The Abu Dhabi royal family, the Al Nahyans, reached out to New Delhi about three months ago about re-orienting the traditionally distant government-to-government bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear that the seven members of the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the most powerful, would need to tack explicitly against terrorism, implicitly against Pakistan.
After the UAE signalled acceptance, a state visit by Modi was put on fast track. This was big time: The UAE was one of the three closest international friends of Pakistan and the offshore financial centre of Islamabad’s establishment. It had been one of three countries that had recognised the earlier Taliban regime. Mumbai bomber Dawood Ibrahim rested and invested in Dubai without hindrance.
If the UAE was ready to see India as more than a source of cheap labour, the repercussions would be strongest inside Islamabad.
In the Indian view, the UAE was making this geopolitical shift for three reasons.
One, the UAE was among the Sunni Arab states that is worried about the ascendancy of Iran and the Shia populations of west Asia. They had long maintained a close tie with the Pakistani military and political class to tap their money, but also as a gun for hire.
When the Pakistan National Assembly rejected a request by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to send Pakistani troops to quell a Shia rebellion in Yemen, the sheikh rulers of both countries were livid. The Saudis warned of repercussions. The Abu Dhabi royal family’s response was to sidle closer to India.
Two, the Abu Dhabi royals and other emirati rulers have been increasingly of the view that UAE needed to change its image as a safe haven for terrorism, gangsters and so on. Singapore or Hong Kong should be the future of a place like Dubai.
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This, in turn, meant reducing the unsavoury ties that the UAE had with Pakistan’s seamier side. It also meant reworking ties with India whose economic potential seemed to be greater than almost any other emerging economy. That Dubai is the main offshore financial depository for wealthy Indians and Indian firms -- and the amounts involved probably dwarfed what their Pakistani counterparts were storing there -- no doubt bringing the sheikhs on board.
Third was a growing concern, widespread among all the Gulf sheikhdoms, that the geopolitical balance in their region was becoming more unstable and hostile to their interests. Bringing in other outside powers into the region, especially powers that already had strong economic and cultural ties with the Sunni Arab states, thus made sense.
The most important geopolitical shift in the Gulf has been the return of Iran, a country that is slowly freeing itself from years of sanctions, being left with a recessed nuclear weapons capability and still wanting to be the dominant Gulf power - on a foundation of Shia religious resurgence. The UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been at the forefront of regional attempts to contain this Iranian re-emergence. This coupled with a growing US disinterest in maintaining the balance of power in the Gulf has suddenly made countries like India and China of greater interest to the emirates.
India is a medium term gamble for them -- it has so far stayed away from playing an active role in Gulf geopolitics and been careful to engage with everyone in the country. But one worth playing. Taking a tough stance on Pakistani terrorism, however, is understood by the UAE to be a necessary prerequisite for engaging India strategically.
It is not clear if New Delhi has worked out a coherent strategy for the new state of affairs in the Persian Gulf. But it recognises that opportunities are arising as the geopolitics of the area starts to shift -- and India is exploiting these opportunities to further its economic interests and its desire to isolate Pakistan and discredit its use of terror.
It is a lot closer to getting Iran to develop the Chhabahar port and the North-South corridor so that India gets a surface transport route to Afghanistan and central Asia. It has now used a similar opening to get UAE to issue a joint statement which has clause after clause attacked terrorism and, implicitly, Pakistan’s differences with India. Besides the various clauses on counter-terrorism and its finance, this “XVI. Call on all nations to fully respect and sincerely implement their commitments to resolve disputes bilaterally and peacefully, without resorting to violence and terrorism” sounds almost like an endorsement of India’s Kashmir line.
New Delhi’s key interest in reducing Pakistan’s international support and making it feel more isolated received a major boost with Modi’s UAE visit. Merged with his overtures to China, his visits to central Asia and talk of coming visits to Iran and Saudi Arabia, one suspects Pakistan is less than happy with these developments.
The real test will be what happens over the coming several months in terms of implementation. The six monthly National Security Advisors’ dialogues will be one of these testing grounds.
Though Abu Dhabi and Pakistan exchanged harsh words over the Yemen dispute, one suspects Islamabad will take a more conciliatory stance with the UAE in an attempt to counter India’s new found status. The UAE may also reconsider if US begins to take a more active Gulf stance with a new White House occupant. Which is why it is imperative for India to institutionalise and consolidate the openings it has made these past few months.
The views expressed are personal.