The UAE leadership broke protocol to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi here on Sunday, with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nayhan of Abu Dhabi turning out with five of his brothers to greet him at the airport in a rare gesture. The pragmatic leadership of the Emirate opened up for the Prime Minister, but a lot depends on discussions on Monday.
The high point of the first day’s engagement was Mr. Modi’s visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the world’s third largest mosque, leaving some powerful images for consumption by a domestic audience. His balance of the domestic and the foreign during the visit was exemplified by a short interaction with blue-collar workers in ICAD Residential Labour Camp, which was more photo-op than substantive.
During talks with the UAE leadership on Monday, Mr. Modi is expected to discuss energy security (negotiation of long-term oil supply contracts), security cooperation and investment ties. In interviews to Khaleej Times and The National , prominent UAE newspapers, the Prime Minister said that he felt the UAE was a “mini-India”. He wanted to see the nation as “our foremost trade and investment partner”. During the visit to the mosque, Mr. Modi seemed at ease and posed for selfies, along with his minister-in-waiting, Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. The only anxious moments were when he broke the security cordon to greet Indians who had gathered in scores.
Of a mosque and Modi
External Affairs Ministry officials here downplayed the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on Sunday, saying it was more in the nature of a homage to Sheikh Zayed, the father of the nation. That is an understatement. The other view is that this was a ground-breaking attempt at a rapprochement between the Prime Minister and the largest minority community back home.
The ambiguity surrounding the visit’s intentions was best expressed by Mr. Modi’s confidant, Zafar Sareshwala, who has been camping in the UAE in preparation of the visit for months.
“There is an old mosque in Ahmedabad, called the Sarkhej Roza, which also has the tomb of one of the founders of Ahmedabad, Sheikh Ahmad Khattu. It was in a dilapidated condition and the Gujarat government gave funds for its restoration,” he told The Hindu . “In October 2007-08, the management there started a Sufi music festival. I am witness to the fact that Prime Minister Modi attended the festival for at least three years.”
He admitted, however, that the visit would be great to the domestic constituency. “The UAE visit, on the whole, will have a huge impact on Indian honour and Muslims, though the Prime Minister has visited several Central Asian countries and Bangladesh in the recent past. Indian Muslims do look to the Arab world as a leader in their religious affairs,” he said.
Prior to the mosque visit, the Prime Minister spoke of bilateral ties in interviews to UAE newspapers. He spelt out that he wanted cooperation in the fields of science and technology.
“We would build regular and effective cooperation in a full range of security challenges. Our armed forces would engage with each other more. In short, in every walk of life, we should turn to each other as a matter of habit,” he said.