Ground realities in the concerned countries seldom change in the period between two visits of heads of state. But when the lag is as inexplicably long as three-and-a-half decades, as was the case with the Indian prime minister’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, the transformation of both countries is bizarre.
In 1981, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the UAE, India’s population was 685 million, and the UAE just a million. Today, India’s population has doubled and the UAE’s nearly 10 million. India’s GDP was $196 billion then and the UAE’s $49 billion. Both GDPs have recorded a 10-fold increase since then. Importantly, India-UAE trade, valued at about $180 million per annum (in the 1970s), is now around $60 billion (after registering $72 billion in 2011-2012).
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UAE this week, the relative prosperity of the two countries is equally prolific. Home to the second highest number of millionaires in West Asia at 72,100, approximately every 125th person in the UAE is reportedly a millionaire. While hundreds of millions of Indians are still poor, there are now about 2,50,000 dollar millionaires, which could double by 2018, even touching a million by 2023.
Thus, India and the UAE have simultaneously recorded rapid changes to transform themselves from being mere players to becoming examples worth emulating on the global economic and political fronts. Though both have taken different paths towards independence and development, their historic experiences directed the formulation of foreign policies with several commonalities, the most important being conciliation, consensus and cooperation.
It is to the UAE leadership’s credit that it recognised India’s importance as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ‘Look East’ policy. This was evident when vice-president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum visited India, not once but twice – in 2007 and 2010.
However, though India has often reiterated that the “Gulf region is part of India’s natural economic hinterland,” its UAE, Gulf and West Asia policy has played second fiddle in the quest to improve ties with the Western world.
In a region that is bound by tradition (which the Chinese have internalised better), a reciprocal prime ministerial visit should have been forthcoming earlier. Modi acknowledged this in his trademark style: “There are 700 India-UAE flights a week but it took 34 years for an Indian PM to come here. This will not happen again.”
Surprisingly, bilateral relations remained unaffected on the momentum of mutual benefits. Until 2013-14, India and the UAE were the biggest trading associates. The scenario changed following India’s five-fold increase of gold import tax, which helped China and the United States jump ahead.
Again, and unexpectedly, Modi’s two-day visit took India-UAE ties to the next level through a “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement, which focuses beyond the comfort zone of trade, oil and expatriates. Modi’s visit within the first 15 months of assuming office is an indirect admission of the time lost in recognising the UAE’s potential as a strategic partner – one that is liberal and amenable to strategic and tactical cooperation.
The gestures of allowing Modi to address a public rally in Dubai (Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the last to do so in 2007) and granting land for the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi bears testimony to its accommodative approach.
In terms of importance, Modi’s visit did to India-UAE ties what Manmohan Singh’s visit did to India-Saudi ties – open “a new era for strategic cooperation” through the Riyadh Declaration in 2010. It also laid the foundation for an India-UAE security cooperation template that could eventually borrow elements from the India-Qatar deal signed in 2008, facilitating a strategic naval base to protect Qatar’s energy assets.
Political engagement route
The joint statement suggests that the road to upgrading ties across all realms is through political engagement. The takeaways include: Establishing a $75 billion UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund; cooperation against terrorism, radicalism, organised crime and terror funding (relevant in the Indo-Pak context and Islamic State); joint manufacture of defence equipment and maritime security cooperation; “interoperability” for humanitarian assistance and conflict situations; and regular high-level meetings of political, economic and security leaders and officials.
The 1,700-word statement also includes cooperation avenues in the fields of energy, cyber security, space, scientific research, higher education, small-medium enterprises, anti-money laundering and anti-human trafficking, among others.
The ‘strategic’ partnership also assumes importance as the US’s ‘Asia pivot’ assumes realistic proportions in future. It is time for the countries in the Gulf to take a long-term view of its impact and start working towards counter-measures that would ensure security and stability in the region. Such an approach would help in exploring a framework for a much-needed collective security architecture.
In this endeavour to elevate bilateral ties, however, both countries must resist allowing their stance on third countries affect their bilateral ties. There is also a need to investigate how to make the shift in governmental attitudes filter down to the people on both sides. This is both important and strategic, requiring targeted public diplomacy.
The UAE has to note that India is a story of two halves – ‘super poor’, with the trappings of a ‘superpower’. In this contradictory story, India is shaping to be a better model of tradition coexisting with modernity, which is also the model of development that the UAE is charting. Simultaneously, a ‘new’ UAE is emerging from the ‘old,’ which India must recognise too, especially the fact that it respects ‘economic sense as common sense’ over religious ideology.
Moving ahead, a no-holds-barred follow-up and implementation of the agreed strategic synergy is a sure-shot way to ensure symbiotic success.
(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)