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The Khaleej and India

How will the instability in the Gulf impact India’s economy?

Political instability in the Middle East will likely have an impact on India.  We have already seen how the uprisings in Egypt and Libya have affected the lives of the over 18,000 Indians living in that part of the world.  The potential impact of the deteriorating situation in Bahrain will be far greater, where about 300,000 Indian expatriates live.  GCC countries today are home to about 4.3 million Indians.  This, of course, does not include the many undocumented (mostly blue collar) Indian workers in the region.  In some cases (as in Dubai, which experienced an influx of workers in the last decade), the number of undocumented workers as a percentage of the total population of expatriate Indians will be considerable.

But beyond the potential effects to the lives of Indian citizens, political disturbances in the region will also have an impact on India’s economy.  Today, remittances account for about 4% of India’s GDP (considerable, but not as high as other countries in the subcontinent).  Remittances to India as a percentage of GDP have also (somewhat interestingly) increased over time, and with the liberalization of India’s economy (from 1.1% in 1985, 2.8% in 2000 to about 4% in 2008).  As of 2008, the Gulf was the largest source of remittances to India at about 40%:

(Source of data: Reserve Bank of India)

Two important points need to be made here: first, while we already know that India leads other nations in terms of total dollar remittances ($46 billion, 2008), it does not include remittances made via hawala transactions.  Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has worked with Gulf countries to strengthen their finance and banking regulations to ensure control over hawala transactions (which, by their very nature, have been helpful to terrorists to finance attacks against the U.S. and India).  However, according to some estimates, hawala remittances to India from the Gulf are still pegged at about 30-40% of legal remittances.  That would effectively put total remittances from the Gulf to India at at least $60 billion.

Second, when one considers remittances as a percentage of net state domestic product (NSDP), some states will likely be far more vulnerable to political uncertainties in the Gulf than others.  According to a study published by the Centre for Development Studies, remittances to Kerala as a percentage of the state’s economy was at 30%.  Further, per data published in the same report, it can be inferred that remittances from the Gulf alone can be pegged at about 28% of the Kerala’s economy.

While the most immediate impact of the repatriation of Indian citizens from a worsening situation in Bahrain could result in a momentary spike in remittances, as some suggest was the case during the first Gulf War, it will undoubtedly have a medium- to long-term impact on the economies of states in India that depend heavily on them.

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Rocking the Casbah

Social mobilization and the role of the Internet in the Middle East

In the midst of massive street protests, Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) decided to pull the plug on about 3,500 border gateway protocol (BGP) routes to Egypt, thereby cutting off the country from the Internet.  A significant step, because much of the mobilization for the disobedience movement occurred through social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague at the Takshashila Institution, Srijith, writes on the importance of importance of an open, unfiltered Internet to any democratic setup.

For reasons beyond merely Egypt’s ability to control information flow, this blog had previously articulated why Egypt will not go the way of Tunisia.  Even as Cairo simmers, The Filter Coffee stands by that argument.  But the Egyptian experience raises interesting questions on the role of the Internet as a tool to mobilize and sustain social movements in the Middle East, more so the Arabian Peninsula. It also raises questions about the scope for a Tunisia-style social upheaval in the Peninsula.

Consider this excerpt from Bogon Monitoring (via Vyūha)

Yesterday there were 2903 Egyptian networks, originated from 52  ISP’s. Transit was provided via 45 unique isp’s. Today at 2am UTC, the numbers look quite different, there were only 327 Egyptian networks left on the Internet. These were originated 26 by ISP’s.So 88% of the Egyptian networks is unreachable! [BGPmon]

Social upheavals are few and far between in the Peninsula.  Certainly, no precedence exists in the modern history of the states that form the GCC of any such upheaval.  There have been occasional bouts of unrest in Bahrain, but those are largely on sectarian grounds.

So hypothetically, if social, political and economic circumstances in any country in the Peninsula came to mirror those Egypt or Tunisia, could a popular uprising even be mobilized?  The NDP was able to render 50% of Egypt’s ISPs (some, presumably, privately-owned) inoperable in a relatively short span of time.  In the Gulf, of course, there are but a handful of ISPs in each country, and even that is a charitable numeration.

The UAE, for example, has 5 (1 major, 4 minor) ISPs.  These are either wholly-owned by the regimes or operate at their will.  As telecommunications companies, these operators also provide a variety of other services — cable TV, telephone and mobile communication.  If there is the slightest probability of a popular mobilization in the Gulf, it is almost certain than there will be a virtual information blackout.  Western governments will, of course, pressure these regimes to restore communication, but only to a point, for they too understand the implications of instability in that part of the world.

Therefore, if social media is to be  a vehicle for the democratization of the Middle East through social movements, what hope does it give those who romanticize of a “liberated” Middle East?  The answer should worry such proponents.

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End of Story, Morning Glory?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is experiencing the antithesis of the “Dubai Chalo” mantra of the ’60s and ’70s.  Dubai is likely the shed 10% of its population over the next two years, as a result of unmanageable debt, failing businesses and shrinkage of property values.   This is only to be expected —  unsound economics have driven Dubai’s growth in recent years.  Unlike other states in the Arabian Peninsula, Dubai has no oil of its own.  Indeed, from the emirati pearl merchants of the early 1900s to the establishment of the Jebel Ali Port in the 1970s, its historic strength has been trade.

However, the single minded pursuit of turning this free-trade town into a megacity rivaling New York or Los Angeles is as bad an idea today as it was when it was conceived.  And now, conservative but oil-rich Abu Dhabi, who many said was slow off the mark in this maddening real estate circus, is having the last laugh.  The Maktoums of Dubai have had to had to swallow their pride and approach Abu Dhabi to bail them out.  But even Abu Dhabi’s bailout of Dubai comes with strings attached:

[T]he rapid deceleration had given rise to speculation that Abu Dhabi, the richest member of the UAE, might have to bail out its flashier neighbour. Rumours spread that Abu Dhabi would only stump up the cash if Dubai ceded control of its successful airline, Emirates.

