By Zikrur Rahman
13 February 2016
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to India — in reciprocation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Emirates in August — to cement strategic ties with India in defence, science & technology, and counterterrorism should be seen as beginning of a new era of bilateral relations
The visit of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates’ armed forces, has ushered a new era in India-UAE relations. Though the relationship between the two countries dates back to historic times when large volume of trade used to take place between the Malabar Coast and various Emirates of the UAE, still until three years ago, the main pillars of this relationship were trade, investment and manpower. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in August last year — the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years — has infused immense vigour into these relations which are now striding into a strategic partnership.
The UAE is home to 2.6 million Indians employed in almost all the strata of Emirates’ job market: lower, middle and top management. The vibrant Indian business community has set up numerous joint ventures owing to business friendly environment and tax benefits. Also the robust infrastructure in Abu Dhabi and Dubai provides them easy access to large market not only in the Arab world but also in Asia and Africa. For the UAE, India is not only a major oil consumer, but also its second largest trade partner after China. The trade between the two countries has crossed $60 billion per year with Indian exports worth $34 billion and UAE’s exports to India around $26 billion. Both the countries are now working jointly to optimise trade and investment opportunities in each other’s country.
One of the most significant announcements during Modi’s August visit was the establishment of $75 billion India-UAE Infrastructure Fund to support the expansion of India’s network of railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors. Soon after that, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister of the UAE, visited New Delhi in September for the India-UAE Joint Commission Meeting, in which initiatives for cooperation in a number of sectors were outlined.
Our contacts with the UAE are now growing beyond economy and trade and the bilateral relations are turning into a comprehensive strategic partnership which is a major tactical move. The two countries have not only agreed to conduct joint defence exercises but also to enter into joint ventures for the production of defence equipment. Also a team from the UAE Space Agency has already visited the ISRO to discuss cooperation and had toured the Satellite Assembly, Testing and Control and Information Centre for the Indian Mars probe project.
The joint statement which was issued at the conclusion of Modi’s August visit, had laid out cooperation in countering radicalism, and misuse of religion to incite hatred and justifying terrorism for political motives. The agreement to establish a dialogue between the two National Security Advisers, and the respective National Security Councils and other security cooperation mechanisms underline the growing security relationship and clearly reflect a convergence on fighting terror.
In less than a decade, India has taken a number of initiatives to engage with the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The Agreement on Defence and Security Cooperation with Qatar in 2008, the declaration of strategic partnership with Oman in 2008 and with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2010 are some of the high points of our engagement with this important region. The Indian Prime Minister’s landmark visit in August had opened doors for closer engagement with the UAE since it came at a time when the region has been witnessing major upheavals. Instability in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and shifting geopolitics involving West’s nuclear deal with Iran are the major issues causing concern to the countries of the Gulf.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is posing a serious challenge to the whole region. The burgeoning number of ISIS sympathisers and their activities in the UAE are causing great concern. The UAE had jailed 68 Islamic extremists for plotting to overthrow the Government in 2013. In January last year, an Abu Dhabi court had convicted 30 people for their links with the extremist Muslim organisations. Again, a group of 41 people comprising both foreigners and UAE nationals were arrested for planning to carry out terrorist acts in various emirates of the country.
The security authorities had seized guns and explosives from the group which had been in touch with militant groups abroad. India too has since long been facing acts of terrorism on its soil. The identical terror threats have brought the two nations closer in their resolve to fight this menace together and eliminate terrorist networks in their respective countries by actively cooperating with each other. The UAE has already handed over more than half a dozen suspected youths to India, who were either active sympathisers or were in contact with the ISIS, including one of the ISIS recruiters Ayesha Jabin.
The young moderate leadership of the UAE, which has made the country the fastest growing economy in the Arab world, was highly admired when it took a landmark step in cultural tolerance, by allotting land to build a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi for the Indian residents that make up 30 per cent of the population of the Emirates. Prior to this, they had inaugurated a Catholic church in Abu Dhabi. The decision of these young modern rulers of the UAE clearly demonstrates that they are serious about religious and cultural tolerance. Recently a law was announced to criminalise all forms of discrimination, be it religious, caste, ethnic, race, or creed based. These undoubtedly are invaluable progressive steps for a stable future.
India is an emerging global power with a large economy, while the UAE has huge economic potential and its role as a reliable and active player in the region to collaborate on security issues especially terrorism, piracy and other transnational crimes is beneficial to both the countries. There are no major issues of conflict hindering further consolidation of ties between the two nations.
Professor Zikrur Rahman, a former diplomat, is Director of India Islamic Cultural Centre, New Delhi