'The UAE-India bond growing stronger everyday'

The UAE-India bond growing stronger everyday
Navdeep Singh Suri, Ambassador of India to the UAE

The UAE and India bilateral ties today are a perfect example of trust and growth. Navdeep Singh Suri, Ambassador of India to the UAE, outlines the multi-layer support that both nations provide each other. Excerpts:

By Rhonita Patnaik

Published: Thu 15 Aug 2019, 12:13 PM

Last updated: Thu 15 Aug 2019, 4:41 PM

What is Modi 2.0's foreign agenda going forward with regards to the UAE?
During the first term of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, we saw an incredible transformation in the relationship between the UAE and India. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE after 34 years, the last visit being Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1981. Therefore, it was long overdue.
Since PM Modi's first visit in 2015, we have seen not only the signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with UAE but also a real transformation in many different areas.
During his second term in office, I am confident that we will see a further strengthening of this special relationship. Some of this will be due to the really strong personal chemistry between His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and PM Modi.
The warmth of greetings exchanged when Prime Minister Modi was re-elected this year and the symbolic lighting up of ADNOC Tower with visuals of Sheikh Mohamed and PM Modi are all testaments of this really strong bond between the two leaders. We also witnessed the visit to India by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in July.
He was among the first important foreign ministers received by the Prime Minister after his re-election, providing an important opportunity to create a roadmap for future engagement.
You speak about the camaraderie between the UAE Crown Prince and Prime Minister Modi. From your perspective, how do you think that has grown to be what it is today?
This happens at two levels. One is at the level of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and PM Modi. Since they are so close to each other and so committed to this relationship, they have an ambitious vision for the path forward. We, diplomats, come next. After we get a very clear direction from the leadership about where we want to go, it is our job to translate that vision into reality.
It is our job to take forward the kind of cooperation that both countries have established - whether it is in trade and investment, energy sector cooperation, defense and security, and all the other things that make this such a vibrant and dynamic relationship.
Can you specifically talk about the components of this relationship, i.e., defense, energy, space and trade?
With regards to defense and security, the relationship really exemplifies a level of trust and confidence between the two countries. We conducted our first-ever naval exercises together last year. These were aimed at reinforcing the message that we are close neighbours separated by a short stretch of water and that we have shared maritime security interests.
We have provided some of our first defense supplies to the UAE and soon, India will be sending over a team from the National Defence College to Abu Dhabi. Coming back to security, I would like to emphasize that India has exceptional cooperation and support from the agencies in UAE - be it against high profile economic offenders or our shared fight against radicalism and violent extremism.
Moving on to the energy side, until two years ago, the UAE and India had a basic relationship of a seller and a buyer. Today, it has transformed into a strategic partnership. Earlier, Indian companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) went looking for oil from Venezuela to Vladivostok - never getting a foot in the door in the Gulf. But last year, ONGC was awarded a 10 per cent interest in Abu Dhabi's offshore Lower Zakum Concession - its first in Abu Dhabi - by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).
This year again, ADNOC awarded a consortium of Indian Oil Corporation and Bharat Petroleum the exploration rights for the Abu Dhabi Onshore Block 1.
ADNOC is also looking to expand its presence in India by investing in the refining and petrochemical sectors. Two years ago, our first strategic petroleum reserve was set up in Mangaluru in partnership with ADNOC. It's ready and working today. Now the talks are on about building a second petroleum reserve.
Similarly, in the downstream segment, we have ambitious plans to establish a mega refinery and petrochemical complex on the west coast of India. This time both ADNOC and Saudi Arabia's ARAMCO are our strategic partners for this project.
What is the relationship with regards to trade?
The bilateral trade between the UAE and India in 2018-19 was $60 billion. That means that we are the UAE's second-largest trading partner today. In addition, the UAE is our third-largest trading partner after the US and China, larger than Japan, the UK or some of the other major powers. Last year, our exports to the UAE were $31 billion and imports were equivalent to $29 billion, which makes it a fairly balanced trading relationship.
Equally important is that the UAE has started making major investments into India. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which is one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, is leading the charge with significant investments into sectors such as housing, renewable energy and infrastructure.
Going forward, there will likely be investments into financial institutions, stock market, and so on. I see the momentum picking up dramatically over the next couple of years with other entities such as DP World and Mubadala, embarking into significant investments in India.
How would you describe the ongoing Golden Era of the UAE-India relationship right? Is it economic or does it span to social and cultural development as well?
I describe the ongoing ties as a Golden Era because of some of the elements that I have outlined earlier. Besides defense and security, energy, trade and investment, there are other areas we're looking at. But beyond that, culture plays an important role. For example, the New Delhi Book Fair hosted the Sharjah Book Authority as its Guest of Honour in January.
Likewise, India was the Guest of Honour at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in April. Another initiative is the Zayed Gandhi Digital Museum that we launched earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. Similarly, you can see the decision of the UAE Government to accord its highest civilian award to PM Modi. These are some of the very public ways in which the two countries celebrate each other. And I think all of that adds up to the fact that it is a Golden Era.
