Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE after an interval of 34 years marks a beginning of renewed engagement with West Asia, coming at a time when the whole region is undergoing metamorphic geopolitical and strategic changes. The visit signifies the active foreign policy adopted by the current dispensation in India. Further, the UAE visit also symbolises the larger strategic objective of Indian foreign policy: to engage with governments on all fronts where our national security interests are directly or indirectly involved.
The visit has been highly successful in its outcome; this can be ascertained from the language of the Joint Statement issued by both the governments. The Joint Statement clearly demonstrates a foreign policy recalibration on the part of the UAE with respect to its Pakistan policy. At the start of this highly anticipated visit, the objectives laid out by the Indian side were to push for better a trade and investment relationship as well as to court UAE support in fighting international terrorism and other transnational crimes. It appears that the Indian side has been able to achieve what it set out to do.
The Joint Statement encompasses various agreements ranging from economics, defence, security, law enforcement, culture, and consular services, to realise the full scope of the India-UAE relationship. The bilateral relationship has been upgraded to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, which symbolises the importance of the UAE to India and the role it can play in India’s wider West Asia policy. At a time when bilateral ties bound by historical and cultural affinity needed to be refurbished to reflect current geopolitical and geostrategic realities, India seems to have played a masterstroke by warming up to the UAE.
The substance of the joint statement issued by India and UAE has managed to redefine the contours of a relationship that had long languished due to political ineptitude and lack of strategic foresight. In a remarkable resolution, both countries denounced and opposed terrorism in “all forms and manifestations, wherever committed and by whomever, calling on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they exist, and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice”.
The UAE has historically been closely tied to Pakistan on the strategic front. However, the consensus with India on dealing with the scourge of terrorism shows how well the Indian leadership has read the changing strategic realities in West Asia and turned them to our strategic advantage. This is a real diplomatic triumph, and the UAE endorsement of India’s concerns on terrorism and extremism underscores the challenges facing the Gulf kingdoms at a time when the Islamic State is rising and the sectarian divide in the region is widening.
Often India’s policy towards West Asia is viewed through the prism of India-Iran relations. The international community has always raised flags over India’s engagement with Iran and its support to the nation when the West’s sanctions were in place, while missing India’s simultaneous engagement with the Gulf states and Israel. Of late, India’s engagement with the Arab states has gained momentum, even as Iran continues to be centre of global attention.
According to the Joint Statement, trade and investment will also get an impetus after PM Modi’s visit. The UAE’s decision to step up investment in India, including through the establishment of the UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, with the aim of reaching a target of $75 billion bodes well not only for the Indian government, but also for foreign investors who are looking at India as the crown jewel in Asia in the aftermath of the Chinese stock market crisis. The UAE will also help Indian companies invest in infrastructure development in the Gulf and will tap into India’s expertise in small and medium enterprises.
One of the driving forces for India-UAE ties has been the energy sector. The GCC countries supply 45% of India’s petroleum; Saudi Arabia is responsible for a quarter of that, while Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE are also major suppliers. Qatar remains India’s exclusive supplier of natural gas, annually supplying five million tonnes of LNG. The Iranian government’s decision to renege on some oil supply commitments, following India’s vote against Iran at the IAEA, has also impelled New Delhi to diversify suppliers.
Developments within West Asia will have a great bearing on the future of India’s relations with the region and her stature in global forum. Until now, it appeared that Indian foreign policy for the region favoured maintaining the status quo, based on the consideration that regional stability is essential to Indian interests in the region. However, the PM’s decision to establish deeper ties with UAE appears to be the precursor to a larger policy shift on West Asia. Nevertheless, further forays into the region will be a delicate balancing act due to the several competing interests extant in West Asia. For example, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional leadership is likely to intensify along sectarian lines in coming years. Further, in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal, there will in all likelihood be intense efforts on Israel’s part to maintain the status quo as far as the power dynamics of the region are concerned. Given India’s growing stakes in the Gulf, it will be compelled to adopt a more nuanced policy to navigate such competing interests, while reasserting her role as a great and responsible power, and simultaneously extracting adequate strategic and economic leverage.
PM Modi’s visit to the UAE has emphasised India’s continuing stakes in a region that is going through a period of significant yet unpredictable change. It would be in the interest of India to maintain a stable balance of power, to emerge in a region rife with multiple fault-lines as it makes further inroads into West Asia. On a positive note, a region that was long ignored for ill-conceived reasons has finally found its place in the Indian strategic and diplomatic sphere on account of the PM’s visit.
Shashwat Tiwari is a strategic affairs researcher at the Oval Observer Foundation in New Delhi.