By Md. Muddassir Quamar*
India has good relations with countries in the Gulf and Middle East. In fact, it has no outstanding issues with any country in the region. Through delicate balancing it has been able to maintain excellent relations even with regional adversaries — amidst conflicts and soaring tensions.
However, one country stands out in this relationship as far as New Delhi’s engagement with the Middle East is concerned — especially under the Narendra Modi government — and that is the United Arab Emirates. Since August 2015, when Prime Minister Modi visited the UAE, there have been several high level exchanges including the two visits of Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in February 2016 and January 2017. In between, UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (September 2015) visited New Delhi and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar visited UAE (May 2016).
There are three key issues that define the longevity and the current bonhomie in India-UAE relations, thus explaining the diplomatic energy Prime Minister Modi has invested in reinvigorating the bilateral ties.
Firstly, it is the mutuality of economic interests: India is a large, fast developing market with significant energy needs and potential for returns on investments and the UAE has ability and appetite to invest in foreign shores. Its quest to find alternative destinations to the stagnating EU and Western market makes India an attractive and viable option.
The only obstacle to this is the slow and chaotic Indian system that dampens foreign investors, including from the Gulf. At the same time, the UAE is a major market for Indian exports along with being the regional hub for re-exports. It means that India-UAE trade is significant at $49.7 billion in 2015-16 and set to increase further with agreements on enhancing trade and having strategic oil reserves in India.
Secondly, India-UAE defence and security interests converge and go beyond the pattern. India has enhanced security cooperation with the Gulf countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to combat radicalization and counter jihadi terrorism. However, UAE has a special place in the Indian calculus because of its cleaner record and potential for military-to-military cooperation including joint exercises, officer’s training and maritime security.
Possibilities of joint defence manufacturing and supply of equipment to the UAE are attractive propositions for India and hence, both have agreed to explore this further. That India and the UAE are serious about taking their defence ties to another level is exemplified from Parikkar’s visit to the UAE — the first ever by an Indian defence minister — and meeting of the Joint Defence Cooperation Committee in December 2016.
The third component is cultural: India’s diversity and democratic ethos and the UAE’s multicultural and cosmopolitan environment are complementary to each other. It offers a unique degree of comfort to India and complements the strong commercial relations and growing defence ties. India looks to the UAE as a unique place that allows religious freedom and public places for worship for non-Islamic faiths. While there are already a Gurudwara and a Hindu temple in Dubai, Abu Dhabi will soon have its first Hindu temple. Prime Minister Modi during his visit attended the foundation-laying ceremony for the temple, the land for which was donated by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.
India-UAE relations continue to flourish as India considers the UAE as a strong regional player that has no strategic ambitions while the UAE sees India as a major economic partner that is committed to peace and security in both South Asia and Middle East. Extraordinary commercial potential, growing defence ties and the cultural connect make the bilateral relations unique and thriving.
*Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]