Old-fashioned trust and credibility bind India-UAE ties

A convergence of strategic interests and regular interactions have resulted in one of India’s most dynamic and consequential bilateral relationships

Updated - February 14, 2024 12:32 am IST

Published - February 14, 2024 12:08 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi | Photo Credit: ANI

At a time when diplomacy is widely regarded as transactional, the deeply personal relationship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands out as something of an old-world construct.

It is a bond where trust and credibility outweigh diplomatic reciprocity and protocol, where a convergence of strategic interests is bolstered by regular interactions to lay the foundations of one of India’s most dynamic and consequential bilateral relationships.

Much of this is on display during Mr. Modi’s ongoing visit to the UAE for the third time in barely eight months. He had made a bilateral visit in July 2023 followed by one for COP28 in November, where he was given the rare honour of being the only visiting dignitary to address the ceremonial opening session. Sheikh Mohamed was in Delhi in September for the G-20 Summit as one of India’s special invitees, returning in January 2024 to participate in the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit as chief guest.

A visit with substance

The timing of this visit is, in a sense, unique because it has been determined by the religious calendar for the inauguration of the grand Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. The Prime Minister’s presence will also serve as a reminder that it was during his first visit in August 2015 that he had requested the country’s leadership to provide land for a temple that would meet the religious and spiritual needs of the UAE’s large Hindu community. There is little doubt that the temple inauguration on February 14 has created excitement among the 3.5 million strong Indian community in the UAE. There was also the mega event dubbed Ahlan (Welcome) Modi at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

While the inauguration of the temple and the spectacle of Ahlan Modi will undoubtedly dominate the headlines, it should not detract anything from the other substantive aspects of this visit. These include the Prime Minister’s address as guest of honour at the 11th World Government Summit in Dubai.

Often billed as Dubai’s version of Davos, this is a major annual conference that attracts government leaders, heads of international organisations, captains of industry and thought leaders from around the world. The focus of this year’s summit is on ‘Shaping Future Governments’ and gives India a platform to put forth its own views before an influential global audience.

Strengthening economic ties

Mr. Modi is also expected to kick off the much-anticipated Bharat Mart, a key initiative of Dubai-based DP World and India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry to boost exports of Indian Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises by providing them retail, warehousing and logistics facilities in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone Area. DP World will build around 800 showrooms and 18 warehouses over the next 24 months on a 1.3 million square feet plot to allow Indian manufacturers of machinery, electrical and electronics products, auto components, medical equipment, furniture, apparel, processed foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and handicrafts to showcase their products and access buyers and markets in Iran, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The Bharat Mart project comes on the heels of the ambitious India-UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which completed its first year in 2023 and has already seen India’s trade with the UAE grow by 16% to $85 billion. In doing so, it has reinforced the UAE’s position as India’s third largest trading partner and second largest export destination.

The unique combination of CEPA and the Bharat Mart has the potential to provide a strong impetus to export of India’s manufactured goods even as the initial steps to start trading in national currencies promise to reduce transaction costs. The memoranda of understanding signed at the bilateral engagement would also further strengthen the economic relationship between India and the UAE.

There are several other major achievements for which the two sides can legitimately take credit. The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi has begun its master’s programme in energy transition and sustainability at its interim campus in Abu Dhabi. Rising investments from the UAE have made it the fourth highest source of foreign direct investment into India in 2022-23. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) will soon open an office in GIFT City, Gujarat. A 14-year deal, by Indian Oil Corporation Limited, to buy 1.2 million metric tonnes per annum of liquefied natural gas from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company during 2026-39 has been signed to boost India’s energy security. And, discussions on several sensitive areas of defence cooperation are making good progress.

Regional issues

The talks between Mr. Modi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed also provided an opportunity to review the deteriorating situation in the region in the context of the ongoing war in Gaza, the attacks by Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea, and the clear and present danger of an escalation. Longer shipping times, higher freight costs and a possible hike in oil prices can pose a significant risk to India’s economic growth, and it is important that the government coordinates closely with a key regional player such as the UAE, along with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make sure that India’s interests are protected.

Navdeep Suri was India’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates

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