Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day trip to the United Arab Emirates on August 16 and 17 puts the spotlight on an important region long neglected by Indian foreign policy. The first visit by an Indian PM in over three decades showcases the opportunity to upgrade relations with the second-largest Arab economy. While the UPA government neglected the Gulf, the NDA’s enthusiasm for energising ties with Israel was seized upon by sceptics as a project at the expense of the Arabs. That demonstrated the outdated perspective of India’s political and foreign policy establishment, which persists in viewing the Middle East through the Arab-Israeli discord, failing to acknowledge the region’s vastly changed political, economic and security dynamic today. No country, such as the US or China, with deep interests in the Middle East, views it as a zero-sum game between one party and the other. Modi’s trip should signal a re-look at India’s strategy vis-a-vis the Gulf.
The UAE’s $800 billion sovereign wealth fund offers Abu Dhabi enough resources to invest in India’s infrastructure development. Mobilising a part of that would speed up projects and diversify India’s infra funds basket. Although bilateral trade has fallen from the $73bn peak in 2013 to $60bn, the UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner and second-largest export destination. While the Gulf remains India’s main source of hydrocarbons, the UAE accounts for 9 per cent of India’s crude import, which the PM’s visit seeks to raise. In addition, India and the UAE seek to expand their security cooperation. Progress has been slow on counter-terrorism and maritime security, despite a security agreement in 2011.The pact that Modi may sign on joint measures now can enhance such cooperation against the backdrop of the Islamic State, the need to stabilise Afghanistan, Pakistan-based militant outfits that target India, among others.
The issues of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf have become increasingly important. While Modi will attend public events for Indians in the UAE, this 2.6 million community hasn’t received as much attention as other expat Indian communities largely because it consists mostly of workers. The six million Indian workers in the Gulf contribute $50bn annually to remittances, but their multifarious problems, such as working and living conditions or cheating by touts, require urgent attention. Modi’s visit is the best opportunity Delhi has for reaching out to this diaspora. Yet, it’s also important for the PM to desist from rhetoric that may turn into political one-upmanship back home.