By Ranjit Gupta*
In December 1999, a hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft that had been diverted from Kathmandu to fly to Kandahar, which had deadly Pakistani terrorists on board, had been on the tarmac in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) for over five hours. No Indian official was allowed access to the airport and an Indian request for permission to raid the aircraft was summarily turned down. The UAE was the only country other in addition to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which was a strong supporter of – and had diplomatic relations with – the extremely anti-India Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
As Pakistan continued its descent into internal and cross-border terrorism against Afghanistan and India, the UAE finally recognised that such Pakistani-sponsored terrorism posed grave dangers to the entire region. Deeply alarmed by the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the UAE government despatched a high level security team to Mumbai within 24 hours for detailed discussions with relevant Indian agencies. Since then, the UAE has been providing India the best anti-terrorism cooperation of any country in the world. It has been repatriating most of those India wanted for terrorist activity within India despite Pakistan’s intensive efforts to prevent such repatriations, including going to the extent of often claiming that those persons were Pakistani nationals.
Trajectory of Bilateral Relations
Encouraged by this and the burgeoning socio-economic bilateral relationship, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided that West Asia needs special attention. He visited the UAE in August 2015, 34 years after former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the country, becoming only the second Indian prime minister to do so. Again demonstrating his now well well-known international reputation of establishing great personal rapport with foreign leaders even in their first meetings, he invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to visit India, who did so in February 2016 – in less than six months after Prime Minister Modi’s visit. This was the highest level visit from the country since UAE President Sheikh Zayed’s 1975 visit to India.
In their Joint Statement issued in February 2016, the two leaders had said that it is “the responsibility of all states to control the activities of the so-called ‘non-state actors’, and to cut all support to terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states.”
Greatly encouraged by this, the exceedingly satisfying bilateral discussions, and the Crown Prince’s numerous gestures of high personal regard for the prime minister and friendship for India, Prime Minister Modi accorded the Crown Prince a singular honour by inviting him as Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations. An announcement in this regard is almost invariably made in December or even January but this time it was done in September 2016, and exceedingly significantly, in the immediate aftermath of India’s surgical strikes in response to attacks by Pakistani terrorists on a military camp in Uri in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. The morning after this terrorist attack, the UAE in a statement had said that it “stand(s) against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and expressed… solidarity with the Republic of India and support to all actions it may take to confront and eradicate terrorism.”
The Crown Prince, UAE’s de facto head of state, has visited India twice in less than 12 months and the two leaders have met three times in less than 18 months. Such frequency is unique in India’s bilateral relations with any country and indeed unprecedented in international relations.
Continuing concern related to terrorism was expressed in all three joint statements and eloquently reflected in the two leaders joint op ed in the Times of India and the Khaleej Times on 26 January 2017: “We have denounced and opposed terrorism in all forms and manifestations, wherever committed and by whomever, calling on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they exist, and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice. We believe that this approach is crucial for fostering an environment of peace, stability and prosperity in our region.”
Status of India-UAE Relations
Some other notable facts about the current bilateral relationship deserve attention:
1. The UAE supports India’s proposal for the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and India’s Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council.
2. Internal security in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was always accorded the highest priority. Given the multiple wars raging in West Asia since 2011, this has become a far greater concern than it did earlier. In this context, that 2.8 million Indians live and work in the UAE – more than double the number of locals – and being by far the largest expatriate group in the country, and with the number increasing every year, represents an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India.
3. From a mere $180 million in 1971, India was UAE’s 8th ranked trading partner from 1990-91 till 2000-2001; the ranking began rising rapidly thereafter and in the past decade, the UAE has invariably been amongst India’s top three trading partners and amongst India’s top two export destinations, and in both cases, more than once being number one.
4. Indians have invested $55 billion in the UAE. During Prime Minister Modi’s 2015 visit, the UAE agreed to invest $75 billion to upgrade India’s infrastructure, particularly in strategically important projects.
5. During the Crown Prince’s January 2017 visit, the Chief Executive Officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company invited India to explore investments in upstream oil and gas exploration and downstream in refining and petrochemicals; and to store 6 million tonnes of oil in an Indian Strategic Oil Reserve facility – both a first from a GCC country. Since its independence in 1971, the UAE has always been among the top seven oil suppliers to India.
6. The three Joint Statements deserve to be read very carefully as they exhibit the vast depth and breadth of the across-the-spectrum comprehensiveness of bilateral cooperation including new emphasis on security and defence cooperation including in defence co-production.
7. Though there are sharply different perceptions regarding the current conflicts in West Asia between India and the UAE, the two leaders have consciously decided not to allow this to affect the growing excellent bilateral relations.
All this eloquently demonstrates that India’s relations with the UAE are clearly on the trajectory of becoming a ‘particularly special relationship’, one of a kind for both countries.
Harnessing the Relationship
Ultimately, it is exceedingly close socio-economic interdependence that will provide the ballast for a true strategic partnership between the two countries. India must get its act together – a quick resolution of past UAE investment legacy issues; and quick identification of potential UAE investment projects that must have time bound implementation flow charts. 17 months have passed since the UAE agreed to make a $75 billion investment in India in the August 2015 Joint Statement but an agreement on the modalities of its utilisation has not yet been signed, putting India’s credibility at stake.
Once exceedingly special, the UAE’s relations with Pakistan are under severe strain. India should desist from pushing the envelope in this regard in the public domain because it could be counter-productive.
* Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India