Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE on June 28 was his fourth, having visited the country earlier in August 2015, in February 2018 and again in August 2019. Juxtaposed against the fact that no Indian PM had visited the UAE for 34 years since the visit of Indira Gandhi in 1981, the transformation in India’s engagement with this Gulf state has been quite extraordinary.
The reason for the latest sojourn, ostensibly, is to offer condolences on the demise of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan and to congratulate Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan on his elevation to the position of the ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE. Viewed from the perspective of traditional diplomatic protocol, the visit was not necessary. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu had gone to Abu Dhabi on May 15 to offer the Government of India’s condolences to the UAE leadership and in an unusual gesture, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had visited the UAE embassy in New Delhi to sign the condolence book.
But this is a relationship that has moved well beyond the confines of diplomatic protocols. The warmth and personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and Sheikh Mohamed is genuine and palpable. It has been almost three years since their last meeting in Abu Dhabi when PM Modi was bestowed the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian award. He had also planned to visit the Dubai Expo in January but a rise in Covid-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant had come in the way. This stopover on the way back from the G7 summit in Germany was an opportunity to renew that relationship through a one-on-one meeting with Sheikh Mohamed and an engagement with key members of the royal family including the National Security Advisor and foreign minister.
Meanwhile, a lot has happened on the bilateral front, including a fairly substantive virtual summit with Sheikh Mohamed in February 2022 when both sides signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The two leaders also issued an ambitious, forward-looking Joint Vision Statement titled, “Advancing the India and UAE Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: New Frontiers, New Milestones”.
CEPA is a significant milestone that was negotiated and finalised in just 88 days and promises to increase bilateral trade from $60 billion to $ 100 billion in five years. It came into force on May 1 and has already ushered in preferential market access for 97 per cent of tariff lines accounting for 99 per cent of Indian exports to the UAE. It is expected to help Indian exports in areas ranging from gems and jewellery and textiles to footwear and pharmaceuticals, apart from enhanced access for Indian service providers to 11 specific sectors. A high-level business delegation from the UAE led by Minister for Economy Abdulla bin Touq was in India on May 12 to identify trade and investment opportunities, brief Indian business leaders about the key features of the agreement and advise small and medium enterprises on leveraging its provisions. On the sidelines of the visit, the Dubai-based DP World and India’s National Skills Development Council signed an agreement to set up a Skill India Centre in Varanasi to train local youth in logistics, port operations and allied areas so that they can pursue overseas employment.
On the regional front, the rapid normalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel following the Abraham Accords of August 2020 has also opened new avenues of trilateral and multilateral cooperation. Some Israeli tech companies are already establishing a base in Dubai and seeking to marry niche technologies with Emirati capital and Indian scale. The US has announced that President Joe Biden’s forthcoming visit to West Asia will see a virtual summit of what it calls the 2I2U, a new grouping that brings together India, Israel, the US and UAE. The foreign ministers of the four countries had held their first virtual meeting in October 2021 during Jaishankar’s visit to Tel Aviv, articulating a focus on joint trade, technology, transport and infrastructure projects.
These positive developments must be seen in the backdrop of the turbulence caused by the comments on Prophet Mohammed by Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal. These comments reveal an utter ignorance of the crucial support that countries like the UAE have given to India in the Islamic world, first by inviting our late External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as a guest of honour at an OIC foreign ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi and later by standing with us on Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370. Nor do they take into account the fact that the Gulf is our third-largest trading partner, our principal source of hydrocarbons, a major source of foreign investment and home to some 8 million Indians who send in over $50 billion annually in remittances.
The UAE today is India’s closest partner in the Arab world and fortunately, there is enough resilience in bilateral ties to withstand the recent convulsions. But India’s image has been dented in the hearts and minds of the average Emiratis and left many Indians living in the Gulf appalled at the wanton injury caused to their interests.
Visuals from the Prime Minister’s visit and his very evident personal rapport with the leadership of UAE have sent out a positive message but it will take a sustained public diplomacy effort to undo the damage. In other countries in the Gulf, the task will be that much more difficult.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow at ORF and former ambassador to UAE
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