Originally Published 2016-02-06 09:22:52 Published on Feb 06, 2016
For an effective Emirates policy

This coming week, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates visits India, following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai six months ago. In a sense, this visit is a test of the Modi government’s ability to take forward and concretise its bold foreign policy approach in the first 12-18 months.

In that period, the Modi euphoria and the promise of an India that was willing to think differently got a number of international interlocutors excited. The UAE was among them, appreciating Modi’s outreach after decades of neglect by New Delhi. Yet, in India the initial burst gradually settles into the inertia of bureaucracy. As the Crown Prince lands in India, this nagging perception will be on his mind.

A successful visit will not just energise the India-UAE relationship but also indicate to the broader West Asian and Arab universe – as well as to other countries in very different geographies – that this is indeed a new India. The moment should not be missed. India’s repositioning in the Gulf states began in the mid-2000s, when the nuclear deal with the United States was being finalised. The UAE (and Saudi Arabia for that matter) started to take notice of India as an emerging actor. In time, that process lost momentum. The Modi narrative has offered a second chance.

What would the Crown Prince want from India? Primarily, the UAE and India should engage each other as economic and strategic partners, and not be bogged down by relatively trifling issues. In the West, India is seen as a technology-driven economy, with a strong white collar workforce. In the UAE, though professional Indians have migrated in recent years, the broader diaspora is still working class. While this population serves India heroically in terms of remittances, it also clouds perceptions of how much India has changed in the past 15-20 years.

Indian diplomacy has not always helped. The politics of Kerala and the presence of an older generation of Indian deal-makers in Dubai – many but not all of them from Kerala – has held the relationship hostage. As one UAE-based analyst said to this writer, “Your ministers come here with a Kerala policy, rather than an Emirates policy.” Frankly, it would be preferable if the next Indian ambassador to the UAE were a non-Malayali diplomat. Keralites have become to the UAE what Indian Punjabis are to Pakistan – simply too invested, emotionally or otherwise.

A phenomenon that is beginning to concern UAE authorities is radicalisation among young Muslims in, of course, the Arab homelands but also in South Asia. This has a direct consequence for kingdoms that employ large numbers of guest workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. In fact, in recent times, informal filters and recruitment barriers have been imposed. The creeping advance of Islamic State and its ideology has left authorities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in extreme anxiety.

As the August 2015 joint statement in Abu Dhabi suggested, there is ample scope for intelligence sharing and for cooperation on fighting religious radicalism that threatens the Arabian Sea community, of which India and UAE are a part. However, the UAE would not want this to be mixed up in a narrow game of one-upmanship between New Delhi and Islamabad. The interpretation of the August 2015 joint statement solely in terms of the “isolation” of Pakistan or “freezing of D Company assets” ended up creating irritants.

Despite policy differences – particularly in the context of the Yemen conflict in 2015 – the UAE elite is too interlinked to families in Pakistan to entirely break away from that country. Religion, social bonds, inter-marriage, all play a part and there is only so much of a gap that India can create. For example, the recent lifting of the ban on bustard hunting in Pakistan is connected to Islamabad’s efforts to rebuild ties with UAE and Saudi sheikhs (who hunt in Balochistan) after the Yemen disagreement and the Modi visit.

The UAE is not alone in not wanting to get into an India-Pakistan tangle. If one examines it closely, India is receiving a familiar message from a whole range of powers: “Sort out your problems with Pakistan yourself. Keep us out of that story. We don’t want to get involved.”

Finally, the decline in oil prices has had the UAE rethinking its economic future. The search is for solid, longterm investments that provide steady returns. As such, for India to limit the role of sovereign wealth funds from the Emirates to minor stakes in individual companies is self-defeating. There is a more ambitious appetite in the UAE, which will inevitably require a government-to-government arrangement.

For instance, the UAE has made massive investments in Serbian arms facilities, helping upgrade them and agreeing to buy back a quantum of the products. A similar arrangement with an Indian ordnance factory could be considered. Food security is another pressure point. There is room for UAE investment in modern contract farming in India, again with a long-term buy-back arrangement that will benefit the Indian farmer as well. Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s experiences with urban planning could be put to good use in “smart cities” they choose to adopt and put their resources into. The mood is ripe for such interdependencies.

This article originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik Fellow The Antara Foundation

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