The chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2017 will be Abu Dhabi's crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation on Sunday with the following tweet:
@narendramodi I am pleased to join in your Republic Day celebrations, wishing your friendly country more progress & prosperity
— أخبار محمد بن زايد (@MBZNews) October 2, 2016
The prime minister replied:
Thank you for very kindly agreeing to grace the 2017 Republic Day celebrations as the Chief Guest. https://t.co/UqnX6BJJdW
And went on to add:
The coming of HH Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan will give a very strong boost to the vibrant India-UAE ties. @MBZNews
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 2, 2016
At first, this seems an odd choice for a Republic Day chief guest.
After all, we're used to seeing P5 leaders — the likes of Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, François Hollande, John Major, Jacques Chirac etc; regional leaders — Saarc leaders like King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, Cassam Uteem of Mauritius, JR Jayawardene of Sri Lanka etc; East and Southeast Asian leaders — Shinzo Abe, Goh Chok Tong, Yingluck Shinawatra feature most prominently on that invitee list. There's also a handful of African leaders and those from G20 countries in the mix for good measure.
But West Asia has only seen representation in the form of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (in 2006) and Iran's then president Mohammed Khatami (in 2003).
Indian prime ministers have traditionally been known to invite strategic partners to accompany them in watching this annual exhibition of India's might — military, cultural, historical and miscellaneous (ie whatever might is demonstrated by excitable children jumping around in ultra-colourful clothes). There are usually some sort of detailed discussions that take place on the sidelines of the festivities and they help set the wheels in motion for future bilateral ties. A case in point was Hollande's visit for Republic Day this year that helped smooth out the Rafale deal, or Obama's visit for the big day in 2015 that helped unlock the India-US nuclear deal.
So what's the deal with inviting the Abu Dhabi crown prince?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first State visit to the UAE at the invitation of Al Nahyan soon after Independence Day last year. It was then that India and the UAE signed a joint statement that, among other features, included an agreement to establish an India-UAE Infrastructure Investment Fund "with the aim of reaching a target of USD 75 billion to support investment in India's plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks".
On the evidence of that statement, it's possible to conclude that while the UAE might not be a strategic partner in the conventional sense (yet), there are three reasons that suggest this invitation was another foreign policy masterstroke from the government.
First, there's the small matter of that infrastructure investment. And India-UAE MoU to set up the National Infrastructure Investment Fund was cleared by the Union Cabinet in March this year. Keen observers of Modi's foreign visits will note that infrastructure investment sits atop the prime minister's agenda while meeting with world leaders. And if the NIIF achieves its target, the UAE will be India's largest investor.
Second, there's the broader issue of economics as it relates to trade, remittances and the like. As was noted in some detail in this Firstpost article from August last year:
The UAE is home to an Indian expat population of around 2.6 million that sent home a reported $12.638 billion in remittances in 2014. The multi-faceted contribution of this community — comprising 30 percent of the UAE’s total population — to its host nation can be linked to its diverse demographic profile. According to the website of the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, “65 percent belong to the blue-collar category… 20 percent belong to the white collar non-professional… 15 percent are professionals and businessmen and their family members”.
The Indian diaspora in the UAE — of which the largest chunk is found in Abu Dhabi and Dubai — contributes to the local economy, sends home remittances and is instrumental in facilitating cultural exchanges. There's also the matter of trade. The UAE was India's third-largest trade partner in 2015 (see here) with $60 billion in bilateral trade between the two countries. If the August 2015 joint statement is anything to go by, this figure is likely to grow "with the target of increasing trade by 60 percent in the next five years". And let's not forget, energy. Over half of India's imports from the UAE comprise petroleum and petroleum gas and the Emirates will remain a very important source of energy imports for the foreseeable future.
Third — and perhaps most intriguing, there's the geopolitics. A major step towards an enhanced strategic relationship was outlined in a line in the the joint statement issued last year that read mentioned a drive to "(s)trengthen cooperation in law enforcement, anti-money laundering, drug trafficking, other trans-national crimes (and) extradition arrangements." Considering the way the Emirates, particularly Dubai, have been used in the past as a safe haven by the likes of Dawood Ibrahim et al, this move — arguably, fairly late in the day — sends the message that India and the UAE are working together to stop the offshoots of this erstwhile 'safe haven': Counterfeiting, illegal gambling on sports, other aspects of organised crime and so on.
More pertinent, however, is the part of the joint statement that saw Modi and Al Nahyan "condemn(ing) efforts, including by States, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries. They also deplore efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian colour to political issues and disputes, including in West and South Asia, and use terrorism to pursue their aims." In fact, a large chunk of the joint statement addressed denouncing terrorism and strengthening 'cooperation in counter-terrorism operations' and intelliegence sharing. The message was clear and the target, although not mentioned by name, clearer still.
There is an argument to be made that by deepening relations with the UAE, it is possible to thwart Pakistan's efforts to leverage the OIC to deliver anti-India rhetoric as and when the need arises
The Pakistani daily Dawn published an article soon after the Modi visit that sought to make sense of the visit, by suggesting that Modi was trying to "step into the breach between Pakistan and the UAE over Islamabad’s refusal to actively join the Yemen war against the Houthi fighters". It may be recalled that Islamabad — and Ankara — rejected Riyadh's invitation to join the Saudi Arabia-led Operation Decisive Storm, leading UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash to angrily tweet that “(t)he vague and contradictory stands of Pakistan and Turkey are an absolute proof that Arab security — from Libya to Yemen — is the responsibility of none but Arab countries, and the crisis is a real test for neighbouring countries” and that "(Pakistan's) contradictory and ambiguous views on this decisive matter will have a high cost". With international isolation of Islamabad on New Delhi's menu of 'firm responses', it's not entirely unfathomable that a part — no matter how insignificant — of this whole venture to seek closer ties with the UAE is linked to pushing Pakistan further into the wilderness.
Part of this endeavour is linked to the major role the UAE plays in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that comprises 56 Islamic countries. Pakistan has regularly used the OIC in multinational platforms like the UN General Assembly to launch attacks at India. This tactic was deployed most recently at the 71st UNGA last month when the grouping raised the issue of Kashmir once again. The OIC called on India to 'immediately cease atrocities in Kashmir' and peacefully settle the issue 'in accordance with wishes of Kashmiri people and the UNSC resolutions'. This was later interpreted by a top Pakistani official to mean that the OIC did not see Kashmir "an internal problem of India, but an international issue".
There is an argument to be made that by deepening relations with the UAE — and Saudi Arabia, another useful partner in West Asia, whom Modi had a paid a visit in April this year — it is possible to thwart Pakistan's efforts to leverage the OIC to deliver anti-India rhetoric as and when the need arises.
It is this third factor that serves as the icing on the cake in making the UAE a very important partner and Al Nahyan a very good choice as a Republic Day chief guest.
What remains to be seen is how long this endeavour will take to bear fruit. Until then, let's just enjoy the parade.