On Tuesday, India welcomed the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is on a three-day visit to the country. The crown prince, accompanied by a delegate, has been invited as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations in the national capital on Thursday.
During his visit, both sides will also sign a strategic partnership agreement to crown the numerous bilateral agreements already in place. This is the logical outcome of India’s deepening ties with the Gulf, which developed over the last decade but to which fresh dynamism has been injected by the current government.
Bridging the Gulf
The importance of the Gulf region – the countries of Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – to India cannot be overstated. It caters to 70% of India’s energy needs and hosts a seven-million strong Indian workforce. Of them, about 2.6 million live in the United Arab Emirates alone, constituting the largest expatriate community there and sending home about $13.2 billion. The UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner, with current bilateral trade standing at $60 billion. The country also makes up for 8% of India’s oil imports.
The relationship has been mutually beneficial – much of UAE’s development has taken place on the backs of Indian labour and Indians are one of the biggest investors there.
The ties were greatly boosted when global terrorism reared its ugly head during the September 11, 2001 or 9/11 attacks in New York, after which India and the UAE signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2003. The 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008 – during which terrorists entered the coastal city by boat and targeted multiple locations, killing more than 150 – alerted the UAE authorities to the dangers of a seaborne attack. This was particularly worrisome for the country with its long coastline and led to a greater appreciation of India’s concerns over cross-border terrorism. Both countries then entered into agreements on logistics and intelligence-sharing.
The rise of the Islamic State since 2014 has only added to the urgency of this anti-terror cooperation, which was also the cornerstone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE in 2015, the first in 34 years. Both sides signed joint statement on fighting terror and decided that their national security advisers would meet every six months and host regular counter-terrorism meets. The UAE has also supported India’s proposal for the adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism in the United Nations. The treaty, first pushed by India in 1996 but currently deadlocked, seeks an intergovernmental framework and cooperation to prosecute and extradite terrorists.
Geo-political dynamics – a receding American footprint in the region, a resurgent Iran, the increasingly vicious divide between the Shia and Sunni Islamic sects and an increasing Russian role in the region have ensured that the UAE, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council states, is looking increasingly eastwards.
Simultaneously, the UAE’s relations with Pakistan – the two had close ties – have also frayed. Over the years, Gulf countries have increasingly been sceptical of Pakistan’s ability to double down on terror groups operating from its territory. Other irritants, such as the increasing opposition in Pakistan to UAE royals’ hunting activities, which manifested in an attack on the convoy members of the country’s royal family in December in Balochistan, and Pakistan’s warming up to Iran, have added to this.
But it was Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi Arabia-led anti-Houthi coalition for military intervention in Yemen that put the spanner in its relations with the Gulf countries, especially the UAE, which is Pakistan’s largest investor. The drift in bilateral relations has been consistent since, paving the way for what Anwar Gargash, UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs in 2015 termed a “strategic shift” in the country’s relations with India.
India and UAE’s strengthening security and defence cooperation was underscored when the crown prince of Abu Dhabi visited India in February 2016, six months after Modi’s visit in August and a little over a month after the January 2 terror attack on the Pathankot Indian Air Force station, for which India holds Pakistan responsible.
The joint statement of the two countries issued after the crown prince’s visit strongly condemnation of extremism and terrorism, including state- sponsored terror using non-state actors. The symbolism was not lost.
The invigorated ties have seen other outcomes. The agreement to establish a strategic petroleum reserve in India, where UAE can store crude oil, is a major gain, given that India’s energy demand is expected to quadruple in the next 15 to 17 years. The UAE holds the world’s second-largest sovereign wealth fund – worth $800 billion – and has committed to invest $75 billion in India for infrastructure development and job creation.
Defence ties have received a fillip with a both countries planning to jointly develop defence equipment. Recently, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that UAE is discussing the supply of warships from India. Meanwhile maritime cooperation as well joint naval and air force exercises continue.
The partnership therefore is only poised to grow. The crown prince’s visit, which has also been hailed by the Saudi press, is an indicator that increasingly, the security concerns of South Asia dovetail with those of the Gulf region – its extended neighbour. The death of five UAE diplomats in a terror attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on January 11 is a case in point.4