New Delhi: When the United Arab Emirates awarded Narendra Modi its highest civilian honour, the Zayed Medal, this week, it came as a reminder of how India’s relations with the Arab world have transformed significantly in the last five years.
Modi is expected to travel to the UAE on 20 April to receive the award and inaugurate a Hindu temple, the first in that country, sources told ThePrint.
From offering ports for defence cooperation to deporting terrorists and economic offenders and being invited as ‘guest of honour’ at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), India under Modi has been able to ramp up its ties with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman, in particular, since 2014.
Under his larger foreign policy initiatives, Modi gave a major thrust to ties with the Arab countries when he visited Abu Dhabi in August 2015. He was the first Indian PM to visit the UAE since Indira Gandhi 34 years ago.
Modi also visited the Sheikh Zayed grand mosque, which was significant given that he’s the leader of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party. On this visit, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan committed that the UAE would support India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC), something that India was actively pursuing at the time.
The Crown Prince paid two return visits to India, in 2016 and 2017, and promised to invest $75 billion in infrastructure development. He also committed to increase bilateral trade by 60 per cent over the next five years from the current figure of $60 billion.
Additionally, the UAE also allowed India equity participation in its oil production. As a result, India’s state-run ONGC Videsh picked up a 10 per cent stake in an offshore oilfield for $600 million.
“While the investment commitment made by the UAE is yet to come in, the ball has been set in motion,” said a senior government official.
It was also the UAE that was instrumental in extending an invitation to India to be the guest of honour at the OIC this year, despite sustained protests by Pakistan in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes.
In February 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made his maiden visit to India, assuring that his country has kept aside investments worth $100 billion.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has already committed an investment of $44 billion in a petrochemical project in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri, which faced initial hurdles due to local opposition. The government of Maharashtra has said it will shift the project to a new location, though it hasn’t specified where.
Prince Salman also announced a major shift in policy, saying his government will cooperate with India in its counterterrorism efforts by sharing intelligence on terrorists and their activities.
In fact, counterterrorism has become a cornerstone in India’s relationship with the Arab world.
Earlier this week, the UAE deported a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist, Nisar Ahmed Tantray, who was involved in a 2017 terror attack in Kashmir, though this is not the first time UAE has done such a thing.
Oman, meanwhile, has offered its Duqm port to be used by the Indian Navy. The pact was signed in 2018. This was crucial for India, as the Chinese have developed a military base in Djibouti, Africa.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said Modi’s personal efforts had taken the ties to a different level. “Leaders of Gulf states now feel more assured of their investments due to his personal outreach. However, the reason for these large-scale investment commitments is also India’s growth and its potential to grow further.”
Saudi Arabia recently decided to send back India’s migrant labourers, but asked about this in context of Modi’s successes, Sibal said this was because of tightening of immigration policies around the world — because countries are trying to provide jobs to their local population.
‘Absence of grand vision’
The Arab world today is riddled with problems of its own. From jostling to become the leader of the Islamic world, to creating a modern society that encourages free speech, to taming sectarian violence, the region faces plenty of challenges that have pushed it to the brink of a major confrontation.
India has reached out to every country in the region, but its focus has to move on from being largely bilateral, since any confrontation in the region would be dangerous for India. New Delhi cannot afford to witness a confrontation due to its energy needs and also because the lives of millions of expats would come under risk.
“Prime Minister Modi has only dealt with the countries in the region bilaterally. There has been an absence of a grand vision,” said Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
“With the extraordinary goodwill that was generated, India failed to take the opportunity in creating a larger vision and going for a fundamental change in its policy towards the region.”