Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum truly believes that India and the UAE can combine their intellectual and practical energies to spawn a dynamic new locus of 21st century power.

If a photograph could capture the rapport between two leaders, the one appearing on the front pages of many newspapers on Friday morning certainly succeeded. It showed His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates in animated conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India.

That photograph can be seen as a metaphor, and not only an image capturing a high-level diplomatic meeting in New Delhi. 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 stark desert through sheer willpower, judicious use of natural resources, and relentless promotion of education, innovation and enterprise.

This narrative has held up remarkably well in the nearly 40 years since the federation was formed after the British administrators left the Gulf region. But now the UAE is accelerating the pace of its narrative to take into account the demands of a new age of globalisation — and of the federation's own desire to contribute even more fulsomely to economic progress in the global commons.

Central to such an accelerated narrative is, of course, trade. The UAE and India have an annual bilateral trade that's approaching $50 billion, making each country the other's largest trading partner. This sort of trade did not just happen overnight. Dhows have plied the waters of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean for centuries, bringing spices and textiles and consumer goods from India, and taking gold and jewellery from Arabian shores. (Some would say, of course, that arms were also carried aboard the dhows.) The economy of the UAE — and of Dubai in particular — has been strengthened by inputs from India and Indians, who have brought not only their business acumen but also technological expertise.

In turn, India's trillion-dollar economy — one of the world's biggest — has been hospitable to investments from the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed told Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on Thursday that he liked to think that their two countries are each other's closest and most trusted friends. And both leaders like to think that it's in their mutual interest to ensure that such a relationship should endure. Shashi Tharoor, currently India's Minister of State for External Affairs, and almost certainly a future prime minister — at least in his considerable high self-regard — is known to share such a sentiment.

This remarkable relationship did not happen by accident. Sheikh Mohammed often said that the secret lies in the multicultural, multiethnic fabric of UAE society. In UAE society, social and business interests co-exist in an easy, open environment. The government's role is largely regulatory — it is that of an enabler. The business sector of the UAE now has a unique international fabric, and Indian businessmen constitute an integral part of that fabric. In tandem with the efforts of Emiratis themselves, the collective contributions of Indians and other entrepreneurs from different parts of the world have established the UAE as a leading hub for trade, financial services, and tourism.

Sheikh Mohammed's visit to India came at a time when economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries have never been healthier. He clearly sees the huge market that beckons in India. As someone who has often said that he “discovered that there is no shorter distance between two civilisations than that between the Arab and Indian civilisations,” Sheikh Mohammed recognises the potential of enhanced trade with India. For example, that India plans to spend $600 on developing its infrastructure over the next five years. The UAE has formidable experience in this field. It is interested in making significant new investment in India due to faith in India's economic potential and the synergy that the two countries' economies share. The UAE already has nearly $6 billion invested in various projects in India.

UAE companies also have considerable experience in working in India itself. Emaar, for example, is helping develop the facilities for the 2010 Asian Games. Dubai World has operations in India. And in the UAE itself, thousands of Indian companies operate profitably in various sectors, especially precious metals, textiles, foods and services.

Of course, there are human-rights issues — such as the treatment of construction and unskilled workers. But Sheikh Mohammed has made it clear in no uncertain terms that his government will not tolerate abuses. Strict legislation is being enforced to ensure that the rights of guest workers are protected, a point emphasised in former Indian Consul-General Venu Rajamony's new best-selling book, India and the UAE: In Celebration of a Legendary Friendship.

When UAE leaders such as Sheikh Mohammed look at the tumultuous world around them — and not only in the Middle East — it may be tempting to be dismayed by how nations and their leaders sometimes lose opportunities to advance the interests of their people. But one can fairly guess that his worldview is that of an irrepressible optimist: Where there are setbacks, he sees opportunities. Where there is failure, he sees a chance for redemption. Where there is economic gloom, he surely sees prospects for engendering positive energy.

These are qualities that Sheikh Mohammed shares with India's great leaders, past and present — Gandhi, Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, and now Sonia and Manmohan Singh and Shashi Tharoor. That's why Sheikh Mohammed travelled to India — because he truly believes that India and the UAE can combine their intellectual and practical energies to spawn a dynamic new locus of 21st century power. Call it “soft power,” if you will. But it is, in the final analysis, the power to change lives, the power to transform societies into engines of progress and prosperity.

(Pranay Gupte, a veteran journalist and writer, is the author of a forthcoming book on India and the Middle East.)

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