Working on improving ties
In a significant gesture by the Narendra Modi government on the nation's 68th Republic Day, a contingent of 179 United Arab Emirates (UAE) soldiers led the fantastic parade on the national capital's Rajpath grounds. It was a gesture equal to the importance New Delhi has accorded to the UAE in recent years. It was no surprise that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, was also the guest of honour at this year's Republic Day celebrations. The symbolism of these gestures is hard to miss. At the three previous Republic Day celebrations, the list of chief guests reads a little like this: French President François Hollande (2016), United States President Barack Obama (2015), and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2014). Under the NDA government, West Asia, a region long neglected by Indian foreign policy, has received greater attention. It now appears to be acquiring more important geo-economic and strategic priority, and as India's gateway to West Asia, the UAE stands at the head of the queue. In the past 17 months, the Prime Minister and Sheikh Mohammed have met on three separate occasions.
On Wednesday, India and the United Arab Emirates signed 14 deals in various sectors including defence, security, trade and energy. At a press conference addressed with the Crown Prince, Modi said cooperation between the two countries stands "poised for a major take-off", adding that the two leaders had discussed their views on developments in West Asia and the Gulf, especially in light of the rising extremism in our extended neighbourhoods. The rise of the ISIS, for example, has become a real cause for worry. Both nations also have a significant role in the development of post-war Afghanistan and UAE's influence can be used to pressure Pakistan to act against state and non-state perpetrators of terrorism in India. "We also discussed developments in our region, including Afghanistan. Our shared concern on growing threat from radicalism and terrorism to the safety and security of our people is shaping our cooperation in this space," Modi said at the press conference. On the issue of terrorism, which both sides have extensively discussed in the past 17 months, there has been growing convergence. One factor that cannot be ignored when looking at improving India-UAE ties is Pakistan. Since April 2015, when Pakistan refused to be a part of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, relations between the two Islamic nations have hit a roadblock. Islamabad's reluctance to join the Saudi-led alliance had evoked harsh words from its one-time close ally, the UAE. The joint statement during Modi's first visit to the Gulf nation, which was signed off by Sheikh Mohammed, was a damning indictment of India's neighbour. "The two nations reject extremism and any link between religion and terrorism. They condemn efforts, including by States, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries. They also deplore efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian colour to political issues and disputes, including in West and South Asia, and use terrorism to pursue their aims," read the statement. It was a sentiment that once again found a place in Wednesday's joint statement. In the past, the UAE had issued great support to Pakistan, in particular on the issue of Kashmir.
At the heart of India-UAE ties stands commerce. Contact between the two land masses dates back a few millennia when Indians bartered clothes and spices for pearls and dates from the region. With bilateral trade valued at around $ 50 billion, the UAE is India's third-largest trading partner and second-largest export destination. In the joint statement issued after Wednesday's talks, both sides decided to come up with an action plan by June to increase bilateral trade by 60 per cent over the next five years. The UAE is home to 2.6 million Indian nationals who are incidentally the largest immigrant community. These Indian expats have been faithfully sending home remittances—a whopping $12.638 billion reported in 2014. Although the UAE is the biggest source of Gulf Cooperation Council remittances into India, accounting for 38.7 per cent, cash flows from the Arabian Gulf region have declined in the past two years, following the fall oil prices. Nonetheless, this is a numerically large community which is working in various capacities, whether it is as nurses in hospitals providing timely medical help or as construction workers and contractors aiding the real estate growth of the Desert Kingdom. Indian immigrants have contributed to the economy of the UAE, but incidents concerning them have also been a cause of friction between the two nations. In July 2016, Indians workers were found stranded at a labour camp with expired work permits, no pay for months, limited food and water unhealthy sanitation facilities. There has been little movement on India's plea for higher minimum wages for its workers. Moreover, Indian workers continue to be trafficked to the UAE and other Gulf nations. New Delhi needs to do more to safeguard the rights of Indian workers in the Emirates by looking for a strong mutually agreeable labour protection paradigm to provide protection of jobs, social security, ease of movement, etc. In this round of bilateral dialogue, the strategic aspect of Indo-UAE energy ties concerning oil reserves received a significant boost. Reports indicate India's quest for energy security received a major fillip on Wednesday, after a pact with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that will pour in as much as one sixth of the India's total emergency oil reserve.
The UAE has vast foreign exchange reserves which can provide much needed FDI for India's infrastructural and industrial growth needs. Despite the excellent spirit forged by recent talks, the failure to sign an agreement that would facilitate investments in infrastructure projects in India from the $75 billion UAE-India infrastructure investment fund, which was established during Prime Minister Modi's visit in August 2015, remains a cause for concern. Earlier this week, the UAE ambassador in New Delhi had said that the "ball was in India's court" to get the governance structure for the fund in place. With its banking system in a total mess, India desperately needs investment from abroad. The story of the United Arab Emirates — and of Dubai — is familiar to people around the world by now. It is a story of how a pioneering band of hardy Bedouin tribesmen created a modern society from the stark desert through sheer willpower, judicious use of natural resources, and relentless promotion of education, innovation and enterprise. It's a story that resource-rich India which is blessed with far more natural and human resources could learn from.