By Mohammed Sinan Siyech
Research on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East region often focuses on the large powers of the region such as the Gulf nations as well as nations like Israel, Iran, and Turkey amongst others. Within this ambit, India’s bilateral relations with smaller nations are often ignored.
This article tries to fill this gap by presenting a brief introduction to India-Yemen relations, a nation that is currently embroiled in a civil war between the incumbent Abdur Rabi government —supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia—and the Zaydi Shia tribes called the Houthis (supported by Iran) since 2014. Relying on material from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ archive, the author’s personal experience dealing with Yemenis in Yemen and India, as well as academic articles and news reports, this article provides a brief outlook of Indo-Yemeni ties by tracing its history, outlining its aims in the country, and providing areas for future co-operation.
A brief history
India’s history with Yemen is characterised by a deep yet unassuming history of more than 2,000 years with trade links extending between the southern coasts of India and the southern coasts of Yemen. Arabs from Yemen imported spices, especially pepper, coconuts, and pearls, amongst other goods, from India. With the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD, many Arab traders travelling from transit points like Aden and Mukalla also brought their religion with them soon establishing mosques across parts of Kerala and South Karnataka.
Since then, people from other parts of India such as Hyderabad, Gujarat and Maharashtra also began to establish strong links with Yemen. Various Parsi businessmen, for example, had strong links with the nation and Yemeni soldiers, famed for their military expertise, served with Maratha kings such as Nana Phadnavis and later with the Nizam of Hyderabad in the 16th century. Yemeni dishes such as Hareesa were later Indianised to what is now known as Haleem, showcasing the transfer of food and culture between these regions.
Most prominently, after the British conquest of the port of Aden in the late 1830s, India and Yemen acquired new layers of links with Parsi businessmen shifting to the region for business. Indeed, in the late 1950s, Dhirubai Ambani, the business magnate responsible for creating Reliance Industries, began his empire after a stint in Yemen. Over time more than 300,000 Indians settled in Yemen and close to 100,000 Yemenis settled in various parts of India.
India’s freedom movement against the British empire also energised Yemen’s population and many leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, and others addressed Yemenis on the way to Britain. India also became amongst the first nations to recognise both the Southern and Northern parts of Yemen in 1962 and 1967 respectively—the two countries united in the 1990s. In recent times, India had invested in the pharmaceutical and oil and gas industry with trade amounting to almost US $3 billion in the mid 2010s before dropping significantly due to the war.
India’s interest in Yemen
While not at the centre of India’s Middle East/West Asia policy, Yemen occupies some level of significance for India in the region. For one, historically, Yemen (both South and North) was amongst the nations that India had extended its solidarity to over the last half century as part of its outreach to nations formerly colonised by imperial powers. Accordingly, India often provided various forms of aid to the two nations as well as scholarships to its citizens in the fields of IT, agriculture, science, English, and other areas resulting in Yemeni students now inhabiting various parts of Bangalore and Aurangabad. In return, India has often enjoyed the support of Yemen in platforms like the United Nations (UN) where the former has backed India’s bid to permanency in the UN.
Second, extending outreach to Yemen has also played a role in engaging with the broader Arab and Muslim role. Although India’s relations with other Arab/Muslim nations were shaky at best in the pre-Cold War era, it’s outreach to Yemen resulted in the latter often supporting India in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), which was often pre-disposed against India on the issue of Kashmir. In recent times, this eagerness to connect with the Arab world led to India accepting more than 700 soldiers fighting for the Abdur Rabi regime against the Houthis in the Yemeni civil war for medical treatment on behalf of the UAE.
From a geostrategic perspective, Yemen is close to two strategic naval chokepoints—the Bab el-Mandeb, which runs between the Horn of Africa and the southern tip of Yemen) and the Straits of Hormuz, which is overlooked by the island Socotra. Together, these two chokepoints have access to almost 30 percent of the world’s oil trade as well as other items. Consequently, its security is important for India leading to both India and Yemen being part of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to boost maritime security.
Moreover, on an economic level while Yemen is not as big a player as Saudi Arabia or Iran, it does contain reserves of oil and gas which Indian companies such as Reliance amongst others had invested in heavily since 2006. While these companies have had to recently relinquish or divest their presence in Yemen due to the political situation, the post-conflict potential provides immense economic opportunities for India.
Assessing the future potential of India–Yemen relations
With the Yemeni civil war raging on since 2015, India has taken a long approach to engaging with Yemen. While India has largely alluded to peace in Yemen at an official level and has maintained an ostensibly neutral stance in the various conflicts in the Middle East, it is likely more aligned with its allies, UAE and Saudi Arabia’s position, i.e., with the incumbent government of Yemen, due to its treatment of UAE-sponsored soldiers.
This co-operation with UAE and Saudi Arabia also gives it some space to engage/advice with Yemen and the two nations on issues of counterterrorism. Yemen is home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most powerful arm of al-Qaeda as well as the Yemeni faction of the Islamic State. AQAP had previously exhorted Indian Muslims to revolt against the Indian government. While its calls largely went unheeded, it is still a group that India should be wary of, if it were to expand its presence in Yemen in the future.
Given India’s affordable yet well-established private healthcare system, it is already a medical destination for many and engaging with Arabic speaking professionals will help to further its image as a responsible host for Yemenis.
Over time, India would hope that the conflict in Yemen will subside. A conflict-free Yemen is good for India in that it will be able to expand its economic presence. Specifically, India will look to increase its activities in the field of oil and gas as well as on issues pertaining to agriculture. India could also consider providing post war reconstruction assistance and aid to enhance its goodwill amongst the Yemeni population and with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
There is also some scope for India to provide medical and educational tourism to Yemeni citizens coming after the war. Given India’s affordable yet well-established private healthcare system, it is already a medical destination for many and engaging with Arabic speaking professionals will help to further its image as a responsible host for Yemenis. Moreover, as this author has observed in Yemen, Indian cinema is much regarded amongst Yemeni citizens and makes India an enticing destination for Yemeni tourists. This provides even more potential for tourism in a post-COVID era. As such, many areas exist where India would be able to grow its ties with Yemen.
India’s relations with Yemen have been deep-seated and inconspicuously steady for more than five decades arising from anti-colonial sentiments, maritime security, aspirations in the UN, economic considerations, and geostrategic importance, especially with respect to UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen becomes a key part of unlocking India’s power in the Middle East region, proving that strategic considerations and not religion is behind India’s foreign policy calculus—as in the case of India’s relation with other nations of the Gulf. Although military power is not present in India’s foreign policy outreach, its assistance and post-war aid to Yemen can really help project a stronger image in the Middle East. India should look to leverage its decades-long relationship and people-to-people network to make this a reality.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).