A new direction for India-UAE ties

Indians constitute the largest expatriate population in UAE - almost one-third of its total population.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of United Arab Emirate (UAE) will be the chief guest for the 68th Republic Day celebrations this year. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi is also the deputy sup­reme commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Most importantly, a contingent of the UAE Ar­med Forces will become the first Arab soldiers to join the military parade on the Republic Day.

Sheikh Mohammed is the most prominent Arab leader to be invited as the chief guest on this important occasion, after late Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz in 2006. It is hoped that this visit will further facilitate mutually beneficial and sustainable cooperation between India and the UAE.

Indians constitute the largest expatriate population in UAE, numbering almost one-third of the total population of the country. A majority of Indians live in the three largest cities of the UAE – Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. The aviation sector is a major contributor to commercial exchange and sustained bilateral economic growth; the current average of more than 1,000 flights a week indicates strong bilateral ties.

India’s relationship with UAE was enhanced further in August 2015 with the high-visibility visit to Abu Dhabi by Narendra Modi, who became the first Indian prime minister to do so in more than three decades. This was followed by the visit of Shaikh Mohammad to India in February 2016.

Bilateral trade was $60 billion in 2015, and both sides aim to take it to $100 billion by 2020. The Modi government, which has invested a great deal in elevating the level of Indo-UAE ties, is hoping that a more robust engagement with the UAE will help India reap the benefits in infrastructure, energy and counter-terrorism.

The increasing importance of the UAE in Indian diplomacy can be explained against the backdrop of fast changing global economic, political and security landscape. The oil price volatility in recent years has led Abu Dhabi and Dubai to prioritise diversifying revenue sources.

The UAE’s economic integration with the Arab world is not without challenges. Countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are deeply entangled in violent conflict. The experiment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has not produced expected results. Moreover, a high rate of unemployment among Arab youth is a trigger that can add fuel to the fire of terrorism.

The developmental disparities among the Arab countries also make cooperation within the Arab world a highly complex matter. At the same time, the UAE seems apprehensive of the ongoing global political developments and their impact, particularly the ongoing fight again­st the Islamic State (IS), Presi­dent Donald Trump assuming office in the United States and the Brexit. The UAE is particularly worried with the rising tide of terrorism and extremism in the South Asian region.

All these developments are prompting the UAE to review old relationships and forge new ties. It has therefore embarked on a closer relationship with India on issues of security and counter-terrorism, and has freq­uently deported Indians susp­ected of having links with the IS.

Going beyond the mutual economic opportunities, the India visit by Shaikh Mohammad sends out a significant message at a time when Afghanistan has witnessed extreme instability and the ever present threat of large-scale violence due to Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban.

Recently, five diplomats of the UAE were killed in a terror attack on January 10 in Kandahar province of Afghanistan. This was the first time UAE nationals were targeted inside Afghan­istan. It has obviously raised questions about why the UAE continues to invest so much in its relations with Pakistan, both politically and economically.

Kandahar’s police chief has blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani Network for the attack. It is a well known fact that terrorists belonging to Haqqani network continue to be provided sanctuary by the Pakistani security establishment.

Growing rift
There are reports of a growing rift in relations between Pakistan and some of its closest Arab friends, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, since 2015. Pakistan’s refusal to participate in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen provided the initial spark to this downward spiral.

In fact, Pakistan’s decision not to send its troops for the Yemen campaign was interpreted as a betrayal by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pakistan was keen to benefit economically through its ties with these countries but could not be relied upon to render any assistance when required. It was an exposure of Pakistan’s double dealing.

The political attitudes towards India in the UAE are being turned around which has resulted in the slow separation of Pakistan from its longstanding Arab backers. The upgraded India-UAE relationship has the potential to hurt Pakistan’s audacity as there has been perceptible shift in UAE’s position over Kashmir.

During their interaction with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, India’s political leadership will emphasise with more confidence that Pakistan is the real source of terrorism and extremism, with devastating consequences for millions of people in the region.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University, Jodhpur)
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