When Narendra Modi visited the UAE in August 2015, it was after 34 years an Indian prime minister last visited the country. The last Indian prime minister who visited the country before Modi was Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Since Modi’s visit, in the past three years, there have been three more high-level visits by the leadership of the UAE and India, including Modi’s upcoming two-day visit to the UAE beginning on February 10. His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited India in February 2016 and January 2017 — first on a state visit and the second as the chief guest of Indian Republic Day celebrations. While warm relations between the UAE and India go back to centuries, diplomats and top officials say the current momentum is unprecedented, scoring high on both symbolism and substance.
Here are six factors that have contributed to the changing dynamics of the relationship:
1. Diversification of UAE economy: Foreign trade and the oil and gas sectors were the fulcrum of bilateral relations in the decades preceding the end of the oil era boom. But since then, the UAE has pursued an aggressive strategy of diversifying its economy, and its relations with India have benefited as a result.
“If we go back to 1982, foreign trade figures between the UAE and India were at $182 million. In 2016-17, those numbers stood at $53 billion,” said Ahmed Al Banna, UAE Ambassador to India.
“The focus of bilateral relations have now diversified to include many new sectors after the official visits of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed and Modi — such as IT, space tech, tourism, defence manufacturing and renewable energy,” he said.
2. Evolving country profile and priorities: The recent upsurge in relations is a reminder that both the UAE and India have leapfrogged in terms of global reputation and foreign policy since 1981, says Dr A.K. Pasha, director of Gulf Studies Programme at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“India now is not only a growing economic power, but also an aspirational power. In the 1980s, India was seen as aligned with the Soviet Union — now we have multidimensional relations with almost all countries. That certainly helps recalibrate our relations with the UAE,” he said.
“We are seen as a country which will not interfere in domestic or regional disputes but has a vision for peace, security and stability,” he said.
According to him, the recent high-level visits of UAE and Indian leaders also demonstrate the proactive nature of decision-making between the two countries. “There is a paradigm shift in what India was in 1982 and what it is now — the context of the India of 1982 is irrelevant now. It is devoid of the past binaries which used to define India’s relation with the Arab world and the UAE. With a very proactive, mature and confident foreign policy, the UAE has also rapidly moved to embrace the opportunities. The era of passive bilateral relations is over — both nations have demonstrated that with the same resources as before, there is so much more that can be achieved,” Dr Pasha said.
A critical role was also played by changing regional dynamics and perceptions. “In the aftermath of 9/11 and then the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2014 by US president Barack Obama, there was a feeling of abandonment across the Arab world — which also led to them looking at stable and emerging partners in the region. India, which has always been a friend of the UAE, fulfilled those requirements,” Pasha said.
3. Key partners in combating extremism: The UAE and India share a deeply common goal — fighting terrorism, combating extremism and ideologies of hatred. “We cooperate very closely with Indian authorities in fighting extremists and terrorists — both individuals and organisations,” said Al Banna.
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