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India-UAE, a decade of successful engagement

Written by T P Seetharam Indian traders were active in the Persian Gulf long before the oil boom, investing in pearl fishery operations, buying pearls and dates and supplying locally needed commodities. When the Iranian port of Lingah declined in importance in 1902 because of a dramatic increase in taxes and Dubai emerged as a dynamic free port under enlightened leadership, Indian entrepreneurs moved in despite harsh living conditions. India was the preferred source for textiles, spices and consumables, furniture and furnishings. A missionary hospital in Miraj in southern Maharashtra was the preferred destination for complex medical care, even for the ruling sheikhs. Boatbuilders from the Malabar coast were much sought after. A young Emirati told me that his grandfather’s generation travelled to Bombay to see electricity and good roads. It was an Indian entrepreneur who first introduced electricity to Dubai by using kerosene-driven generator sets. Ten years ago, when I took up my assignment as Ambassador of India to the UAE, the perception among the top leadership there was that India had not invested adequate political capital in the bilateral relationship. Although 2.5 million Indians lived and worked in the Emirates — constituting around 30 per cent of the population, contributing significantly to the local economy and sending much-needed remittances home — the last prime ministerial visit from India was by Indira Gandhi in 1981. Successful Indian entrepreneurship was evident across a number of sectors in trade, retail, construction, real estate, healthcare, education, IT, services and other areas. It appeared that Indian investment in the UAE exceeded investments in the reverse direction. Indians were the biggest investors in UAE real estate projects while the second place was taken by UK citizens, mostly of Indian origin. Three major investments from UAE by DP World in the ports sector, Etisalat in telecommunications and Emaar in real estate had gone sour and were repeatedly raised with me by every Emirati official and business person. I was told at the highest levels that “India seemed constantly preoccupied with domestic matters with elections taking place in some part or other of the country at any given time” and that “when India reached outwards it overlooked West Asia with its sights set further West and at best considered the Gulf as a transit point.” It was also suggested that India should stop looking at the region through the prism of its relationship with Pakistan. When they started the Emirates airline, they had approached India to lease two aircrafts. When the request was not entertained, they turned to Pakistan. The UAE already had a more substantial relationship with India and there was keenness to go beyond existing transactional engagements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to the UAE on August 16-17, 2015 set the stage for transforming the relationship. The warm welcome he received at the airport from the then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (now President of UAE) His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan set the tone for what turned out to be a hugely successful visit. The Joint Statement of August 17, 2015, listed 31 agreed points, the first of which was, “Elevate the India-UAE relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership”. Other points included significant initiatives against terrorism, the launch of a strategic security dialogue mechanism, creation of the Infrastructure Investment Fund of USD 75 billion, an increase in trade by 60 per cent in five years, UAE’s participation in the development of India’s strategic petroleum reserves, cooperation in space, nuclear energy, education sectors, etc. It is a document that deserves a close reading as it prepared the ground for all the projects and proposals that subsequently emerged. The Joint Statement issued on July 15, 2023, during the PM’s fifth visit to the UAE, indicates progress on various items listed in 2015. The two countries had signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in February 2022, which further boosted bilateral trade. UAE has become the fourth largest investor in India. An MoU was signed to promote the use of local currencies for cross-border transactions. Interlinking of payment and messaging systems was initiated. A campus of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi is being established in Abu Dhabi, initially offering a Masters program in Energy Transition and Sustainability. India’s G20 presidency and the UAE’s COP28 presidency provided additional opportunities for working together on global issues. The excellent personal rapport between the leadership of the two countries and the trust it has engendered over the past ten years, brought India and the UAE into an exemplary bond of mutually beneficial partnership. The Indian diaspora has meanwhile increased to over 3.5 million, cementing ties further. Paragraph 12 of the August 17, 2015 Joint Statement reads: “The Prime Minister thanked His Highness the Crown Prince for his decision to allot land for construction of a temple in Abu Dhabi”. This was in response to a longstanding request of the Indian community in Abu Dhabi. On the eve of the PM’s visit, I was informed by Sheikh Nahyan that a positive decision had been taken and that he would himself convey it to the Prime Minister during his visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I accordingly briefed the PM. But in all the excitement at the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Nahyan forgot to mention the decision. He, however, conveyed it to the PM as soon as we sat down for the State Banquet later that evening. During his forthcoming visit to the UAE on February 13-14, besides addressing the Indian community summit “Ahlan Modi” (Hello Modi) on the first day, the PM is scheduled to attend a dedication ceremony at the BAPS Hindu Temple in Abu Dhabi on February 14. After ten years, one more point mentioned in the 2015 Joint Statement can be considered accomplished. May the relationship continue to flourish in the years ahead! The writer is former Ambassador of India to the UAE (2013-2016)

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