Coverage of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Shaikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan's visit to India, as the Chief Guest for Republic Day 2017, has been described as signaling ever-closer bilateral ties/a complete reset of India's relationship with the Gulf, and other equally strong affirmatives. Part of the reason is the invitation itself, which under this government has only been extended to countries that are a feature in India's strategic calculus. But another reason for these strong assertions come from an increased momentum observed in India's interactions with the Gulf and wider West Asia region under the incumbent government. Beginning in 2015 with Prime Minister Modi's maiden visit to the UAE, there have been two-way heads of state visits between India and the UAE, India and Qatar and an outgoing visit to Saudi Arabia. Further, the joint statements issued from these visits have been strikingly similar in the new grounds covered, incorporating as they have, maritime security and defense cooperation, statements against extremism and terrorism, pledges of infrastructure investment and increasing trade figures, and plans to orient beyond the market logic of the energy relationship in order that it also be driven by strategic calculations.
Though the relationship between India and the Gulf is an old one — held up by multiple stakeholders, and with a monetary value attached to it, aspects that have been described as an "evolutionary happening", by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar at last year's Raisina Dialogue, the effort to infuse a strategic element into this organic past and influence the design of future relations under the 'Think West' moniker, is new. Newer still, is the intent to match 'Think West' with India's other important strategic outreach to its East, 'Act East', also mentioned in the same speech.
India's core concerns when dealing with West Asia have traditionally centered around sustained energy access, diaspora-related issues and the safety of its citizens working there, the encroachment of absolutist ideologies foreign to the Indian subcontinent, the safe haven that terrorists who have attacked India have found in some countries of the region and related counter-terrorism concerns. These core concerns were first given formal expression in late Saudi King Abdullah's visit to Delhi in 2006 where the Delhi Declaration was issued and in former PM Manmohan Singh's visit to Riyadh and the Riyadh Declaration of 2010. These declarations were foundational documents which for the first time described the strategic potential of the India-Gulf relationship. They have since set the tone of our engagement with important Gulf countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, as seen in the latest round of joint statements signed since 2015.
That being said, the momentum to build on these new benchmarks is very different from what was seen post 2006. While some of it comes down to individual drive on part of leaders from both regions to elevate the relationship, changed security and economic contexts have also altered the Gulf calculus. Joint statements signed since 2015 attest to the fact that Gulf countries now look at us as an economic market beyond oil, a security partner in securing common waters, a future supplier of professional labor expertise and some countries in the Gulf regard us as a country committed to influencing international responses on countering state-backed terrorism.
At the same time, it is important to note that India too has changed. India can now be described by certain facts and figures that change the way a lot of countries look at us. India is now one of the world's fastest growing economies. The Indian navy has made clear its security intent for the Indo-Pacific Indian Ocean region - an area it sees as beginning in the Suez - and has taken ownership of a maritime region bearing its name. Further, India's growth ambitions depend on meeting sizeable infrastructure development goals and investment targets. It is a different India that the Gulf sees from just a decade ago, and coupled with the maximalist foreign policy drive of the current government, in a context of waning American influence in the region, the relationship is now a two-way street by design, not just lucky happenstance.
Economic and Security Linkages
A major portion of India's recent engagements with the region have focused on economic and security subjects and the intersection between the two. To that end, the economic recalibration happening in many countries of the region is a promising indicator for rooting stability in economic imperatives. And that belief is reflected in the joint statements, where we see cooperation between India and Gulf countries going far beyond oil into unchartered territory like renewables, IT cooperation, space and discussions on nuclear cooperation. For instance, on the conventional energy sector, the UAE's plan to partially-finance a Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in Mangalore to mitigate Indian concerns of disruptions to oil supply have lent a strategic bend to the buyer-seller relationship. On non-conventional energy sources, the UAE's deep interest in renewable energy sources has matched the growing Indian interest here, and made this a strategic platform for Indian-UAE cooperation. Though this may rank as a competitive arena - on the opportunity side, there exists potential to increase solar-based technology cooperation between the two countries.