Federal support has come through folding Dubai’s troubled mortgage companies into well-capitalised Abu Dhabi banks. There have been other direct discussions between Dubai and Abu Dhabi state companies, although none has reached agreement.

Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai International Capital fund, whose assets have shrunk sharply, briefly courted investment from Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi investment arm. No substantive discussions ensued, people close to the matter say, but the incident fuelled rumours of a bail-out. Well before the credit crisis raised questions about Dubai’s solvency, Mubadala and Dubai Aluminium had been discussing equity restructuring of their joint venture, Emirates Aluminium, a vast smelter on the Abu Dhabi/Dubai border.

What Dubai needs to do now is to rightsize.  New York City was not built overnight.  Even if NYC’s economy relies heavily on financial markets, these markets trade against tangible products — from the pharmaceuticals of New Jersey, to the automobiles of Detroit.  Dubai’s financial markets trade in recycled financial instruments, which have a tendency to flourish during the good times, and falter during the bad.  This blogger also feels that Dubai (and the UAE as a whole) needs to address debt insolvency.  Given that foreigners and foreign owned entities form the majority of Dubai’s demographic and economic footprint, a credit history check system such as the one in the United States would be ineffective.  Yet, there is an urgent need to address the frequency with which expatriates and foreign-owned companies run up substantial debt and abscond from the country.  The current economic crisis in Dubai is as much a result of a nonexistent debt reconciliation system, as it is due to building artificial islands, skyscrapers and magical kingdoms that no one could afford.

The one benefit of an Abu Dhabi bailout might be that the UAE would start functioning more like a federation with a visible nucleus (Abu Dhabi) than the disagreegated collection of city-states that it now is.

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US – UAE Nuclear Deal

Very quietly, the United States and the United Arab Emirates have signed a deal that will allow the UAE to develop nuclear reactors and obtain nuclear fuel from the US, under the 123 Agreement framework. Under the agreement, the UAE, which is already a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), will be subjected to nuclear safeguards inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and will forgo the right to enrich/reprocess spent Uranium fuel. The whole nuclear program of the UAE will apparently be under US management, pending IAEA approval.

Since its birth in December 1971, the UAE has experienced massive economic growth on account of its petroleum reserves. This initial economic growth gave rise to two main economic power centers in this federation of seven emirates — Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and largest emirate by area, whose revenues are driven by oil, and Dubai, the most populous emirate, whose revenues are driven by trade and financial services.

Economic growth lead to investments in infrastructure and construction, resulting in the arrival of hoards of blue – and white collar workers, primarily from the Indian subcontinent, to fill the employment vacuum. This sustained population growth, particularly in Dubai, has forced the UAE to consider alternative sources of energy. By some estimates, UAE’s demand for electricity is likely to rise to 40,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020. However, UAE’s energy sector is projected to be capable of meeting only about 50% of this demand.

The 123 Agreement is yet to be ratified by Congress, and will still need to be approved by the President of a new US administration. Barack Obama has not publicly stated his views on the issue. The deal has already met with vociferous disapproval from members of Congress. Rep. Brad Sherman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade subcommittee, said:

“Any (nuclear cooperation) agreement between the United States and the UAE should not be submitted to Congress until, at a minimum, the UAE has addressed the critical issue of transshipments and diversion of sensitive technologies to Iran.”

If that’s the Congressman’s line of thought, then this is yet another classic example of the kind of cluelessness that has come to typify the thinking of successive US administrations on matters concerning the Middle East. Indeed, Iran is the one country that can be counted on to get irked by the proposed deal.  Relations between “Shi’a” Iran and “Sunni-Arab” UAE have always been icy.

A major bone of contention between the UAE and Iran is with regard to the Abu Musa and Lesser Tunb islands, unilaterally occupied by Iran, but claimed by the UAE. The Abu Musa archipelago lies within the strategic Straits of Hormuz corridor, an area vital to the petroleum driven economies of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, as Anthony Cordesman points out, there are two specific areas of concern for Abu Dhabi — (a) the presence of a significant Iranian immigrant (potential “fifth column”) population in the UAE, and (b) the strategic proximity of Dubai and Sharjah to the old Iranian port-town of Bandar Abbas. The vulnerability of the northern emirates’ shipping channels to Iran’s airbase in Bandar Abbas is a source of worry for UAE’s rulers.

For its part, Iran can’t be too pleased with the cosiness exhibited smaller Arabian Peninsular countries like the UAE and Qatar towards the United States. US military bases in the UAE, like those in Jebel Ali and Al Dhafra, and UAE’s ambivalence towards the US invasion of Iraq can’t have helped matters much either.

This nuclear deal is a bad idea — not because of an alleged UAE-Iran nexus, but because the UAE will be susceptible to an Iranian military assault either if Iran-UAE relations deteriorate, or if Iran has its back to the wall in any future US-Iran military confrontation. The UAE can ill afford be in a military conflict with Iran — the repercussions will be felt far beyond the region, given that expatriates make up about 80% of the total population of the UAE.

Allowing the accumulation of nuclear material in a politically and militarily weak country situated in the most unstable region on earth, and in the proximity and cross-hairs of Iran, is foolish. To think that this will impress upon Iran the virtues of towing Washington’s line with regard to nuclear technology is an exercise in naiveté. Far from making the UAE politically and strategically more secure, the deal will prove to be an albatross around Abu Dhabi’s neck.

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