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Seas just a footpath to a neighborhood of lives and times shared

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Sadaaqa, an independent production that aims at documenting and celebrating the civilisational ties between India and Kuwait, recently featured H E Sibi George, Ambassador of India. A seasoned diplomat, Ambassador George spent most of his career in the Middle East. He has served in Riyadh, Tehran, Doha and Cairo, and Islamabad and Washington. The years spent in the region makes him an expert on India’s connection with the greater Middle East and Kuwait.

Chaitali B. Roy interviewing Sibi George, India’s Ambassador to Kuwait, accompanied by his wife, Joice Sibi.

Here, Sibi George Ambassador of India speaks to Arab Times about the nuances of the historical and bilateral relations between India and Kuwait.

Arab Times: India House is such a beautiful place in Kuwait. I remember being told that this particular building was built brick by brick and stone by stone. Is that true?

HE Sibi George: That’s right. Bricks used to build the embassy was brought from Rajasthan in India. The Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Red Fort in India are built of similar stones. India House is an iconic building in Kuwait. I have seen that many of my Kuwaiti friends visit the embassy to know the house better. Some of them have actually imported the stone from India.

AT: You served in different parts of the Middle East. What would be your strongest takeaway from this region?

HE Sibi George: As a young career diplomat, you can select a region and a language in our system. I chose the Arabic language and this region as my region of specialisation. I started my career in Cairo, worked in Tehran, and moved to Doha and Saudi Arabia. Now I am in Kuwait. This region, which is part of India’s extended neighbourhood, is very important, and I chose to be in this region.

AT: Why did you choose to be in this region?

HE Sibi George: As a country, India has a very good connection with this region. The civilisational link has always fascinated me. And I chose to take this region as my region of specialisation. I really enjoy being in this region.

AT: You won the RK Singh award during your stint in Riyadh. Why did you win the award?

HE Sibi George: It is an award given to young Indian diplomats for their excellence in foreign service. In 2013, Saudi Arabia initiated a program to legalise people living there illegally for years. I worked with the government of Saudi Arabia and with the Indian community to fully utilise the opportunity available. It’s difficult to believe, but 1.4 million Indians benefited from that initiative. I had around 600 Indian volunteers who worked with the Indian embassy to help the community fully utilise the facilities offered by the government. In the end, it was a win-win program. So it was not a program to reduce the number of Indians but to legalise the status of illegals. We had full support from the government of India, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Indian community and Indian volunteers. We converted schools into centres, and the teachers and parents became our volunteers. That is one great thing I see in the Indian community. People come from the north, south, east, and west of the country; they speak different languages; they eat different types of food; they wear different dresses, but then at the end of the day, they work together to help each other. We have seen it in Kuwait during Covid times. I was told that 300 Indian associations had been banned when I arrived here. I said this is the time to fight Covid. Let us fight it together. Forget about other things. The first thing I did was make all associations part of the Indian Embassy family. We were going to work together, face the challenges together, and we were going to defeat the COVID 19 pandemic. When I look back at the last two years, I feel satisfied. I made every Indian part of this welfare program. Every Indian worked with the Kuwaiti authorities and contributed. So I again call this a win-win situation.

AT: I would like to ask you about India-Kuwait historical ties. How long does it go back?

HE Sibi George: We have very ancient links with the Arab region. If you look at history and trade in the area, India has been there for centuries.

AT: I remember attending a lecture on archaeologically finds in Failaka, which is off the coast of Kuwait. I recall hearing about archaeological remains on the island which go back to the Indus Valley civilisation.

HE Sibi George: This trading relationship was there for several centuries, particularly with Kuwait. For several generations, this relationship continued and flourished. There was a time when Kuwaitis lived in India for months to manage their business. And as you know, the Indian rupee was the currency till 1961. And in 1961, when Kuwait became an independent sovereign nation, India was one of the first countries to establish a diplomatic mission here. That is not the case with many countries. Some embassies are celebrating the 53rd anniversary, some are celebrating the 50th anniversary, but India and Kuwait are celebrating 60 years of ties.

