Modi flexes global muscle with Abu Dhabi visit, temple opening

The pink sandstone temple in the United Arab Emirates has been built on a 27-acre plot granted on lease by President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for as long as 'the sun shines.'
Last Updated 12 February 2024, 04:02 IST

By Anto Antony and Ben Bartenstein

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the doors to a controversial temple in India where a centuries-old mosque once stood. This week he will inaugurate another Hindu religious site — in the Abu Dhabi desert.

The pink sandstone temple in the United Arab Emirates has been built on a 27-acre plot granted on lease by President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for as long as “the sun shines.” In an election year, the imposing edifice offers Modi a headline-grabbing opportunity to portray himself as a global leader with the ability to draw big foreign investments.

Investment pledges or memorandums of understanding between the two countries are expected to be announced during Modi’s visit. The prime minister will also address more than 40,000 people from the South Asian nation in a stadium in Abu Dhabi on February 13.

It’s a unique mix of religion, politics and money. Throngs of people waving flags gathered to greet the UAE president, known as MBZ, as he was welcomed by Modi at the airport of his home state Gujarat last month.

While Islam is the UAE’s state religion, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long had a strained relationship with India’s Muslim population. Still, Emirati officials said there is a growing appreciation in Abu Dhabi of India’s rising geopolitical importance as well as its position as the world’s fastest growing major economy. That would make it strategically important for the UAE to navigate around any differences in opinion with New Delhi, they said.

Modi has said that MBZ is like a brother to him, Brahmaviharidas Swami, the Hindu priest heading the temple said on a zoom call, standing in front of the site clad in saffron robes. “The relationship between India and the region has never been stronger.”

There are big business considerations. India is one of the largest customers of Middle Eastern oil. The country is also buying more liquefied natural gas from the region.

Meanwhile, sovereign wealth funds in the UAE and other parts of the Gulf have emerged as prominent investors in the South Asian nation. Royal Group — the private investment firm of UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan — has long had an affinity for India, with executives there calling it the potential growth engine of the coming decade. In recent days, his artificial intelligence firm set up a new entity called G42 India Enterprises Holding RSC Ltd. within Abu Dhabi Global Market, filings show.

The UAE is weighing provisional pledges to invest as much as $50 billion in India, its second-largest trading partner, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News last year. While it’s unclear if all those investments will ultimately come through and when any agreements might be announced, they would offer Modi another opportunity showcase the international ties.

“These funds are coming into India not as an assistance but on a bet that India will do really well over the next few decades,” said Rajeev Misra, an Indian-born financier, who has over the years been entrusted with billions of dollars from Middle Eastern funds. “To tap this golden opportunity a system has to be put into place in India, which can guide the money to the right opportunities.”

Close Connections

Politically, the countries have grown closer in recent years. Modi’s latest visit will mark his seventh trip to the Gulf nation since he took over as prime minister in 2014. The last Indian premier to visit the UAE before him was Indira Gandhi in 1981.

In 2021, the Gulf nation helped broker a peace deal between India and Pakistan. More recently, the UAE was one of the countries invited to join the BRICS bloc, of which India is a part. Modi is increasingly being courted by global leaders, including US President Joe Biden.

“Both UAE and India stand to gain economically and geopolitically from the close relationship built over the recent years,” said Thomas Mathew, a New Delhi-based retired bureaucrat and international relations analyst. “The US and western bloc is also pushing to strengthen the bond as it helps in containing China which has ambitions in the region.”

Other Middle Eastern countries have also looked to strengthen ties with India. Saudi Arabia announced its intention to invest $100 billion in the country in 2019 and during a September visit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed ways to quicken the implementation of those plans.

The UAE and India have historically enjoyed close ties. A third of the Gulf country’s population hails from India and Dubai counts Indians as among the top buyers of real estate in the city. The UAE was expected to be the top destination for migrating high net worth Indians in 2023, according to immigration firm Henley & Partners.

Billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani are among India’s wealthy to have made big investments in the Middle Eastern country. In turn, they’ve also managed to draw funding from state-backed entities in the region.

Against this backdrop, the treatment of Muslims in the country is an issue that “Abu Dhabi should voice behind closed doors,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic. “It’s not enough to encroach on the broader economic ties, security partnerships and overall national interest.”

To be sure, many of the pledges or MOUs from Middle Eastern countries remain promises and limited amounts have actually reached Indian shores so far.

Other big plans for deepening ties have also been slow to take off on the ground. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor — a project that envisages building new rail links across the Arabian peninsula — was intended to further strengthen the relationship between the countries.

Newly proposed East-West trade route.

Newly proposed East-West trade route.

Credit: Bloomberg

The plan, pushed by the US since January last year, is meant to build the 3,000-mile route to serve multiple purposes, including countering China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program. For now, however, the Israel-Hamas war has slowed down those efforts to lay the groundwork.

(Published 12 February 2024, 04:02 IST)

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