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The UAE: India’s Key to West Asia?

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The Pulse

The UAE: India’s Key to West Asia?

Growing ties underscore the importance of the United Arab Emirates for India’s regional policy.

The UAE: India’s Key to West Asia?
Credit: Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was his maiden attempt at engaging the Arab world; even the joint statement issued during the visit captured that sentiment. However, since the prime minister’s visit, enhanced bilateral exchanges and recent security cooperation with respect to the deportation of suspected ISIS sympathizers demonstrate the shift in India’s approach towards the region as well as the region’s willingness to engage with India.

The West Asia Approach

This initiative comes after Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy, engagement with big powers, Central Asian nations, and “Act East” policy. His visit to the UAE, a key Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country, was a test India’s diplomatic skills in the region. Modi has picked up the gauntlet, as far as balancing India’s interests are concerned. India’s relations with the countries of West Asia can be understood as a triangle, with Iran, Israel, and the GCC countries forming the three angles. India enjoys good relations with all of them and has built considerable stakes in these countries. This outreach to Arab Muslim countries will not go unnoticed within India and in the broader South Asia region. The UAE visit appears to be the first step in a comprehensive plan of re-engagement with the region, which sees strained relations between the three angles of the triangle.

Regional Instability

Modi’s visit to the UAE comes at a turbulent time for West Asia. The GCC countries themselves are relatively stable; the Arab Spring that swept governments out of power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya did affect the GCC countries, but the ruling families managed to maintain stability. However, Syria and Yemen are embroiled in bloody and protracted civil wars. The instability in these countries has created a tragic humanitarian crisis. The Islamic State, operating in parts of Iraq and Syria, is casting an evil shadow over the region and beyond. Whilst these seemingly untraceable issues act as a dampener in India’s West Asia policy, the pragmatic and moderate leadership of the UAE, which has made the country the fastest growing economy in the Arab world, has drawn admiration and managed to capture Modi’s interest.

Why UAE Is Central

India’s interests in the GCC countries are intimately linked with its energy security, trade, employment for Indians, and remittances. The UAE hosts more than 2.5 million Indians, the bulk of whom are blue-collar workers. The stability of their jobs contributes to the welfare of their families back home. Moreover, UAE has emerged as India’s second-largest trading partner and by virtue of a sizeable India diaspora an important source of remittances.

Given the economic and human security interests, the stability and security of the GCC countries is crucial for India. In an interview with the Khaleej Times before the visit, Modi described the UAE as a “mini India,” a theme he picked up again in his rousing speech to Indian citizens and others in Dubai. Clearly, one priority for India is investment from countries like the UAE, which have substantial sovereign wealth funds. This was highlighted in the joint statement, with the announcement of an investment fund worth billions of dollars, for infrastructure development in India.

The Security Angle

Another important objective is the continuing fight against terrorism and allied criminal activities like money laundering. Both aspects found mention in the joint statement, which denounces and opposes terrorism in all forms and manifestations. The statement calls on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, no matter where and by whom it is committed, dismantle terrorism infrastructure where it exists, and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice. In his speech, Modi emphasized this point, making the same oblique reference to Pakistan without an explicit mention. In this respect, the announcement that bilateral relations with the UAE would be upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership is a major strategic move. The joint statement also lays out numerous platforms for cooperation in countering radicalism, misuse of religion to incite hatred, and perpetuating and justifying terrorism for political motives. For the first time, bilateral cooperation will extend to counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing and capacity building.

The agreement to establish a dialogue between the two National Security Advisers and the respective National Security Councils and other security cooperation mechanisms underline the growing security relationship between the two countries. This cooperation will encompass cyber security, maritime security, inter-operability, and collaboration for mitigating humanitarian and natural disasters in conflict zones. The two countries have also agreed to conduct joint defense exercises and enter into joint ventures for the manufacture of defense equipment.

Energy and Economic Security

The joint statement reflects a major leap of faith for the UAE. The Islamic pull factor had given Pakistan an advantage in the early evolution of relations between the two countries. Rich sheikhs hunted the endangered Great Indian Bustard in the deserts of Sind. Earlier, criminal gangs from India operated out of the UAE and escaped to Pakistan with the collusion of the UAE security authorities. Even wanted terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim and his associates found refuge in the UAE. Pakistan had also cashed in its early advantage of flying UAE Air Force aircraft and training their pilots. That era of coziness may be ending to some degree, to India’s advantage, as Pakistan struggles with its mushrooming domestic problems and a weak economy.

India’s energy and economic security is intimately intertwined with the GCC countries. It is, therefore, logical that in the security domain, India should step up cooperation with the UAE. This will be a new and significant initiative as the United States, the primary security provider to the GCC countries, disengages from the region or reduces its profile. The U.S. is moving towards self-sufficiency in oil and gas, which is unshackling its energy security from sources in the region. For India, its future energy security will remain intimately tied with energy suppliers in the Middle East at least for the next 30 years. Hence, protecting energy supplies will remain one of the highest foreign policy priorities for India. The Indian Navy’s role in anti-piracy operations to protect sea lines of communication (SLOC) is already well acknowledged. Greater security and defense cooperation with the UAE will thus enhance India’s security role in the region. As India and the U.S. also bolster their security and defense ties, synergies are emerging that can only be seen as a build up to a robust partnership between India and the GCC.

The GCC and other countries also accept that India’s relations with Iran and Israel will follow independent trajectories, not necessarily, impeding or impinging on India’s relations with them. Modi’s visit has opened doors for closer engagement with this region, at a time of significant global geo-strategic shifts.

Shashwat Tiwari is a Strategic Affairs Researcher at Oval Observer Foundation, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]