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When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in 2014, several countries in the Middle East felt that there might be a dilution in India’s policy towards the Arab world in general and Palestinian issue in particular, given his closer relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Chief Minister of Gujarat. No doubt the relationship with Tel Aviv has been strengthened over a quarter of a century especially in the defence, cyber and technological domains. Israel also tended to stand up for India whenever the issues pertaining to counter-terrorism and threats from Pakistan arose. The Arab world’s reading was not far off the mark if one were to only look at it from a superficial perspective. But India’s foreign policy has a historicity with well-entrenched values and strategic autonomy and multilateralism as its defining principles. In addition, if we wish to evaluate a relationship, we could look at it from a historical perspective, transactional engagement and strategic imperatives aimed at serving the national interest as the underlying theme. From India’s perspective 3 Es “Energy security, Economy and Expatriates” underscored her engagement.
Much to the dismay of detractors, PM Modi’s first visit was to UAE (2015) followed by other countries in the region including Israel. In fact, it was a feat of sorts since this milestone was set nearly three decades after Indira Gandhi’s visit (1982). There was a deficit of high-level exchanges that are so very essential a marker of the state of a bilateral relationship, especially in the Arab world. Unfortunately, the Pakistan factor always put a rider. Modi not only visited UAE three times in the last seven years but was also conferred the highest “Sheikh Zayed” award by the Emirate. Likewise, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), Crown Prince and de facto ruler not only visited India twice but was also the Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day – a unique honour for visiting statesmen that attests to a special and important partnership. Historicity apart, in the past few years, the bilateral engagement has moved from a transactional-buyer seller and matter-of-fact relationship to a Strategic Partnership. Several agreements encompassing non-traditional areas like defence, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, space and nuclear energy as well in healthcare and investments in India’s strategic reserves have been signed over the years and more importantly, they have been operationalised. As such the taste of the pudding is in eating.
The UAE has been trying to diversify its economy through socio-economic reforms and a long-term vision by providing a very unique image of itself as an open and high-tech modern nation where religious tolerance is the mantra. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran or for that matter Turkey that derive their religious authority from historical conferment, UAE is trying to adopt a modernistic tolerance-driven model. No wonder the Pope’s visit, its World Tolerance Summits as well as allocation of land to India for building a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi are seen as secular efforts in that direction. Moreover, working for a happiness quotient and establishing a Ministry for Happiness and a Ministry of Artificial Intelligence are the steps in the right direction. India, a secular democracy with the second-largest Muslim population, obviously appreciates these developments that tend to enhance social harmony and economic development.
Post Arab Spring or rather in its 2nd and 3rd Avatars compounded by the Covid pandemic, most oil-rich economies have begun to diversify their economic model, which was essentially based on oil revenues, as several of them have come under financial stress and budget deficits. UAE is no exception and has been diversifying its economy from hydrocarbon-based to renewables and nuclear. It is also aiming to acquire a technical edge to cope up with the demands of the AI-driven industrial revolution 4.0. The digital economy with fintech and other tools will add to its financial clout and edge for remaining as the major financial hub for the region and the world. It also aims to enter into the space age and at least be the first in the region and it has the unique distinction of being a part of the international program to explore Mars. In all these areas and efforts, India and UAE have inherent synergies which are being exploited to mutual advantage.
In recent years, UAE’s foreign policy has also become more ambitious. It does not hesitate to use its military-economic heft to achieve those objectives. It has been evident during the Arab Springs and the Yemen war as well as the Qatar blockade or for that matter in its opposition to Turkey and the latter’s propagation of political Islam in various theatres like Libya. Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. Even with its security partner Saudi Arabia one witnessed an unusual overt display of differences at the OPEC+. It maintains a working relationship with Iran too and does not mind Iranian investments while resisting Tehran’s political designs. USA is also a playing ground for all in the region and in view of the Biden Administration’s resolve to return to JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal), Abu Dhabi seems to believe in smart, sharp and pragmatic diplomacy. Hence, the Abraham Accords with Israel under the tutelage of President Trump provided it with the requisite edge without getting embroiled in existential issues like the Palestinian cause.
At the same time, for Tel Aviv, it is a diplomatic win to gain acceptability, market access and investments in UAE and elsewhere. Already a US$ 3 billion Abrahamic Fund has been created and the relationship is moving rather fast. India welcomed the Abraham Accords in the quest for peace and development. Since India has excellent relations with both countries this could be a win-win collaborative matrix in high tech areas including cybersecurity and healthcare. The prospective trilateral could bring the best practices of the three nations to create new-age technology and business solutions also applicable to other countries and continents such as sub-Saharan Africa. to ensure food security and counter-terrorism. India has its strengths and presents a huge opportunity. The UAE can bring in investments and Israel can contribute innovation and technology to create the right mix and model to take these initiatives forward. Likewise, India and UAE can work together on Syrian and Libyan reconstruction efforts as well as in Afghanistan to stabilise the situation since Abu Dhabi does have levers and IOUs with the Taliban should the need arise. India’s world view of the Indo-Pacific has a credible potential for collaboration with the Gulf state.
In the bilateral domain, Delhi and Abu Dhabi have done remarkably well especially in trade and investments as well as in energy and food security apart from maritime domain and frequent military exercises. UAE has committed to invest $ 75 bn in India in diverse sectors. Several projects are already in the pipeline. Dubai has remained a major transit hub for Indian trade and often has ranked as its second or third-largest trading partner. Prime Minister Modi invited ADNOC and Mubadala to invest in downstream projects in India’s hydrocarbon sector also. Strategic oil reserves are a priority for India and the agreement on Oil Storage and Management between Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Limited signed in January 2017 underscores that crude oil supply from the UAE for the Mangalore cavern would be a significant transformational step in building a strategic partnership in the energy sector. More importantly, for the first time, Abu Dhabi awarded a major oil concession to an ONGC-led consortium from India in the ADMA-OPCO field in Lower Zakum which signalled emerging strategic engagement in the energy sector. In order to keep track of various high-level promises and agreements, a High-Level Ministerial Taskforce has been created.
As the bilateral strategic partnership has moved in a higher orbit both countries can work together in regional and multilateral contexts since both will be in the UNSC together and India will also be chairing the G20. Since counter-terrorism has emerged as a major area of collaboration and as the UAE supports the Indian initiative of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism while acknowledging the devious role played by Pakistan, much can be achieved jointly in this regard. The exceptional invitation from the UAE to the then Indian Foreign Minister to address the OIC meet, much to the chagrin of Pakistan, as well as its balanced view of India’s abrogation of Art 370 in J&K and of terrorist attacks in Pulwama by Pak based terrorists that attracted Indian surgical strikes on Balakot (Pakistan) speak of an unprecedented maturity in the bilateral relations. However, no relationship can be taken for granted especially as Chinese footprints through its BRI project expand and have the potential to result in a zero-sum competition in the region. Hence, it is imperative that the two sides remain mindful of mutual sensitivities and of security, and stability dimensions of the emerging dynamic in Asia including strategic rivalry among the current superpowers. Since stability in West Asia is of utmost importance to India, it is necessary that India explore the possibility of working in a regional context by designing a comprehensive security plan with the cooperation of the UAE and others. As such they expect India to play a greater role in regional affairs as a trusted and benign partner of choice. Whether India bites the bullet remains to be seen!