How does this benefit the Indian diaspora living here?
The fact that we have such exceptionally close relations automatically has a positive effect on the Indian diaspora. Our friends in the UAE keep telling us that Indians are the most preferred expatriate community in this country. Today close to 3.3 million Indians are living in the UAE and the number is just growing.
The growing success of the Indian business community and the fact that today there are a number of Indian millionaires and billionaires, all homespun entrepreneurs from here, is evidence of the opportunities they got here. And that automatically translates into investments back into India by them.
The Indian economy too is maturing and creating opportunities for these investors. So, I really see the Indian community as almost a unique bridge between our two countries. They left their motherland years, maybe decades, ago, established themselves in this country, made this their home, and yet remain so connected with India. This is not just for family reasons, but for business, charity and other such activities.
You also have been very closely connected to the Indian community here, with regular social connectivity. What is your personal strategy for the growth of the UAE-India relationship?
When you have a community that is as large and diverse, like the one you have in this country, it is almost impossible to outline a 'one-size-fits-all' approach. We, at the Indian Embassy, engage with them at multiple levels.
And we remain extremely cognizant that almost two-thirds of the Indian community falls into the blue-collar category. They are the ones who require the most attention and we are aware of the fact that they are the most vulnerable.
I feel that they really should have the first claim on the Embassy's resources. And this is something that we do on a day in, day out basis - from visiting labour camps to meeting Indian prisoners in jail. We also reach out to female domestic workers, particularly those who have been either mistreated or who have landed up in trouble in the country.
Thanks to the Indian Community Welfare Fund aimed at assisting overseas Indian nationals in times of distress and emergency, we are able to provide a range of services to the community.
Beyond that, there are two levels of the Indian diaspora that we very actively engage with. These include professionals who have established vibrant organizations likeadly-speaking, The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India group as well as a very active Indian Business and Professionals Group. These two organizations form the bedrock of our active engagement in the UAE.
From hosting Indian ministers to arranging festivals and cultural events, they do it all. We also work closely with the Indian Social Centre in Abu Dhabi, which is a long-established institution, and the India Club in Dubai. And through these associations, we are able to effectively connect with individuals who are at very senior positions in some of the biggest companies in the UAE.
The third level of professionals we engage with are the entrepreneurs. You have many companies that are founded by NRIs - be it the LuLu Group or NMC Healthcare. And one of my efforts has really been to engage with these entrepreneurs and encourage them to invest more in India, as well as do more CSR activities for those who are in need. I have to say that I am truly impressed by the generosity of these well-established members of the Indian community.
Whether it is about celebrating Indian festivals or assisting those who need help, I have never heard anybody say no.
And that truly is a reflection of these remarkable individuals who have come and made this country their home and yet remain so committed to helping causes of their community.
You spoke about investment opportunities for expatriates in India. Could you elaborate on the focus areas that need to be seen beyond the realty sector?
Realty constitutes a relatively small part of investments that firms from the UAE look into. If you look at NMC Healthcare or BRS Ventures, for example, they have invested in hospitals and pharmaceuticals and are now getting into the infrastructure space. The LuLu Group has invested about Rs10,000 crores into retail, convention centres and the hospitality sector.
We also see a lot of NRI-owned companies from UAE investing in education, healthcare, retail, infrastructure, tourism and hospitality. They are making a huge contribution to India - both in terms of creating jobs and infrastructure, as well as encouraging the export of goods and services out of India. That's why I say that Indian expatriates truly are a bridge between our countries.
PM Modi's second term is encouraging the 'Bring-In-India' concept. Please elaborate.
I have outlined some areas where you can clearly witness the flourishing business groups in the UAE that are now willing to take back their management expertise, capital and entrepreneurship to India.
There is another important aspect that I would like to highlight. Last year, the remittances from UAE to India touched $17 billion. That is equivalent to almost a quarter of the remittances India received from across the world. This is a very significant amount and we have to keep in mind that many families from the poorest strata in India depend on these remittances from the UAE. So that again becomes a very important element of the UAE-India relationship.
Finally, what could the UAE learn from India in terms of relationships and vice-versa?
From UAE's perspective, India is a huge market next door with a stable economy that is dynamic and growing. India is a beacon of stability and a good and sincere friend. If you are in the UAE and looking at markets for your energy resources or capital or as a partner for security, what better neighbour in the area than India?
And from India's perspective, we certainly see the UAE as a very strategically placed country with an increasingly strong profile in the region and a truly forward-looking and visionary leadership. It is a country that is not only home to so many Indians but also a source of capital and energy for us. That's why there is such a synergy between our interests.
Equally important, I see a growing philosophical alignment between the countries and between the leadership in terms of our shared commitment towards tolerance, pluralist societies, and certainly to fighting the notion of radicalism, fundamentalism and violent extremism.

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