India-UAE relations: While investment steals headlines, security cooperation is the real story

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates is no stranger to India. Or Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for that matter, as their warm series of hugs, vigorous double-fisted handshakes and smiles at a Delhi airport on Wednesday clearly indicated.

In fact, a lot of the credit for the growing momentum in India-UAE relations must go to Modi and Sheikh Mohammed.

It may be recalled that in August 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the UAE in 34 years, and set in motion a chain of events that would broaden the bilateral beyond being just a business relationship. And in the past 17 months (including Modi's historic visit), the prime minister and Sheikh Mohammed have met on three separate occasions. Certainly, trade, investment and energy are the most visible features of India-UAE ties, but over the past few years, another element has been swiftly entering the discourse between the two countries: Security.

India and the UAE signed an extradition treaty back in 2000, however, there was very little else that could be considered a component of a strategic relationship.

Fast-forward to 2017, and security cooperation has now become a proportional component (alongside trade and investment) of the relationship. In fact, after agreeing to elevate the relationship to a 'comprehensive strategic partnership' during Modi's August 2015 visit to the UAE and looking 'forward to the early signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement' during Sheikh Mohammed's February 2016 visit to India, both sides moved to draw up and finalise a framework agreement that was signed on Wednesday. All of this shouldn't really come as a surprise because the crown prince also holds the office of Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE.

Broadly, one of the outcomes from a partnership of this nature, as articulated in the 2015 joint statement is to:

Establish a dialogue between their National Security Advisors and National Security Councils. The National Security Advisors, together with other high level representatives for security from both nations, will meet every six months. The two sides will also establish points of contact between their security agencies to further improve operational cooperation.

Cooperation between both sets of security agencies has already helped India get access to operatives of terrorist outfits — who attempt to mingle with the South Asian diaspora in the UAE — and the fact that the Emirates are no longer a safe haven for 1993 Mumbai blasts accused Dawood Ibrahim (who is believed to have abandoned the UAE and moved to Pakistan) and his cohorts. Further cooperation can only mean a further boost for India in its counter-terrorism efforts.

Speaking of terrorism — on the topic of which both the 2015 and 2016 joint statements carried lengthy exposition, another factor that cannot be ignored when looking at improving India-UAE ties is Pakistan, and more pertinently, the frostiness that crept into Pakistan-UAE relations around April 2015. It was around that time that Pakistan refused to be a part of the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen, and the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash did not take this news well. While foreign policy rarely works in binaries, it's not completely unimaginable that the warmth between India and the UAE had something to do with the flux in UAE-Pakistan relations.

It's probably also why the Sheikh Mohammed signed off on a statement that was so damning in its indictment of India's neighbour to the West. Sample this line:

The two nations reject extremism and any link between religion and terrorism. They condemn 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.

Aside from the terrorism angle, there's the geopolitical angle that is closely linked to the UAE's perceived clout in both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In the UN, the OIC frequently tables resolutions against India regarding the situation in Kashmir and the GCC tends to lean in Pakistan's direction on the matter. Perhaps, another offshoot of this strategic partnership is that the UAE might be a bit more accommodating of India's concerns about Kashmir.

All of which is great for India. But what's in it for the UAE?

Aside from cooperation between the navies of the two countries (as part of anti-piracy and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief  operations), India and the UAE's counter-terrorism cooperation will benefit the Emirates in a time when West Asia is in flux. Through training and information-sharing, India could be a useful partner for the UAE in a time when conflict appears to be closing in on the UAE's doorstep. The significance, if not importance, of India as a partner for the UAE can be conceivably deduced from the way the country chose to honour India's 68th Republic Day.

And if Sheikh Mohammed's blink-and-you'll-miss-it visit to India has you in the dark, here's a useful summary: While the most visible aspect of the visit may have been the multi-billion dollar deals signed for infrastructure investment and other sorts of FDI, the real story here is that India finally has a strong strategic partner in the Gulf. And in times like these, that's a very useful asset indeed.


Updated Date: Jan 26, 2017 14:52 PM

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