Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the kind of welcome reserved for movie stars during his visit to the UAE. His visit, the first by an Indian head of government in over three decades, marked a welcome acknowledgement of the UAE’s importance — as a home for over two million Indians and a key partner in trade and investment. The PM’s visit also saw a promise to make land available for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, which will be the fourth in the UAE since permission was first granted to set one up in 1958. For India, the real strategic gain has been the India-UAE joint statement, condemning efforts to use religion to legitimise terrorism. In India, the declaration is being projected as a volte face in the UAE’s traditionally pro-Pakistan stand, which merely goes to show how little attention Indians have paid to developments in the region, despite its strategic importance. In times when diplomacy is interpreted with tools more appropriate for pop film — witness endless television discussions on the body language of heads of state — this is perhaps inevitable. But this has also blinded many to the dramatic transformations that have been occurring, as it were, off-screen.
The UAE has emerged as a key counter-terrorism partner for India for the past five years and more. The 1993 serial bombing accused, Tahir Merchant, is being tried because the UAE authorities helped nab and deport him — a long cry from the years when Dubai was the Dawood Ibrahim cartel’s chosen safe haven. Police in the UAE were also key to the NIA’s efforts to locate and apprehend six Kerala men now being tried for their alleged role in a cartel that pumped fake Indian currency into the country. The UAE isn’t the only country that’s been aiding India. Saudi Arabia repatriated alleged Indian Mujahideen financier Fasih Mahmood, as well as alleged 26/11 perpetrator Zabiuddin Ansari. Oman sent back Bangalore bombing suspect Sarfaraz Nawaz. In 2014, the UAE proscribed the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Indian Mujahideen — among a long list of other global organisations — and cracked down on fundraising for jihadists.
The UAE isn’t acting thus because it has come to see the world through Indian glasses. Instead, the India-UAE declaration stemmed from its own growing realisation of the threat from political Islam. Targeted by jihadist groups seeking to overthrow the regime, the UAE has been seeking to isolate Islamist reaction, principally represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Last year, the UAE even briefly withdrew its ambassador from Qatar, infuriated by the fellow Gulf monarchy’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The new West Asia is full of strategic possibilities for India — openings that New Delhi needs to build on with all the resources at its disposal.