The Persian Gulf happens to be a significant region of trade for India. In 2016-17, for instance, the bilateral trade between India and the Persian Gulf touched US$123 billion; in other words, 18 percent of India’s foreign trade.
Bahrain officially called the Kingdom of Bahrain, is a small island country in the region. It seemed to have received inadequate attention in India’s foreign policy as compared to other countries of the region. This was until Narendra Modi visited it on 24-25 August 2019, making it the first visit to the country by an Indian Prime Minister.
During the visit, three MoUs were signed concerning space, culture, the International Solar Alliance and the RuPay card. Modi was awarded Member 1st Class of the King Hamad Order of the Renaissance, the country’s third-highest civilian award. This was in recognition of his efforts to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries. During his visit, Bahrain also announced that it had issued official pardons to 250 Indian citizens imprisoned in the country.
Despite factors like its limited oil reserves and a comparatively tiny economy, Bahrain remains a significant country for India. This can be reflected by the large expatriate population, of approximately 350,000 Indians, (mostly Keralites), living in the country. They comprise about a third of the Kingdom’s resident population. It can also be reflected in the fact that companies in Bahrain have shown much interest in investment opportunities in the energy and infrastructure sectors in India.
Bahrain launched ‘Little India in Bahrain’ project in November 2015, in the capital city of Manama. Initiated by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques, it was an acknowledgement of the contributions of the Indian community to the history and progress of Bahrain. Under the project, exteriors of various buildings were restored and renovated as well as small public spaces for holding regular markets, fashion shows, Indian food stalls, cultural performances, etc. were created, so as to give the visitors a feeling of being in India. Similarly, during his recent visit to the country, a 200-year-old Sree Krishna temple was formally launched to be renovated by PM Narendra Modi.
The domestic situation of Bahrain, though under control, is tensed due to the continued problem over Shia demands for political and economic rights. The Shias residing in the country have long complained of the growing discrimination against them, and their complaints have gathered more thrust since 2011-12. Bahraini allegations of Iranian meddling in the incitement of the Shia population in the country poses interesting challenges for India vis-à-vis Indian ties with Iran.
Even as it was a breakthrough in foreign relations between the two countries, there still remains a huge scope for further joint endeavours between the two countries. Contrary to what it may seem, I believe the two countries have huge potential together.