By Deepti Mahajan Mittal*
The analysis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech had not died down when he delivered another high-energy address to a crowd of about 50,000 Indian expatriates residing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The enthusiasm of the assorted group of expats reflected their appreciation of the Indian effort to strengthen India-UAE ties.
Notwithstanding the allegation that Modi has spent a significant part of his time as PM touring foreign countries, and that he needs to spend more political energy on resolving domestic issues, it is clear that Modi’s visit to the UAE came at a critical juncture in India’s relations with West Asia. A visit by an Indian Premier to the UAE was long due.
The implications for India-UAE relations, and the messages that the PM wanted to convey to international and domestic audiences have to be deciphered as much from the text of the issued joint statement as from the visit’s agenda and his address at the Dubai Cricket Stadium. During the short two-day visit, a range of issues were discussed by the Prime Minister and his hosting counterparts, even while the PM’s schedule weaved-in close interactions with the Indian community in the UAE throughout.
The strong strategic dimension to the trip was unmissable. Coming soon after the Iran-P5+1-EU Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action set to bring Iran back into the diplomatic mainstream, and before the PM’s planned visit to Israel, the trip is being seen as part of India’s effort to balance its relations with multiple actors in the West Asian region – a tightrope walk of being friends with countries that may not even recognise each other as legal, political entities. Despite the long-standing trade links, deep cultural and demographic ties with the West Asian countries, India has not invested enough diplomatic and political energy in positioning itself as a key strategic partner to them. While this is not India’s failing alone and a range of issues (China’s rise as an economic powerhouse in Asia, India-Pakistan tensions, the pulls and pushes of Indo-US diplomacy, amongst others) have contributed to the lack of strategic depth enjoyed by India in the region, it is time for the Indian government to recognise the need to occupy the lost strategic space.
At a time when the West Asian region is in the throes of instability, and is plagued by extremist activity playing out in the global political theatre, it is critical for India to cement its ties with key regional players including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The UAE trip of PM Modi is a good start. The India-UAE Joint Statement’s focus on condemning terrorism and countries that harbour terrorists and related infrastructure presented a common stance that targeted both government-supported and non-governmental terrorist activities, be it supported by Pakistan or perpetuated by the Islamic State. Cooperation in the areas of intelligence and maritime security would serve both countries’ security and trade interests. The continuing security dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors and National Security Councils is well-advised. The euphoria created by the visit needs to be followed up with regular engagement and concrete action.
At the public address in Dubai, the Prime Minister recounted his foreign policy successes, including the India-Bangladesh border deal and provision of aid to earthquake-hit Nepal. The special mention of the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) merits note and exhibited support to a common regional South Asian vision. However, one country-name that was conspicuous by its overt absence in the speech was Pakistan. Without naming the country, however, the Prime Minister sent a strong message to Islamabad, denouncing state-sponsored terrorism and clarifying that India’s connections with its other SAARC neighbours will not be held hostage by Pakistan’s refusal to engage.
While one may not agree with Modi’s idiom and pomposity, the Prime Minister’s statements are significant, especially as they are coming at a time when the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is facing criticism for moving ahead with the NSA-level India-Pakistan dialogue amidst ceasefire violations at the border and continued terrorist attacks. Despite the Bharatiya Janta Party’s traditional position of ‘terror and talks cannot go together,’ it is important for the political leaderships in both India and Pakistan to continue dialogue while maintaining that India is persistent in its pursuit of terror masterminds and will not tolerate Pakistan-sponsored extremist activity on its soil. Such a stand supported by a West Asian country only strengthens India’s voice.
Trade and investment, as was anticipated, was a core bilateral area of interest highlighted by the leaderships of the two countries. On boosting trade, the Joint Statement included a time-bound target of 60% increase over the next five years. A UAE-India Investment Fund has been established with the objective of channelling UAE investment into India, targeting USD 75 billion. Addressing Emirati and Indian business leaders at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, the Prime Minister called for investments in India’s growing infrastructure sector, including in the development of affordable housing and railways. While the commitment of USD 75 billion investment by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is being seen as a big win, it needs to be borne in mind that along with the opportunities emerging from demand for infrastructure, what India also needs to offer to its investors is a competitive business environment devoid of bureaucratic roadblocks, such as the ones encountered by the Jet-Etihad deal.
The Indian diaspora
Given that over 2.5 million Indians live in the UAE, of which 65% are blue collar workers, migrant-worker rights is a critical concern for Indian expatriates in the UAE. PM Modi’s visit to a labour camp in Abu Dhabi was the Indian government’s message to the expat community that it cares for the welfare of its workers in the Gulf. Addressing a packed Dubai cricket stadium the next day, the Prime Minister made reference to the camp visit, assuring his audience that he had conveyed the issues he was apprised of by labour-workers to the Indian Embassy and Consulate General officials. He also said that Indian officials and staff have been advised to hold periodic consular service camps at sites where large labour populations reside.
That India and the UAE have embarked on a high-level comprehensive dialogue is encouraging. The countries will now need to do immense ground work to activate shared principles and commitments articulated during the two days. The India-UAE bilateral agenda also holds lessons for the conduct of domestic politics. The NDA government, and the Prime Minister himself, need to be mindful that domestic and international policy often go hand-in-hand. An international statement deploring other countries’ efforts to give “religious and sectarian colour to political issues” needs to be matched by action on religious extremist groups at home and strong condemnation of the use of religion for political gains.
Further, increasing the Indian economy’s ‘competitiveness,’ to attract foreign investment to infrastructure, does not only include smooth clearances but pursuit of a development paradigm that values multi-stakeholder engagement and sustainability – economic, social and environmental. It is only then that the country will be able to provide its investors the right business environment, devoid of simmering administrative inefficiency. Indian foreign policy goals need to reflect the country’s developmental vision and work towards its achievement, and not least, India’s ties with the UAE.
*The author is a Dubai-based international affairs, energy and environment professional. She can be reached at [email protected].