United Arab Emirates look to India as a new key partner

  • Shishir Gupta, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 18:01 IST
Modi's UAE visit hopes to see the two countries step up security cooperation, energy, trade and investment ties. (Image via Twitter, @PIB_India)

A diplomatic tectonic shift in India-United Arab Emirates relations with serious ramifications for Pakistan has taken place since Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Abu Dhabi airport on August 16.

Apparently Modi is amused that the media found only two takeaways from his historic two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — he was given a rare reception by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and his five brothers and land was allocated by the Gulf State to build a temple in Abu Dhabi. That Modi’s visit was a game-changer was evident during the September 3 Joint Commission Meetings (JCM), chaired by the foreign ministers of India and the UAE in New Delhi.

On the sidelines of the JCM, a top UAE interlocutor fondly told his Indian counterparts that he had kept a house (palace in Indian parlance) in Karachi and Lahore as both the Pakistani cities were vibrant and full of gaiety in the past. He said it was only during his recent visit to Lahore that he realised that the laughter had disappeared from the historical city and one could now feel the stench emanating from decay all over.

Pointing to various terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, the interlocutor called Pakistan virtually a failed state and drew comparisons with terror-wracked Algeria. He conveyed that the UAE was most upset with Pakistan, the biggest Sunni military power, for not coming out in support of Saudi Arabia against Shia Houthis in the Yemen civil war and against Iran for exacerbating the Shia-Sunni fault lines in West Asia.

The conversation was sheer music to the ears of the Indian interlocutors as it was coming from a country that once did not allow the Indian ambassador inside a UAE air base after the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, hijacked by Pakistani terrorists, landed in the morning on December 25, 1999, for refuelling en route to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

The UAE was the country that allowed unfettered access to 1993 Mumbai serial blast accused Dawood Ibrahim, who runs a huge business empire stretching from Karachi to Abu Dhabi, and his gang. This was also the country that allowed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to recruit vulnerable Indian expatriates in the UAE to launch a jihad against their own country using their strategic arm — the Lashkar-e-Taiba(LeT) group. Indian Mujahideen co-founders Amir Raza Khan, Riyaz Bhatkal, Iqbal Bhatkal, Abdus Subhan Qureshi, Aftab Ansari and Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who account for more than 1,000 murders of innocents in India, have a base in Dubai or Sharjah.

The Azamgarh module of the Indian Mujahideen comprising Atif Ameen, Arif Badar and Dr Shahnawaz was funded by Pakistan agencies through the UAE to target innocents from Lucknow to Delhi to Mumbai in the past decade.

The big question is: So what has brought about this huge change in the Gulf royals that they have decided to initiate operational cooperation with India against terrorism of all denominations — cyber security and intelligence sharing — and singled out New Delhi as the destination for multi-billion dollar investments? The answer lies in the emergence of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah as mega global centres of finance and trade with expatriates from all over the world making this Gulf kingdom as their second home.

With the rise of the Islamic State or Isis just across their borders, the fear of a terror attack has reached critical levels as it will directly impact the security of finance and trade institutions in the Emirates. Given that terror groups of all denominations — from the Taliban to al-Qaeda to Isis — have a presence in the Af-Pak region, the UAE and other Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh want to insulate themselves from these religious radicals. From a country where the West Asia royals used to indulge in game hunting in the Sindh and Balochistan deserts, Pakistan has become a pariah state with even its chief patron, Saudi Arabia, seriously suspicious of its long-term intentions.

This is evident from the overtures coming from Riyadh to New Delhi directly and through royal intermediaries that Modi should visit Saudi Arabia by the end of this year to cement the bilateral relations. While the India-UAE joint statement after Modi’s visit is unequivocal in its condemnation of terrorists and their sponsors, its direct impact will be that the Emirates will no longer be a safe haven for anti-Indian activities, with Pakistan taking a direct hit from its economic consequences.

The closeness of India-UAE ties also has a direct bearing on the West Asia kingdoms investing in economic opportunities in India as the Abu Dhabi royals are very close to Saudi Arabia, just as the Dubai royals have family ties with Jordan’s ruling family. Apart from investment, the India-UAE rapprochement also provides India a diplomatic opportunity to play the honest broker to stabilise the ferment in West Asia post the Arab spring and rise of Isis. The fact is that India is the only country that has close ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, the key regional players with military muscle.

Although Modi has, to date, made all the right moves by focusing on good governance and development, the fruits of India’s multi-layered engagement with West Asia also depend on his ability to prevent any polarisation on religious lines and using an iron hand to pre-empt any communal conflagration.

It is a foregone conclusion that there will be instigation from across the borders to sharpen the communal divide so that the India-UAE engagement remains only on paper as the relations with the Emirates are not confined to security but stretch all the way to the joint development of an anti-cancer vaccine.

The UAE has played the first card by taking to task a cleric who vocally opposed land allocation for a temple in Abu Dhabi and even enacting a law by which a Muslim calling his religious brother an apostate or what is called takfir in Islam is punishable. The law, which has resonance in West Asia, has a direct impact on takfiri terrorist groups like Isis, al-Qaeda and the LeT. It is time for India to reciprocate.

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