New Momentum in India-UAE Relations

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Earlier last month five Emirati diplomats were killed in an explosion in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and the Afghan authorities were quick to pin the blame on the Haqqani network—allegedly backed by Pakistani intelligence. Since the attack, which was also the first instance of Taliban targeting officials from the UAE, occurred alongside growing counterterrorism cooperation between UAE and India, it prompted a lot of speculation regarding the timing.

The news of the blast came just weeks before Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) armed forces, visited India on its Republic Day celebrations. He was made the first non-head of state to also become the guest of honor for India’s Republic Day parade—a symbolic gesture of goodwill and camaraderie.

During Mohammed bin Zayed’s three-day visit to India, 14 bilateral agreements were signed. The visit laid the groundwork for a “comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century”. Several themes covered in the India-UAE joint statement are articulations of a gradual yet defined change in India-UAE relations. Chief among these themes are defense, cyber, space technology, trade and investment, energy, infrastructure, and agriculture, among others.

The India-UAE political relationship initially began to reset back in August 2015 when PM Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Abu Dhabi in 30 years.

Overtime, a decline in oil prices has pushed Abu Dhabi-the wealthiest of seven emirates- to branch out and prioritize finding revenue sources beyond oil money. For New Delhi, emphasis on commerce and economic cooperation is an integral component of PM Modi’s foreign policy. So, the revitalization in bilateral relations that followed was triggered amid Modi’s aggressive pursuit of foreign investments and Abu Dhabi’s newly practiced oil diplomacy and newfound interest in economic diversification.

Both India and the UAE recognize that in the current fast-changing global economic and political landscape, strategic bilateral cooperation is the answer to both growth and security. While trade, investment and energy have been extensively covered in the India-UAE joint statement, the dominant theme of the agreement has been security and counter-terrorism.

Even though the UAE was once fairly indifferent to India’s concerns on rising terrorism, engagement with Manmohan Singh and the Modi administration has influenced perceptions within UAE deeply. India sees closer counter-terror cooperation as a way to help access operatives and leaders of terror groups that have historically sought refuge in the Gulf to avoid being apprehended by the Indian authorities.

Under the bilateral transfer-of-sentenced-persons agreement the UAE repatriated Abdul Sattar (an Indian Mujahideen operative who fled India in 2007), Abdul Karim Tunda (a Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operative) and Yasin Bhatkal (the founder of the Indian Mujahideen)—all accused of fomenting terror by India. India believes increased cooperation can help target criminal organizations like the D-Company and their assets in the Gulf region.

The breadth of engagement between India and the UAE can also be assessed from the fact that Abu Dhabi publicly sent out a message after the Pathankot incident and the Uri attack asking Delhi to take action. The UAE has apparently been wary of Pakistan for a while and this step was an additional indication of Abu Dhabi’s lack of faith in Islamabad’s ability to crack down on terrorism.

In the 1990s, UAE was one of the only three countries that recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Of late, however, the chaos engulfing Yemen and Libya, and the growing threat and capacity of the Islamic State in West Asia has led to a transformation in the Gulf monarchies’ security perceptions and view of Islamist groups in the region.

Abu Dhabi is very concerned about the uncertainty of ongoing global political developments and the consequences they may hold for the region. Given that countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are embroiled in conflict, there is little hope for a unified Arab economic development to ensue. With Iran’s presidential elections coming up this May, upcoming polls in Germany, Brexit, and most importantly, President Donald Trump assuming office in the US the UAE is eager to restart and revitalize old relationships.

Hence, India and the UAE both see each other as important to their national growth and development.

Presently, the UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner and India is the largest export market for UAE products. Energy trade is also an important component of bilateral relations. India imports 70 percent of its crude oil from the Gulf.  By 2020, it is expected that India will make up 5 percent of the global oil demand.  In order to ensure all goes smoothly, India and the UAE have begun discussions on establishing a strategic oil reserve in India and increasing cooperation in the crude oil sector.

Pakistan’s own relevance in the shifting sands of India-UAE relations is limited, except perhaps in relation to the Gulf regime’s eagerness to repatriate individuals accused of terror attacks in India.

Following Modi’s visit to the UAE in 2015, Zayed’s three-day visit to New Delhi represents a commitment between the leaderships of both countries to strengthen bilateral ties. Growing proximity between the UAE and India on counter-terrorism issues provides a promising opportunity that must be followed by consistent and timely action in order for the partnership to reach its full potential.


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