Last week’s high-level visit to India was remarkable in many ways. Both in substance and in appearance it represents a strikingly rapid upgrade in the intensity of relations between the two countries.
Before Prime Minister Modi visited the UAE in 2015, the last visit by an Indian prime minister was in 1981. Now there have been three top-level visits in less than two years, and India has accorded the UAE perhaps its highest honour of making it the chief guest at its Republic Day Parade.
It is worth taking a step back to reflect on why this is happening now. At least five factors have converged to make this the perfect moment to reboot the India-UAE relationship.
The first is that the Obama Administration’s less active role in the Middle East accelerated the UAE’s need to diversify its relations with large external powers who can play a role in helping to underpin the UAE’s and the region’s security. India’s emergence as one of Asia’s great powers and its growing role securing important maritime routes have made it an obvious choice for enhanced defense cooperation.
The second is India’s recent economic growth. India’s economy has taken off, growing at an average of more than 7% a year between 2005 and 2015. This has increased the UAE’s incentives for investing in India. At the same time, with Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign to boost Indian manufacturing, India is on a quest for investment capital – and sees the UAE as a likely source.
The third factor is that this same growth has heightened India’s thirst for energy, which has already made it the world’s third biggest oil consumer. Already, around 58% of India’s oil comes from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the largest supplier, but it is looking for more.
The fourth driver may be an increasing confidence in each other as partners in the fight against extremism and terrorism. This was certainly an area of cooperation that received a lot of attention in the Indian media coverage of the visit.
The final factor is the role of Mr Modi himself, who has been extremely active on the foreign policy stage. He launched the ‘Link West’ policy – focused on strengthening relations in the Middle East. His predecessor spoke of a ‘Look West’ policy, but did not visit the UAE or invest much political capital in the initiative. Mr Modi appears fully committed to this agenda.
There has perhaps never been a more auspicious confluence of factors to support renewal in India’s relations with the UAE. The UAE should therefore capitalize on the current enthusiasm from Mr Modi and his government in order to embed the relationship in a wider set of institutions and stakeholders.
The UAE has now established a Strategic Dialogue with India, co-chaired by the respective Ministers of State for Foreign (or External) Affairs. The first meeting reportedly took place in New Delhi as part of the recent visit. The success of this Dialogue will depend on continued interest from leadership in the two countries, on the personal rapport between the co-chairs, and on its ability to engage and mobilise relevant entities within the two governments to deliver on the ambitious agenda.
But to embed this renewed relationship for the long term it will be vital to engage non-governmental actors in the UAE and in India who have a long term stake in the success of the relationship. This means working with private sector bodies such as the UAE-India Economic Forum but also working with the Indian diaspora in the UAE as the best possible ‘ambassadors’ for the UAE back home in India.
The UAE-India relationship has received a strong boost in the last two years and the recent visit by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has given it another powerful push forward. The challenge now is not to allow the momentum to diminish as the relationship disappears from the front pages of the newspapers. This requires continued top level engagement, hard work by the respective government bureaucracies, and the encouragement of strong business and cultural links.
Looking ahead, the UAE-Indian visit was an important milestone in setting up a framework of collaboration in order to meet the world’s future challenges such as a steady population growth, dwindling natural resources, food security and environmental degradation. Now is the time to put both our resources to work and create mutually beneficial synergies. Cooperation, not confrontation, lies at the heart of the UAE’s foreign policy objectives.