UAE and India should look beyond trade, oil and expats

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UAE and India should look beyond trade, oil and expats

Modi's visit could also lay the foundation for a security cooperation template.

By N. Janardhan

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Published: Sun 16 Aug 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 17 Aug 2015, 10:00 AM

Ground realities seldom change in the period between two visits of heads of state. But when the lag is as inexplicably long as three-and-a-half decades, as is the case with the Indian prime minister's visit to the UAE, the transformation of both countries is bizarre.
In 1981, when prime minister Indira Gandhi visited here, the UAE's population was just a million, and India's 685 million. Today, the UAE's has nearly touched 10 million and India's population has doubled.
The UAE's GDP was $49 billion then and India's $196 billion. Both GDPs have recorded a 10-fold increase during the intervening period. And importantly, UAE-India trade was valued at about $180 million per annum (in the 1970s), but is now around $60 billion (after registering $72 billion in 2011-2012).
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the UAE, the relative prosperity of the two countries is equally prolific. Home to the second highest number of millionaires in the Middle East at 72,100, approximately every 125th person in the UAE is reportedly a millionaire. While hundreds of millions of Indians are still poor, there are now about 250,000 dollar millionaires, which could double by 2018, even touching a million by 2023.
Thus, the UAE and India have simultaneously recorded rapid changes to transform themselves from being mere players to becoming examples worth emulating on the global economic and political fronts.
Though both have taken different paths towards independence and development, their historic experiences directed the formulation of foreign policies with several commonalities, the most important being conciliation, consensus and cooperation.
It is to the UAE leadership's credit that it recognised India's importance as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council's 'Look East' policy. This was evident when the UAE's Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum visited India, not once but twice - in 2007 and 2010.
However, though India has often reiterated that the "Gulf region is part of India's natural economic hinterland," its UAE, Gulf and West Asia policy has played second fiddle in the quest to improve ties with the Western world. In a region that is bound by tradition (which the Chinese have mastered), a reciprocal prime ministerial visit should have been forthcoming earlier.
Hearteningly, bilateral relations soared on the momentum of mutual benefits. But if both countries want to take their ties to the next level, they must focus beyond the comfort zone of trade, oil and expatriates.
Modi's visit could turn the page in this 'strategic' direction. His visit within the first 15 months of assuming office is an indirect admission of the time lost in recognising the UAE's potential as a strategic partner - one that is liberal and amenable to tactical cooperation.
Hence his visit could do to India-UAE ties what Dr Manmohan Singh's visit did to India-Saudi ties - open "a new era for strategic cooperation" through the Riyadh Declaration in 2010. It could also lay the foundation for an India-UAE security cooperation template that could borrow elements from the India-Qatar deal signed in 2008, facilitating a strategic naval base to protect Qatar's energy assets.
These agreements suggest that the road to upgrading ties across all realms to the strategic level is through political engagement, which Modi's visit would encourage. The new India-UAE focus, for example, should be on energy, defence, maritime and regional security (by establishing the energy-security link); infrastructure investments; space, mineral and other frontier science technologies; and small and medium enterprises, among others.
The strategic component also assumes importance as the US's idea of 'Asia pivot' assumes realistic proportions in the decades ahead. It is time for the countries in the region to assess and take a long-term view of its impact and start working towards countermeasures that would ensure security and stability in the region.
Such an approach would help in exploring a framework for a much-needed collective Gulf security architecture.
In this endeavour to elevate bilateral ties to the strategic level, however, both countries must resist allowing their stance on third countries affect their bilateral ties.
There is also a need to investigate how to make the shift in governmental attitudes filter down to the people on both sides. This is both important and strategic, requiring targetted public diplomacy.
The UAE must note that India is a story of two parts - 'super poor', with the trappings of a 'superpower'. In this contradictory story, India is shaping to be a better model of tradition coexisting with modernity, which is also the model of development that the UAE is currently charting.
Simultaneously, a 'new' UAE is emerging from the 'old,' which India needs to recognise and respect too.
Finally, it is worth recalling Sheikh Mohammed's clarion call in India in 2007. "The UAE is your gateway to the region.We want to be the number one since I don't believe in being the second.Our future is bright and nothing will stop us. We both will emerge as winners." (Shortly after that and until 2013-14, India and the UAE were the biggest trading associates. The scenario changed following India's five-fold increase of gold import tax.) A no-holds barred strategic synergy is a sure-shot way to again translate these words into symbiotic success.
Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK

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