When the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha came to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan in 2017, asking permission to build a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, they brought two designs with them. The first was a box-like structure with a recessed temple, like the one in New Jersey, US, while the other was a regular temple with a ‘shikhara’, like the one in London, UK.
Diplomatic sources said Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ as he is popularly known, pointed out that if a temple had to be built in the UAE, it should have all the trappings. So the UAE ruler gave permission to build a temple that looked like one, the sources said, as well as donated 55,000 square metres of land for the complex, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone last year.
The same MBZ has now pushed for India to be the “guest of honour” at the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a gathering of 57 states that represents the Islamic world. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will speak at the plenary on March 1 in Abu Dhabi and then return home, as India is neither a member nor an observer, despite having the third largest Muslim population in the world.
At the OIC plenary, Sushma Swaraj is bound to run into her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, even as India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads since the Pulwama terror attack in which 44 CRPF jawans were killed.
Certainly, the invitation to India is significant. It comes 50 years after the OIC invited India’s Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to attend the conference in Rabat, Morocco, as a member, only to withdraw the invite after Pakistan’s Yahya Khan objected.
Yahya used the Ahmedabad riots that had just taken place and in which more than 600 Muslims were killed, to deny India the opportunity. India could not be trusted with its Muslim population, he had then said. The OIC had no option but to fall in line.
Today’s OIC, and especially the UAE’s MBZ who has issued the invite and with whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi has formed a special relationship, is a totally different country.
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The Indian working population in the UAE is about 3.3 million, one-third of its total population. The UAE has promised a $75 billion fund for infrastructure development and promised to participate in India’s strategic oil reserve in Mangalore. Alleged fraudsters like Rajiv Saxena, who recently got bail, and middlemen Christian Michel in the AgustaWestland case have been extradited by the UAE to India. MBZ has visited India four times since Modi came to power, including as chief guest for the Republic Day in 2017.
There is absolutely no doubt that India’s pivot to the Gulf is underpinned by the UAE, which in turn is underlined by the special relationship between Modi and MBZ.
Here’s more: Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, considers the Emirati MBZ as “something of a mentor,” sources said. It is hardly a coincidence that when MBS flew back to Riyadh from Pakistan last week after being wooed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, he broke journey in Abu Dhabi en route to Delhi for his visit.
With MBZ investing so heavily in the relationship with India, it is clear that the emergency OIC meeting called by Pakistan Tuesday to discuss the Jammu and Kashmir issue is likely to fall flat. Moreover, the OIC communiqué at the end of the March 1-2 meeting is unlikely to have any critical remarks about India.
The UAE sheikh certainly isn’t inviting India to the OIC meeting one day and then proceeding to insult her the next. It is almost certain that the Saudi prince was last week carrying a message from Pakistan to India, to open talks and not avenge the CRPF killings.
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Meanwhile, the US has moved a proposal in the UN Security Council to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, which could take up to a couple of weeks. The world’s big powers are hoping that diplomacy will prevail and that China will fall in line.
None of this means that the UAE and Saudi Arabia – which, along with Pakistan, were the only three countries in the world to recognise the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s – have ended their relationship with Pakistan. Late last year, the Saudis gave Imran Khan $6 billion in aid, while the UAE gave $3 billion. MBS promised he would invest another $20 billion when he went to Pakistan last week.
One way of looking at India’s expanded diplomatic presence is that as long as Delhi and the world continue to jaw-jaw, the chances of war-war are reduced.
But in the dry, desert wind blowing across the Gulf, something is changing. And from all accounts, MBZ is leading that change.
Certainly, the Abu Dhabi ruler seems like a colourful character. In the wake of 9/11, the anecdote in Abu Dhabi goes, MBZ’s father, the senior Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan, asked him if he (MBZ) would go to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of Muslims and against America. When MBZ expressed shock and horror, the father pointed out that just “because they are not true Muslims”, don’t be afraid to engage in battle.
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MBZ, of course, didn’t go to war in Afghanistan, but he never forgot. Ever since, he is said to be obsessed with the idea of Islam being hijacked by extremist Muslims. He is also said to want a way out of the conundrum which keeps India out of the OIC despite its 185 million Muslim population – even Russia has observer status.
The invitation to Sushma Swaraj to speak is a first step. It is also a signal to the Pakistani establishment that the rest of the Muslim world doesn’t approve of the terrorist organisations on its soil.
The overhaul of the Islamic world vis-a-vis India, courtesy the OIC, will take a long time, but as long as MBZ and Modi are concerned, the journey has begun.