New Delhi: When Narendra Modi visited the UAE in August 2015, it was after 34 years an Indian prime minister last visited the country. The last Indian prime minister who visited the country before Modi was Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Since Modi’s visit, in the past three years, there have been three more high-level visits by the leadership of the UAE and India, including Modi’s upcoming two-day visit to the UAE beginning on February 10. His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited India in February 2016 and January 2017 — first on a state visit and the second as the chief guest of Indian Republic Day celebrations. While warm relations between the UAE and India go back to centuries, diplomats and top officials say the current momentum is unprecedented, scoring high on both symbolism and substance.
Here are six factors that have contributed to the changing dynamics of the relationship:
1. Diversification of UAE economy: Foreign trade and the oil and gas sectors were the fulcrum of bilateral relations in the decades preceding the end of the oil era boom. But since then, the UAE has pursued an aggressive strategy of diversifying its economy, and its relations with India have benefited as a result.
“If we go back to 1982, foreign trade figures between the UAE and India were at $182 million. In 2016-17, those numbers stood at $53 billion,” said Ahmed Al Banna, UAE Ambassador to India.
“The focus of bilateral relations have now diversified to include many new sectors after the official visits of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed and Modi — such as IT, space tech, tourism, defence manufacturing and renewable energy,” he said.
2. Evolving country profile and priorities: The recent upsurge in relations is a reminder that both the UAE and India have leapfrogged in terms of global reputation and foreign policy since 1981, says Dr A.K. Pasha, director of Gulf Studies Programme at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“India now is not only a growing economic power, but also an aspirational power. In the 1980s, India was seen as aligned with the Soviet Union — now we have multidimensional relations with almost all countries. That certainly helps recalibrate our relations with the UAE,” he said.
“We are seen as a country which will not interfere in domestic or regional disputes but has a vision for peace, security and stability,” he said.
According to him, the recent high-level visits of UAE and Indian leaders also demonstrate the proactive nature of decision-making between the two countries. “There is a paradigm shift in what India was in 1982 and what it is now — the context of the India of 1982 is irrelevant now. It is devoid of the past binaries which used to define India’s relation with the Arab world and the UAE. With a very proactive, mature and confident foreign policy, the UAE has also rapidly moved to embrace the opportunities. The era of passive bilateral relations is over — both nations have demonstrated that with the same resources as before, there is so much more that can be achieved,” Dr Pasha said.
A critical role was also played by changing regional dynamics and perceptions. “In the aftermath of 9/11 and then the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2014 by US president Barack Obama, there was a feeling of abandonment across the Arab world — which also led to them looking at stable and emerging partners in the region. India, which has always been a friend of the UAE, fulfilled those requirements,” Pasha said.
3. Key partners in combating extremism: The UAE and India share a deeply common goal — fighting terrorism, combating extremism and ideologies of hatred. “We cooperate very closely with Indian authorities in fighting extremists and terrorists — both individuals and organisations,” said Al Banna.
Both India and the UAE are two moderate nations which have been victims of terror, says Mahesh Sachdev, a former Indian ambassador to Algeria, Norway and Nigeria. “Both countries lie in a rather turbulent part of the world often in news for wrong reasons. It is thus critical for the two sides to intensify their security and defence cooperation to ensure peace and stability,” he said.
4. Common economic goals: The growing opportunities for jobs in India, along with the appreciating rupee, booming stock market, structural reforms such as GST, ease of doing business have all helped prepare a solid foundation for its growth. “That’s why the IMF has forecast India as the fastest growing economy,” said Shobana Kamineni, president of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and executive chairperson of Apollo Hospitals. “More than 100 million aspirational Indians are a great commercial opportunity. Air travel has grown by 100 per cent. So better connectivity leads to better relations,” she said.
In addition, there are massive possibilities from the $75-billion fund announced by Modi and Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed.
“India has now become the world’s fastest growing major economy and the third largest consumer of oil. On the other hand, the UAE has sovereign funds with a corpus of over a trillion dollars,” said Sachdev. So it is natural that they will complement each other, he said.
5. Rigorous follow up to strategic partnership: Another reason for the greater depth in relations is the rigorous structure of various committees that have been set up following the high-level visits. “Following the elevation of the UAE and India’s relation to a comprehensive strategic partnership, there are several high-level committees which are working in parallel to advance the bilateral agenda,” says Al Banna.
“A committee on strategic dialogue committee has been set up during the last visit of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, which meets twice a year and looks into all matters relating to bilateral trade. We also have two existing committees — one is a Joint Committee presided by the foreign ministers of both countries, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sushma Swaraj and then we have the Joint Investment Task Force chaired by Shaikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court, from the UAE and Suresh Prabhu, the minister of commerce from India. That committee meets annually to look at investment opportunities in both countries and how foreign direct investments between both nations can be increased,” Al Banna said. With such diverse committees in place, the pace of progress in sorting out any bilateral issues has increased substantially.
There are also a greater number of highly active fora and advocacy platforms which have been set up in the past three years, such as the UAE-India Economic Forum, while the frequency and depth of interaction with existing trade and business associations have intensified.
6. Greater mobility of people: With a 3.3-million-strong population, the Indian diaspora in the UAE is the largest in the world, and growing. And with a record 1,076 flights every week between the UAE and India, there has also been a surge of tourists and visitors between the two countries. The UAE has significantly eased visit visa norms for Indians — those carrying US visas or Green Cards as well as UK or EU visas or residency now get visas on arrival in the UAE. India set up an e-visa scheme for Emiratis and others in 2015, where UAE nationals get almost instantaneous visas at 16 airports across India.
A further proposal to grant all Emirati passport holders visa-free entry to India is being raised with appropriate authorities, Al Banna said. The result is greater people-to-people interaction between the two countries — whether it is Indian tourists seeking a glimpse of the sea, sands and Burj Khalifa in the UAE, or Emiratis travelling to India for education, investments, medical treatment or simply on a vacation.