By Ashok Alex*
Since taking over office in May 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy engagements have taken him to several countries far across in Asia, Europe and Lain America, but it took nearly an year and a half for the PM to make a visit to one of the countries in the gulf region which is part of India’s extended neighbourhood. Not only does the Gulf shares historical and cultural ties with India but it is also vital to India’s energy security, as well as is the source of bread and butter for more than 6 million Indians working in the region and to their families back home here.
The last visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the GCC nation was that of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010, a year just before the Arab Spring got unfolded which further led to significant geostrategic implications in the region.
As far as UAE is concerned though there had been visits by two of India’s former presidents APJ Abdul Kalam and Prathiba Patil in 2003 and 2010, there were no significant political outputs of these. The last PM to visit to UAE was Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1981. Both India and UAE have gone a long way since 1981. India under Mrs. Gandhi then was an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause and followed a non-aligned path in its pursuit of foreign policy. Today India has not only discarded its non aligned tradition of foreign policy but also pursues robust diplomatic relations with Israel. Similarly UAE which was then on the path of progress as a result of the oil boom had become one of the richest countries in the world and is currently in the process of transforming itself from a rentier economy to a knowledge based one.
When it comes to West Asia, looking at the complexities involved in the region, India had to take a balanced and cautious approach while dealing with Iran and the Arab states on the one hand and Israel on the other. While interests of energy security and expatriate welfare tops India’s relation with the Arab nations, it is the thriving defense and strategic interests that is the hallmark of relations with the Jewish state; the Arab-Persian rivalry has also made India’s engagement in the region jittery to some point. However, the Iran nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 has given some amount of relief to India and to the gulf monarchies especially to UAE which has long standing territorial disputes with Iran and to Saudi Arabia for its pursuit for regional hegemony. Though India’s political engagement with UAE had been relatively stagnant over the three decades, the economic relations had prospered to the extent that the gulf Arab nation had become India’s third largest trading partner with a trade volume of nearly $60 Billion.
One of the significant milestones of Modi’s visit to UAE has been the upgradation of the normal bilateral ties to the level of strategic partnership and UAE’s support for India’s candidature to the UN Security council. It was not surprising that terrorism became one of the focal points of discussion especially in the new scenario of advent of the ISIS in the region. In the past UAE had been used as a safe haven by some of the anti-India elements based in Pakistan. However, as a result of the close cooperation between the India and UAE, there had been arrests and deportation of several terrorists from Dubai who were most wanted by the former.
In fact, during Modi’s visit UAE has assured that it will adopt India’s proposed comprehensive convention on International terrorism in the United Nations which will be major breakthrough. Being the members of the Indian Ocean Association of Regional Cooperation, the safety and security of the Indian Ocean lays prime importance to both the nations and it is here where the both the countries can cooperate in making the region a zone of peace. On the matters of security aspect there are existing treaties on extradition, legal assistance on civil and criminal matters, maritime cooperation and intelligence exchanges. India has already signed the memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation with UAE way back in 2003.
On the economic front in spite of the falling global crude oil prices the PM was able to garner an investment of about $75 billion especially in infrastructure development, industrial houses based in UAE can further become a part of India’s ‘Make in India Campaign’ especially in the defence manufacturing sector, but the question on how these investments could be implemented in the speedy projects is yet to be seen. In the past many of the foreign investments had faced severe stumbling blocks as a result of political and bureaucratic scuffles.
The smart city project in Kerala is a classic example to this. While the land allotted for the construction of a temple is a good gesture, one significant area that Mr Modi had untouched was the plight of Indian labour workers in UAE, though he visited a residential camp of the labourers and appreciated the community for enhancing India’s pride, there was no official statement relating to any of the problems faced by the mass Indian migrant workers in UAE.
The increasing Emiratisation of the private sector is a source of worry to Indians who constitute nearly 30% of UAE’s workforce. Apart from the traditional trade in hydrocarbons, there has to be new frontiers of cooperation especially in space technology, including joint development and launch of satellites, renewable energy and building of a knowledge economy.
Though Islamic, UAE is a moderate country which is very similar to India’s multicultural society. Not only India has the potential to contribute to UAE’s ‘Vision 2021’, but the two countries can jointly work towards the vision of a 21st century Asia. Though it took more three decades for the two countries to re-engage at the highest political level, the prime minister’s visit did make some significant accomplishments.
*Ashok Alex Luke is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at CMS College, Kottayam (Kerala). He can be reached at [email protected]