How India’s diaspora affects its role in a multipolar Middle East

A foreign worker uses his mobile phone at a construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 13, 2006. The United Arab Emirates should crack down on employers abusing the rights of migrant workers who are key to the Gulf Arab state's construction boom, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES) - RTR1JAWF

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The fracturing of intra-Gulf relations between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others will increase the roles played by a growing number of external powers in the Middle East. While the United States and Russia have long displayed their military power, and China is known for its economic power, India’s presence in the Gulf is distinctly shaped by its massive expat community there. Upon hearing of the Qatar crisis, the Indian foreign minister’s first response (covered by the global media) was to stress that Delhi’s priority was helping stranded Indian workers.

India’s diaspora provides an unassuming asset to New Delhi; a unique soft power advantage that improves India’s image as it competes with more powerful states. Simultaneously, however, it constitutes an added burden than can restrict Delhi’s strategic options.

The Diaspora

India’s diaspora in the Gulf, numbering between around 7 and 8 million, has of course always been important to the country’s economy and its policy objective of alleviating poverty. The Gulf is India’s main source of expat remittances. In 2015-2016, Indian workers sent back $35.9 billion in valuable foreign exchange.

But New Delhi’s interest in the region is no longer restricted to economic transactions of selling labor and buying oil. Partly in line with the country’s other major objective, to raise its global status, India has growing strategic and security interests in the Middle East. In achieving these interests, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely deploy several diplomatic instruments, including one it has utilized more than most previous governments: soft power.

In the Middle East, one of India’s most distinct soft power assets is the diaspora and its role in buttressing a positive image of the country. Indian workers are often known for being peaceable, tolerant, and willing to work hard under harsh conditions. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the agency dedicated to supporting India’s diaspora, states that the country’s tolerant, pluralistic society “in which people of different faiths, languages, ethnicities and political persuasions co-exist and thrive” is key to India’s positive migratory movements and labor mobility.

As an Asset

The long-time presence of the diaspora helps to anchor bilateral relations. This provides tangible benefits, such as making it easier for Middle Eastern governments to justify to their populations the expansion of ties with Delhi in sensitive areas like defense cooperation.

The diaspora also builds upon, cements, and acts as a present-day reminder to the public in Middle Eastern countries of the historical and cultural links between the two regions. Members of the diaspora have an in-depth understanding of both cultures. It is of note that Kerala and other western Indian states (some of the largest providers of labor to the Gulf) were also the site of some of the first interactions between the peoples of India and Arabia. Compared to other Indian states, Kerala has a history of relatively peaceful Muslim-Hindu-Christian relations, providing a good basis for co-existence and multicultural understanding. The scale of emigration to the Gulf is resulting in increased cultural exchange with Keralites back home, many of whom adopt culinary, linguistic, financial, and other practices of the region, though in some cases this can lead to the import into India of forms of Islam which may increase communal divisions.

Key representatives of the diaspora have been instrumental in developing bilateral ties. Member of Parliament E. Ahamed, linked to Kerala’s diaspora, was influential in building relations for India with Middle Eastern leaders. He led the crisis management group formed in response to the abduction of three Indians in Iraq in 2004 and secured their release.

The diaspora also contributes to India’s soft power independent of government policy, providing a steadfast anchor in relations unaffected by policy shifts in Delhi. Other dimensions of India’s soft power, such as its non-interference and neutrality—which it rushed to highlight at the onset of the Saudi-Qatar crisis—may change as India’s interests in the region grow and different Indian administrations respond with varying foreign policies. For instance, Congress governments had been extremely low-key with regard to ties with Israel, but the Modi administration has brought the relationship out of the closet. While such changes in policy emphasis may impact how Delhi is perceived on the Arab street, the diaspora helps provide an assurance to populations in the region that India is a long-term partner.

A Constraint?

Despite this, the very importance of the diaspora to India and the critical need to sustain remittance flows can provide a politically sensitive headache for Indian foreign policymakers. Delhi’s ability to maneuver strategically is somewhat restricted, given the fear that Gulf states would source labor elsewhere.  This is of course mitigated by the the fact that the size of India’s labour force and existing logistics mean Indian’s diaspora are not easily replaceable.

The welfare needs of the diaspora also provide some leverage to Gulf states when negotiating with India. Low-skilled and unskilled workers often endure conditions that violate their workers’ rights, and suffer abuse by employers, something well known by voters back in India. Any steps to improve working conditions require Gulf state cooperation. While for decades Delhi offered only piecemeal responses, this has changed in recent years. Visits to the region by Modi and his external affairs minister focused on the diaspora and flagged its importance as a policy concern. The centerpiece of the prime minister’s visit to the United Arab Emirates was an address to a stadium packed with expats.

Action Needed

Despite these restraints, on balance, the maintenance of the labor trade is in India’s overall interest and as such, addressing diaspora welfare concerns needs should be a priority. Doing so can even provide India an opportunity to advance its objective of rising in global status. It has more opportunity to act so now, thanks to its growing economic clout and increased ability to project strategic power across the Indian Ocean. Delhi policymakers can take comfort in the fact that the size of India’s diaspora labor force—as well as existing logistics—suggest it would be difficult to replace.

As the largest external provider of labor to the Middle East, Delhi has a major role to play in improving working conditions. It can improve its image across Asia, where many states see their workers facing unjust treatment in the Gulf. It will advance India’s persona as a protector and leader of the developing world, something it has sought to project since independence. In doing so, Delhi will need to continue to tread tactfully, of course, to avoid Gulf states being spooked into trying to source labor elsewhere.

India’s competitive advantage will not last indefinitely, at least not to the same degree. In the future, the economic downturn and the global growth of renewables will increasingly force Gulf states to transition more towards indigenous labor. Rising wages in India will likely change the composition of its diaspora and reduce its overall size. This provides more impetus for Delhi to make maximum use of this soft power tool while it can.

The Middle East region is becoming increasingly multipolar. Sword dances notwithstanding, the post-Cold War unipolar moment, at least as it relates to the Middle East, is receding, not only due to a re-assertive Russia, but also the entry of emerging powers China and India. The road ahead will be bumpy with Indian policymakers having to balance the needs of diverse groups of workers. Indians who run labor agencies and occupy managerial levels may have interests differing from those of semi- or unskilled workers. But as the scramble for the Middle East continues to unfold and India has to compete with wealthier, more powerful states like America, Russia, and China, the diaspora is a unique asset Delhi cannot take for granted.