Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The visit of Foreign Minister of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani to India during 6-8 April reiterates the expanding political relations between the two countries. For long, political visits between the two were fewer. The last visit of King Hamad to India took place in February 2014, while no Indian prime minister had ever visited the Kingdom since 1947.
As part of his ‘Look, West policy’ of cultivating Gulf countries, Prime Minister Modi ended the prolonged Indian indifference and visited the Kingdom in August 2019. Indeed, since 2014 there were three visits by External Affairs Ministers; two by late Sushma Swaraj in January 2016 and July 2018 and one by her successor Dr S. Jaishankar last November. In between, Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Manama in October 2016 towards strengthening security cooperation.
During Al-Zayani’s visit, both sides held the third meeting of the Higher Joint Commission co-chaired by the foreign ministers and the Bahrain Foreign Minister also made a courtesy call on Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu. In his meeting with his Indian counterpart, Foreign Minister Al-Zayani expressed interest in setting up pharmaceutical and vaccine production units in the Kingdom with Indian cooperation; and for its part, New Delhi is also hoping for greater access to the pharmaceutical market in Bahrain.
These moves were the spinoffs of the MoU on healthcare cooperation concluded in July 2018. Both sides also continued exploring space cooperation, including capacity building in Bahrain, as outlined in the March 2019 MoU.
In recent years, security cooperation figures prominently in the Indo-Bahraini relations and the joint statement issued during the recent visit spoke of institutionalising security dialogue through maritime security, intelligence sharing, cyber-security cooperation and periodic security consultations.
Moreover, both countries agreed to further develop their cooperation in a host of areas, including oil and gas, trade and investment, health, food security, defence, security, renewable energy, education, culture and digital technologies.
Like other oil-producing countries in the region, Bahrain is also affected by the Covid pandemic, but even after repatriation flights, about 350,000 Indians are currently employed in the Kingdom. For a long, Bahrain has taken measures towards ensuring the welfare of the Indian expatriate population, and Indian leaders do not hesitate to flag their appreciation. For its part, Bahrain thanked India for gifting 100,000 doses of Covishield vaccines.
With shrinking oil reserves, Bahrain is committed to diversifying its economy, and this provides an opportunity for India to explore non-oil cooperation with Manama. Though heavily dependent upon its bigger neighbour Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has been exploring new political and economic avenues with other countries. Moderate its approaches, Bahrain has been a staunch supporter of India and its policy of fighting externally-fostered terrorism. Manama’s recent decision to normalise relations with Israel, another friend of India in the region, offers new avenues for trilateral cooperation.
The visit of the Bahraini Foreign Minister comes at an interesting time. There is a power transition in Bahrain following the passing away of Khalifa al-Khalifa last November. King Hamad’s uncle was the longest-serving prime minister in the world and held that position since January 1970, even before Bahrain became independent and played a key role in strengthening the bilateral relations with India and visited New Delhi frequently. He is succeeded by King Hamad’s son, Crown Prince Salman. Interestingly, Dr. Jaishankar’s November visit to Manama took place within days after the power transition. Keen to reach out to the new leadership, during al-Zayani’s visit, Jaishankar reiterated Indian desire to host the Crown Prince at an early date.
Bahrain is one of the few countries in the wider Middle East that is more accommodative of its expatriate population’s religious and cultural needs. Public display of non-Muslim religious and cultural symbols could be widely noticed in the Kingdom. The Indian side thanked the government of Bahrain for the safety, security and welfare of the Indian community, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and expressed its appreciation for facilitating repatriation flights and providing free Covid-19 vaccination to all, including the Indian community.