GCC and the Indian Diaspora in the context of Covid-19
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

West Asia is India’s strategic extended neighbourhood. No wonder India’s policy with respect to the region especially the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain) has acquired a new depth and has become truly multi-dimensional in the last six years or so. Prime Minister Modi galvanized it by creating an exceptional bonhomie and personalised style at the highest level of the leadership. The top level interactions and visits have multiplied enriching the ties further. Results have been obvious with important deliverables in the form of fresh investment commitments, repatriation and extradition of wanted criminals, crucial intelligence and counter terrorism cooperation, maritime security and defence cooperation, deepened engagement in energy security and strategic reserves, diaspora welfare and expansion in businesses that have a multiplier effect on the bilateral relationship. It is fair to say that India’s West Asia Policy has become a remarkable success story.

In this matrix of cooperation presence, role and welfare of the over 8 million strong Indian work-force, comprising of the finest professionals, blue collar workers and enterprising businesses, is very important. They have been crucial to the growth story of their host countries and are well liked and respected for their contributions and disciplined approach and are preferred over other expatriates. They have been remitting over $40 bn back home annually and this money normally stays for longer periods in the country and contributes over 10% of India’s foreign exchange reserves.

Covid-19 pandemic has not spared the Gulf countries either and has caused much greater challenges for the economies of the Gulf countries that are highly dependent on the revenue from the hydrocarbons. Demand contraction and low oil prices have negatively impacted their revenue generation and consequent economic activity, growth and employment. It is estimated that demand for oil has been reduced by 25% to 30% which combined with low oil prices further accentuated by the glut and OPEC and Russia and US competition will have long term impact and challenges. The debt to GDP ratio and fiscal deficits will be unprecedented. This has been further compounded by the Corona virus which has shut down industries, logistics and paralysed aviation to a great extent. UAE had to postpone its long awaited Expo 2020. Across the board adverse impact is expected to dent the economies of the gulf nations much after the Covid is gone. IMF has forecast a negative growth of – 3.9% for the GCC countries in 2020 even though it has projected an early and robust rebound in 2021. But in the interim the employment opportunities will be far smaller especially as the Gulf economies will be forced to restructure their economic models at least in the short and medium term. There might be greater focus to localise their labour requirements.

In fact, on the pro rata population basis the incidence of Covid 19 in the Gulf countries is far higher and is continuing to increase each passing day straining the healthcare systems. The expat blue collar workers have also become its victims. As such under the “Kafala system” they live in crowded housing and hence social distancing is not that easy to maintain despite all the efforts being made by the host countries not only to contain the community spread but also to provide them best possible treatment. Job losses and retrenchment has begun which will have a direct impact on India since they constitute the largest percentage of expat work force in almost all countries. The unemployed and surplus manpower have no option but to return to India. Many already did and even carried the virus with them. In early weeks India even evacuated large number of her people from several countries including highly infested Iran. India introduced stringent early measures by closing borders, flights and lockdown that has been extended until May 3.

In the wake of the pandemic PM Modi took to virtual bilateral and multilateral Summits including SAARC and G20 to underscore the need for global cooperation, strategy and solidarity to fight Covid 19. He also spoke to all the leaders of the GCC countries to discuss the Covid impact and expressed solidarity with them while offering all possible assistance to combat the pandemic. India has already sent its Rapid response medical teams and equipment and medicines to Kuwait and Bahrain and is ready to assist others as well where required. Leaders of all the countries personally assured the PM of the security and welfare of the Indian nationals living and working in their countries.

Recently, however, there was a news item in the UAE media about the advisory of UAE government to the labour providing countries to accept their citizens who have either been stranded, become unemployed or who wanted to return. UAE Ambassador to India said that a Note Verbale had been sent to all countries including India and that UAE will assist in repatriation of all such cases after testing and ensuring that they are not Covid positive. Saudis have also been keen to send non-essential expatriates. In Qatar, where the rate of infections has increased manifold, the Indian Ambassador in an article appreciated the Qatar government for providing treatment free of cost to all even if their work permits or health cards are not valid. Likewise, in the locked down industrial area supply of food packets by civil society groups has been appreciated. Indian Doctors Club and Associations in these countries have come forward to assist the community. Already the Gulf countries have relaxed visa norms and waived penalties for any overstay involved due to Corona emergency. But certain outcomes in such unprecedented crisis are inevitable.

Indian citizens are India’s responsibility and those desirous may be brought back to the extent possible after the travel restrictions have been removed as reportedly indicated by Indian Minister of State for External Affairs. Moreover, the Supreme Court had also ruled likewise. Indians have been advised not to panic and stay put as also stay in touch with our embassies. Mass repatriation of millions is neither practical nor feasible but no one should be in any doubt that India would render all possible assistance to its citizens wherever they are in the world. And this has been proved time and again.


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