the Kingdom’s strategic partners under ‘Vision 2030’. 29
The two countries also share extremely integral economic relations as well. Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner. And the kingdom helps India meet 18% of it’s crude oil requirements and 30% of it’s LPG demands. 30 The bonds between the two countries have only strengthened over the years, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman also visiting India in 2019.
There also has been a shift in the stance of the Kingdom over India’s Kashmir issue. From being an outspoken critic of India on the issue of Kashmir, Saudi Arabia has now taken a ‘neutral’ stance on the issue. It also condemned the February 14, 2019 attack on th Indian Army by terrorists in Pulwama. This shift to a neutral stance is a huge development. 31
The navies of the two countries were also scheduled to have their first-ever joint naval exercise in March 2020, which however had to be postponed due to the pandemic. In terms of the two countries’ relations, energy and defence have been two great factors. The aspect of energy trade is already known to us, even defence has come to be a pertinent aspect. Saudi armed forces have on multiple occasions attended military training sessions delivered by the Indian forces at various locations across the country.
Recent official visits
The current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 29 October 2019. The visit was marked by a strong emphasis on the historical ties between the two countries, that go back to the day of the formation of the Kingdom. There was a renewed commitment to the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ of 2010. As stated by the joint statement, a discussion on the Syrian crisis also took place between the leaders of two countries, apart from discussion on other international issues as well.
More importantly, an emphasis on the barbaric nature of terrorist activites was put and it was agreed upon by both the nations the danger that terrorism poses to civilisations and innocent civilians. An agreement was also made to acknowledge the ‘universal nature of terrorism’ rather than linking it to a particular religion, class or caste. 32
The above stated instances indicate New Delhi’s commitment to strengthen and maintain cordial ties with Riyadh. Over the years, subsequent Indian PMs have made an attempt to further strengthen the relations between the world’s largest democracy and the Kingdom. It is also important to understand that Saudi Arabia holds an important place in the Indian foreign relations- the large Indian diaspora living in the country and the dependency for oil and petroleum supplies- being the two of the most prominent reasons in this need to maintain good relations.
India- UAE relations
The foundations of India-UAE relations were in place since the creation of the federation of the UAE in 1971. Diplomatic relations were formally established in 1972. The two countries have focused on strengthening the relationship in terms of economic, defense and law enforcement measures.
Investments from the UAE in India continue to be at a high alaywas. The Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) from the Emirates into India reached an all-time high of $9 billion, making it the 10th largest source of FDI in the country.33 In 2015, the India-UAE Business Council came into existence and since its inception, the council has been working on ensuring economic synergy and ensuring a better environment for business.
In 2018, the two countries also signed a MoU [Memorandum of Understanding] to generate an estimated $20 billion over the span of a decade, keeping in view their bilateral relations. UAE is also the second largest export destination for India. Goods worth $29 billion were exported by India to the UAE in the year 2019-2020. 34
In 2015, the two countries also agreed on establishing the UAE-India Investment Fund, wherein an agreement was pinned down of reaching $75 billion of investment to support India in it’s rapidly developing infrastructure. Indian investments in the UAE also continue to remain high, with such investments amounting to about $85 billion. 35 Such economic investments, large number of trade deals and MoUs, signify the ever-strengthening relations between the two countries.
The most recent visit by current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Emirates was on August 22, 2019- which was marked by the leaders of the two countries releasing a commemorative stamp celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
Most significant part of the whole visit was the honour of ‘Order of Zayed’ conferred to Indian Prime Minister Modi by His Highness, ruler of UAE. The ‘Order of Zayed’ is the highest civilian decoration. This was certainly an important development and cemented the already strong relations between the two countries.
The visit again is important in the value that the UAE holds for India, it is not only the fourth largest crude exporter to the country, but also the country’s third largest trade partner.36 With such important economic links, it is certain that both the countries are keen on maintaining this relationship.
Going beyond just maintaining ceremonial ties, the two leaders also collectively launched the RuPay card to promote digital payments. All of such events indicate the proliferating ties between the two countries. From honouring history to laying down foundations of future payments together- the two countries hold importance for each other. And this is only expected to grow in the coming years.
Deliberating on Remittances
India has the second largest diaspora in the world- with 25 million Indians living across 110 different countries. 37 A large number of these citizens stay and work in the region of the Middle East. Approximately 3.42 million Indians live in the UAE 38 and Indians form the second largest diaspora in Saudi Arabia. About 1.5 million Indians live in the Kingdom, of which majority work in the hospitality and the mining sectors.
After Independence, the migration from India was majorly to the Gulf countries, that too, primarily the two countries in discussion. With such a large Indian diaspora working and living in these two Gulf countries, there is also a huge amount of remittances that enter India from these two countries. The remittance network between these two countries and India is so strong that it is one of the most widely known aspects around the world.
It was pointed out by the World Bank in one of it’s reports that due to the onset of the pandemic across the world lat year, there might also be a decline of 14% in the amount of remittances sent to low and lower-middle income countries, from $548 billion in 2019 to $470 billions in 2021. 39 India is the topmost country in receiving remittances from across the world. In 2020, it received 9% of the total remittances generated in the world. 40 However, despite this fact- it is acknowledged that due to the large Indian diaspora in these two countries, there is a huge amount of remittance entering the countries from these two Gulf/ Middle East nations. Cordial ties with them become all the more important.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates constitute the major pillaring nations of the Middle Eastern region. From having a distant political structure in place to very strong cultural institutions- the two neighbouring countries have made a strike in the world.
More than their political and cultural systems, what makes these two countries all the more important is their oil reserves, as has been highlighted in the above instances. With India in picture, we realise that the relations with these two countries have been cordial and have been improving- as the leaders of these countries discuss more contested issues like terrorism and Syrian civil war as well.
With rising conlift over the control of oil and petroleum trade, the focus on these two countries increases even more. This was evident in the recent Saudi-Russian oil war in the past year. Such developments not only affect the two conflicting countries or just the Gulf countries but the whole world in terms of rising crude oil prices. As developments around the world continue, how it affects these two countries and specifically, India’s relations to the Kingdom and the Emirate remains to be seen.