Similarly, while Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 plan is an ambitious vision for economic transformation, from where India sits, there are clear synergies that can be exploited between the two countries. For instance, upgrading labor flows to the region to meet their demand for more professional classes in the health and IT sector. Or partnering with Saudi capital in third party oil-rich countries to develop their downstream sector. On the new type of labor flows, our large presence in Saudi Arabia will facilitate a smoother entry culturally into the host country - and our presence in Africa will open doors for a joint venture that can reap economic dividends for that country too. Committing our labour and know-how are only starter projects, but we believe in Saudi Arabia's plans for diversification, and depending on how the Vision 2030 plans develop - especially during its phase II years - the expectation would be that India's involvement and level of participation in the country's development, only increase.
Of particular relevance to influencing the trajectory of India-UAE relations was the UAE's response to Prime Minister Modi's call for investment in India during his maiden visit to the country in 2015. The UAE's decision to sign on to the government's plans for infrastructure development projects through a dedicated amount of US$75 billion, ranks as the largest investment by any country into India so far and has been taken as a sign of the UAE's intent to be a partner in the future growth of India.
Counter Terrorism and Combating Extremism
Cooperation on combating terrorism has also been front and centre in India's outreach to the Gulf. Indian efforts to counter violent radical ideologies have largely weighed in on its counter-terrorism dimension. Home to the third-largest population of Muslims in the world, and also the seat of South Asia's leading school of Islam at Deoband, India is sensitive to the threat of radicalization. On this front, India has upgraded its intelligence cooperation with security agencies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE on two types of threats: state-back terrorists that find refuge in Gulf countries and second, on returning migrants who may have been radicalized. On the first type of threat, India has received support from Saudi Arabia over the last year. In March 2016, following the handing over of a second terror suspect to India a month earlier, Saudi Arabia, along with the US, clamped down on Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) financiers by imposing sanctions on four individuals and two organizations with ties across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
In the joint statements of 2015 and 2016 signed with the Saudis and the Emiratis, both countries pledged their support to backing India's convention against state-back terrorism (CCIT) at the UN — and they are increasingly seen as front-line partners in combating terrorism. The UAE's strong statement of support after an attack on Indian soldiers in Kashmir this September, which led to India's retaliatory raid over the Line of Control (LoC) and the subsequent downturn in relations with Pakistan, was warmly received in India, and in a sense, has further vouched for its credibility as a partner for India in countering state-sponsored terrorism.
In the most recent contribution to furthering the bilateral dialogue on countering violent extremism, the Emirati delegation for India's Republic Day included a 'Tolerance Delegation', comprising of experts in the field of countering violent extremism - expanding the bilateral counter terrorism project beyond its legal framework and intelligence dimensions.
Security and Defence Cooperation
Progress has also been made over the last year in the realm of security and defense cooperation, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have both signaled interest in Prime Minister Modi's Make in India and indigenous defense manufacturing flagship programs. There has been talk of Indian assistance in developing the UAE's air defense systems and repairing defense equipment. The strategic setting to security cooperation in the Gulf is admittedly more complicated, and raises questions of capabilities, India's different approach to security alliances and a fractious regional political setting that still needs to be rigorously examined for potential opportunities.
However, an area of budding cooperation is between the navies of the Gulf and India. India's maritime strategy in this region is largely understood to be driven by the need to secure passage of energy and trade shipments through Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean waters to India, and toward this end, the Indian navy has provided training and support to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) navies, worked on building operational synergy, and also partnered with them in anti-piracy operations. The other driving consideration for India's Arabian maritime strategy is its aim to secure its strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean region, and its partnership with Gulf navies over here is overtly strategic, benefiting from their natural geographic placement along the western rim of the Indian Ocean. Additionally, the UAE's own naval power projections in its near-abroad, seen last year in the establishment of their first military base outside the Gulf, in Eritrea, and the fact that many Gulf navies are members in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, are indicators that bode well for deepening the strategic partnership in this arena.
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed's visit to India as Chief Guest for Republic Day celebrations has happened against the backdrop of a whole year's worth of closer engagements between the two countries — and this, to some extent, provides a working template for closer relations between other Gulf countries and India.
The author is a consultant in the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. She tweets @nithyaek. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the division or the ministry.