AT: Kuwait traded in dates, spices, Arabian horses, and pearls in the past. From India, they brought back essential commodities. Sometimes, they came back in boats built by Indian craftsmen in India. The connection was very close. Infact Kuwait has always been among the top 10 trading partners of India. In 2018 and 2019, the trade volume between the two countries was 8.6 billion US dollars. Has this figure gone up recently? Have we seen any change during the pandemic?

HE Sibi George: Our relationship started as a trading relationship. If you look at the logo selected for the 60thanniversary celebration, there is a ship on it because that is a connecting link between our two countries. Our forefathers travelled on wooden ships, and now the trade is happening by ship. We maintained the trading links between the two countries even during the COVID 19 pandemic. Supply chains were disrupted all over the world. But in our case, we maintained the supply chain. India amd Kuwait are dependent on each other. For example, India plays an important role in Kuwait’s food security. Similarly, Kuwait plays an important role in India’s energy security which continued uninterrupted during the COVID 19 pandemic. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the food supply chain remained undisturbed. Of course, the oil import volume went down due to business activities being affected. But now we are back. Food material import to Kuwait continued uninterrupted. Import quantity went up during COVID because many Kuwaiti families didn’t travel, so consumption was more. Also, people purchased more to stock.

AT: Does trade between India and Kuwait concentrate on essential food commodities or has trade expanded?

HE Sibi George: We have a diverse basket, but the main element is food material. One reason is that Kuwaitis like Indian food. The largest rice supplier to Kuwait is India because Kuwaitis want Indian rice. Also, there is a huge Indian community here that consumes Indian products. There is a huge demand for Indian food materials here. We are working on three T’s: trade, technology, and tourism. In all these three sectors, Kuwait is an important partner. For us, collaboration is important. Kuwait is a natural partner for India in its economic progress, and they have always played an important role because this is an extended neighborhood. Second, you have seen reports of new investment from the Kuwait Investment Authority in India. This is an ongoing process. India is progressing. India is a country of billion opportunities. And Kuwait, a business-oriented country is seeing opportunities in India and investing. It is a mutually beneficial trade relationship which will continue to grow.

AT: How do you see the Indian contribution as a community to the growth of this country?

HE Sibi George: We have almost a million Indians in Kuwait. It is the largest expatriate community in Kuwait. Indians have played a very important role in the economic progress of Kuwait. The Indian community here is diverse. There are different types of people – businessmen, engineers, doctors, healthcare sectors, nurses, domestic workers, labour, skilled and semi-skilled workers. They have become an integral part of Kuwait’s economic fabric. They are contributing, they have contributed, and they will continue to contribute to the progress of Kuwait. I am very happy that Kuwait appreciates that, and this accounts for the large number of Indians who live in this country.

AT: In our first episode, Sheikha Souad Al Sabah mentioned family connection as a commonality between the two cultures. Indians are very family-oriented. To us, family is important. And in Kuwait, the basis of social structure is also the family. That is something that India shares with this part of the world. What would be the best thing about staying in this part of the world?

HE Sibi George: I would say you feel at home. It is an extended neighbourhood, which is one of the reasons I initially chose this region for my specialisation.

AT: You mentioned civilisational connect, which I felt when I first came here. That connection is in the music or dance of Kuwait, in the simple things which Kuwaitis used in the past. For example, the boxes in which they stored their belongins were made in India. The roofing of their homes was done with wood, which came from India and the east of Africa. Also, they use Indian spices in their food, Indian terms for cooking. Therefore, it is such a close intermingling of cultures that it becomes difficult even to differentiate whether it’s Kuwaiti or Indian.

HE Sibi George: You are right. This cultural linkages between our two countries has been there for several centuries, and it is continuing to progress. Both countries have grown. Both have evolved. If you go to a Kuwaiti home, you know you feel connected with your own country. When you have a meal with them, you feel that connection. I’m sure it is the same case with a Kuwaiti when he visits India. By Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times

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