Bridging the Gulf: UAE-India relations

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2015
Page No.: 
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Indian Prime Minister’s historic visit to the UAE and its impact
Ajay Singh
Sunday, September 20, 2015


One of the oft forgotten lessons of history are the linkages that the Indian Peninsula have held with the Arab States. From the beginning of the 19th Century till almost the first half of the 20th Century, the British Raj traditionally guaranteed the security of the different Sheikhdoms of the Arab States, in return for commercial ties and their support in the Great Game. That role could have been taken over by Independent India, but at that time, neither did the strategic vision, nor our own capabilities could support that role. In fact, it was Pakistan which seemed to have taken over the mantle, to a small extent. It is only now, in the wake of Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the UAE, that India seems to be making a strategic outreach to one of the most vital regions of its neighbourhood.

As India’s foreign policy Looked Eastwards since the days of Narasimhan Rao, the vital significance of the West was often overlooked. Ties with the UAE and the other Gulf states were often viewed through a Hindu- Muslim prism, with the natural assumption that the Arab states would veer towards Pakistan – which they did. There was little that we did to either counter their influence or enhance our own sphere of influence in the region. There has been no visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years - the last being by Mrs Gandhi, way back in 1981. What makes Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit different is the strategic import which reflects the changing geo-political equations of the region and the Middle East.

Historically, traditionally and culturally, India and UAE have much in common. There are 2.6 million Indians in UAE, who comprise of almost 20 % of its population and send home remittances to the tune of $14- 16 Billion per annum. The UAE is India’s third largest trading partner, its fourth largest oil provider, and tenth largest investor. This time, Modi used people to people outreach to bring out the commonalities between the two nations, speaking first from the Grand Mosque, and then extracting a promise of land for the construction of a Hindu Temple in Abu Dhabi. These were not merely symbolic acts. They signified the tolerance and co-existence which is an integral part of Indian and the UAE’s culture. They also bring out the influence of the Indian diaspora which now is one of the strongest elements of our soft power in the region. 

The visit also saw a dramatic shift of the Gulf States away from Pakistan. The Arab States have been traditionally allied with Pakistan, turning a blind eye to its activities of nurturing Islamic terrorism and even offered financial and ideological support to the Wahabi form of Islam they propagated.  UAE’s dramatic renouncing of Pakistan and shift towards India reflects the changing geo-political realities of the region.

The shift is based on three factors. Firstly is the realisation that the US interest in the Gulf is waning, partly due to war-weariness, and largely due to the discoveries of abundant shale oil, which reduces its dependence on Gulf oil. The US security umbrella that hovered over the Gulf States is likely to recede in the future. The Gulf States need other parties closer to home, to develop security ties with. Russia, China and India are the obvious contenders. But Russia and China are viewed warily. Geographically and in terms of historical and cultural ties, India emerges as a favoured strategic partner not only for the UAE but for the other states in the region. It is a role we have to learn to undertake.

The other is the rise of the Islamic State and the growth of Shia-Sunni sectarianism. For too long, the Gulf States have been insulated from the Wahabi form of terrorism that they covertly supported. Groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban received much of their manpower, funding and ideological support from them and were free to carry out their activities in distant lands. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only two nations, besides Pakistan, that recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Yet, with the emergence of the Islamic State the threat has come closer home. Rather than just providing a nudge and a wink, they now have to actually counter the menace rising in their back yard. Unlike Pakistan, which has some measure of resilience to withstand terrorist attacks, the Gulf States with their fragile political system, need internal peace to sustain themselves. In the battle against Islamic terrorism, they are stake-holders and to counter this form of terrorism, India is a logical partner.

There is also a realisation that the oil economy is now stagnating. Oil has plummeted from over $100 a barrel to around $ 50 a barrel now. The fall in oil prices, coupled with a reduced demand from the US and Europe (thanks to Shale oil) has already seen the oil dependent economies of Nigeria and Russia virtually collapse, and others could follow suit. The UAE and the Gulf States are now veering away from the oil based economies to a more diverse one. UAE itself hopes to transform itself into a financial, technological and tourism hub on the lines of Singapore. As it moves into fields such as education, medicine, the development of small and medium scale industries, Indian expertise can help give it a fillip.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit addressed each of these aspects. More than just an economic relationship, it provided a strategic import to Indo-UAE ties. The strategic partnership which was announced between India and UAE marked out joint action against terrorism as its main theme. It clearly spelt out the need to “Oppose terrorism in all forms, calling on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructure and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice.”  Each one of these clauses is directed at Pakistan, without naming it directly. While it is unlikely that Pakistan will dismantle its terrorism apparatus, it can be denied funding from the Gulf, and will also add to the pressure to bring Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi of 26/11 to justice. It could also put curbs on the activities of Dawood Ibrahim, who has long used both Pakistan and the Gulf  as a haven, thus helping fulfil two long-standing Indian demands. 

The strategic agenda includes Intelligence sharing, cooperation between enforcement agencies, interoperability between the two forces, and even joint development of weapon systems. What it implies is that it is not only anti-terrorism which is on the anvil, the entire gamut of security cooperation comes within its ambit. It provides for greater maritime cooperation for the first time between the two navies. If correctly followed up, it will enhance our own maritime influence in the Gulf and help reduce China’s influence through Gwadar port. The UAE also extended support to help develop India’s strategic petroleum reserves, both in terms of crude and stowage capacities, which will help build up buffer stocks at a time when oil prices are low.  Support for India’s Security Council candidature is again a tacit recognition of India’s stature as an emerging power.

The tallest building in the world is now in Dubai and the largest Investment Fund, a whopping $800 Billion, is based in Abu Dhabi. Both symbols provide immense opportunities. India offers a $1 Trillion investment opportunity extending across sectors such as housing, transportation, smart-cities, railways and infrastructure. The UAE- India Infrastructure Investment Fund has pledged $75 Billion for investments in India which will help boost its new-generation infrastructure. In return, Indian businesses can help transform UAE into the financial, technological and tourism hub that it envisages for itself in the future.

The partnership that is being developed with UAE can be replicated with other Middle East nations, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is the logical next partner especially now that it has come out of isolation following the historical nuclear deal. Iran can be India’s most vital strategic ally in the Middle East (with the development of a relationship akin to that with Japan) and  similar linkages can be developed with Teheran. Yet, with the different power equations of the Middle East, a delicate balancing act will have to be attained in our policies. Most nations have come together against the scourge of the Islamic State, but paradoxically the Shia - Sunni schism that has been created by its rise, is stronger than before. Even if the Islamic State is finally curbed, the schism is likely to continue. The rise of Iran will also fuel the traditional rivalry between Sunni Saudi and Shia Iran. We would thus have to balance our options carefully to ensure that we are not seen as tilting towards any one side.

The greatest advantage is that India is now being seen as an example of plurality. For all its numerous flaws, it is still a model where all religions and sects co-exist in relative harmony. That model of plurality and tolerance will enhance its overall standing and help provide greater leverage amongst the Islamic states of the region.

It will be a shame if the strategic and economic breakthroughs in Indo-UAE ties are stymied by the slow pace of reforms in India or by bureaucratic stonewalling. Narasimhan Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy took a decade to fructify and two decades to bear fruit. With the ground conditions being what they are, the time is ripe to launch a more aggressive ‘Look West’ policy directed at the Middle East and extending towards Africa. This policy will bear fruit far more rapidly, provided the words are followed up by concrete measures on ground. If the economic and strategic initiatives proposed during the visit are actively followed up, it could just provide a springboard for our ‘Look West’ policy.