The UAE and India: Promoting regional peace and interreligious tolerance
Why did it take 34 years for an Indian prime minister to visit the UAE?
Why did it take 34 years for an Indian prime minister to visit the UAE? Relations between the two countries have always been strong. There have been thriving trade ties between both, the UAE employs more than two and a half million Indians, mostly low paid labor, but nevertheless an important source of income for many more million dependents living in India. The UAE is the third trade partner of India after The United States and China, and the Middle East at large is India’s first trade partner. India’s energy supplies are largely dependent on oil coming from the region. India can greatly benefit from positive relations with the UAE to solve – or at least mitigate – its conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, and as importantly it needs cooperation from Muslim and Arab countries in order to counter terrorism.
One possible reason for the delay in building a strategic relationship between the UAE and India had to do with the UAE’s relationship with Pakistan, which until a few months ago had been exceptionally strongAbdullah Hamidaddin
So why did it take so long to forge a strategic relationship? And why did this strategic shift happen now? It is important here to stress ‘strategic’. This visit was about much more than trade. This was to forge a strategic alliance with implications on the regional balance of power and also on combating global terrorism. Some of the features of this strategic relationship include the UAE’s investment in the production of defense technology in India; the UAE’s backing of India’s bid for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council and the intensive cooperation between both countries in counter-terrorism.
UAE’s relationship with Pakistan
One possible reason for the delay in building a strategic relationship between the UAE and India had to do with the UAE’s relationship with Pakistan, which until a few months ago had been exceptionally strong. The existential animosity between India and Pakistan stood as a hurdle to a UAE-India strategic relationship. Another reason is that the security architecture of the Arabian Gulf region in the past thirty years did not provide a strong incentive for any of the GCC countries to bring in India in. But now things are different.
First, last April Pakistan declined supporting Operation Decisive Storm. Emirati officials expressed deep disappointment towards Pakistan, voicing its unreliability as a dependable ally. It was clear from the statements coming out that things between the UAE and Pakistan would no longer be the same. The Pakistani decision definitely changed the extent which the UAE would take into consideration Pakistan’s interests in its relationship with India.
Second, the United States is changing its global strategy. It is focusing more and more on South East Asia, allocating more of its resources to check the growth of China. At the same time it is moving towards off-shore balancing when it comes to the security of the Arabian Gulf. While America’s commitment and interests in the security of the GCC countries remain the same, it is changing the way it provides that security and it is also demanding more involvement from the GCC countries in defending themselves against external threats. This is concomitant the Iranian nuclear deal which is going to dramatically change the regional balance of power in favor of the Iranians. Such a situation leaves the GCC states with no option but to seek new strategic alliances with countries that can fill the gap left by the Americans and that can balance Iran’s power in the region.
To crown this new strategic relationship the UAE organized a visit for Prime Minister Modi to Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque in Abu Dhabi and the UAE allocated land to build a Hundi temple in Abu Dhabi. This would not be the first non-Muslim dignitary to visit the mosque, nor is it the first Hindu temple in the UAE or in the GCC countries. Yet this time is particularly symbolic. Indian Prime Modi is a Hindu nationalist whose popular power base includes, and to an extent depends on, Hindu nationalist extremists, some of whom are responsible for the deaths of many Muslims during the Gujarat riots in 2002. Modi himself is accused by some to have played a role in inciting those riots. Modi’s visit to the mosque and building a Hindu temple on the occasion of his visit should be seen as a message being sent from the UAE to Hindus and Muslims in India that it is time for a new page, and that the UAE is ready and willing to contribute to building a new future of interreligious peace in India.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1