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Shifting sands of India-UAE relations

The United Arab Emirates has emerged as the lynchpin of Modi’s expanding engagement with the Gulf region.

Published: 26th January 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th January 2017 08:34 AM   |  A+A-

SAAI

In a renewed terror bid, the Taliban orchestrated attacks in Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in which over 50 were killed and 100 more wounded. Afghan military leaders have blamed the Haqqani network which is backed by Pakistan’s ISI. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is visiting Kabul to address this menace through dialogue.

Meanwhile, responding to this crisis, US Central Command chief General Joseph Votel visited Rawalpindi GHQ last week even as Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the Pakistan prime minister on foreign affairs, went to the Afghan embassy as part of efforts to defuse the situation between the two neighbours.

But what made these killings grab the headlines was the fact that those killed included five United Arab Emirates diplomats who were visiting the provincial governor in Kandahar.

The UAE delegation was led by their Ambassador Juma al- Kaabi who was injured. Experts who begin to explore why the UAE—once a close strategic ally of Pakistan—should become the target of such an attack would notice the visible correlation with UAE’s growing closeness to India. This has come at the expense of Islamabad’s growing isolation amongst Islamic nations with the UAE playing the lead in this tectonic transformation.

The UAE was the first Islamic country to criticise the Pathankot and Uri terror attacks. It then supported India’s surgical strike inside Pakistan. What makes it painful for Pakistan is that this reinforces a pattern of its Islamic friends deserting it for India. This drift had begun with Pakistan’s largest benefactor Saudi Arabia demonstrating a similar shift with the inaugural visit by late King Abdullah who was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade in 2006. Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh in 2010 and during Modi’s visit last April, King Salman conferred upon him their highest civilian honour—the King Abdulzaziz Sash. But remember! Saudi Arabia may have pioneered this pro-India drift of Arab states, but it is the UAE that has since emerged as the lynchpin of Modi’s expanding engagement with the Gulf region.

It is in this backdrop that one needs to assess the significance of last week’s inaugural India- UAE strategic dialogue and the arrival of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Yayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE, who will be the chief guest at the 2017 Republic Day Parade.

The stage is set for exploring new avenues for their multifaceted cooperation including countering terror. Modi’s August 2015 visit to UAE had already showcased their consensus to “coordinate efforts to counter radicalisation and misuse of religion by groups and countries for inciting hatred, perpetuating and justifying terrorism”. There could not have been a more direct reference to Pakistan.

As part of his hyperactive foreign policy, Modi had visited UAE in August 2015 as his first destination in the Gulf region. While he continues to oscillate about his visit to Israel, Modi has since visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar launching a fresh chapter in India’s engagement with Gulf Cooperation Council. As Moody’s Investors Service report shows, India gets 52.1 per cent of its remittances from these Gulf nations. Of about 6 million expatriate Indians in the region, over 2.6 million stay in UAE alone making it next only to the US that hosts 3.2 million overseas Indians.

Reflecting the growing weightage of the Gulf region, the share of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in India’s total exports has moved up from 11 per cent in 2005 to 16 per cent in 2015.

India exports to the six GCC countries—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar— have reached $41.71 billion coming close to surpassing India’s exports to the US. The UAE stands tall as the second biggest destination for India’s exports (after the US) and is the fourth largest source of India’s imports. India mainly imports crude oil from UAE but India’s exports to UAE have diversified beyond pearls and precious stones that once constituted over one-third of its exports. They now include space technologies and defence exports. The two have expanded their joint military training and a UAE military contingent will be on display in the Republic Day Parade. The India-UAE combined military exercises called Desert Eagle, resumed after a gap of eight years, promises to herald the next stage of their military ties.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is stuck in a hole and continues to dig deeper. Unlike India, it has failed to balance its ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan’s ambivalence to the joint GCC action against Iran has only reinforced the group’s ‘Look East’ policy that, along with President Trump’s love for Israel, defines UAE’s growing bonhomie with India. Pakistan, that deployed 40,000 soldiers to protect the Saudi regime after the 1979 Iranian revolution, steadfastly refuses to be part of the Saudi-led 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism raised in 2015 to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The alliance has since emerged as a potent force to counter the IS. Earlier this month, after Pakistan finally relented to lending them its retired General Raheel Sharif, there was widespread domestic uproar in Pakistani social media.

Rising to the occasion, India has intensified its footwork with visits by several senior ministers including Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar, Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goel, Nirmala Sitaraman, Dharmendra Pradhan, Jayant Sinha and M J Akbar in the past 32 months. These have been reciprocated by several visits from UAE to India that are laying the blueprints of a segment that could become, in coming times, an example of Modi’s foreign policy achievements.



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