Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in India for Republic Day parade: What UAE crown prince's visit means

A lot of thought goes into choosing the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi got off to a flying start by inviting former US president Barack Obama for his first Republic Day as Prime Minister of India. The message was clear: India wanted the best possible ties with the US, and the second NDA government was willing to go much further than any previous Indian administration to forge closer ties with the world's sole superpower.

Last year’s guest was French president François Hollande — another leader of the western world. But this year, in keeping with Modi’s new approach to India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly the Gulf region this year, the guest of honour is Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates.

Significantly the crown prince is also the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, and had visited India last year.

Modi went to the UAE in 2015, becoming the first Indian prime minister to do so in 34 years and set the stage for elevating relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Talks on this issue began during that meeting and it is believed that the partnership will be signed this time. It is most likely that the Comprehensive Stategic Partnership will be fleshed out in detail now. There are murmurs of a strong defence thrust, with officials speaking privately of joint defence production. There has also been speculation about the UAE buying some of India’s defence equipment, but this is still at a nascent stage.

"The UAE has the funds to access military hardware from advanced industrialised nations, so why should it buy from India?" asked KC Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the UAE, "If it does (go ahead with the purchase), it will be, at best, low-end equipment. I don’t see much in the strategic relations at the moment. The UAE is busy with developments in its region — Syria, Yemen and Iran, while India’s strategic interests lie elsewhere."

 Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in India for Republic Day parade: What UAE crown princes visit means

File image of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries view Iran as a major threat and much of the politics there hinge around the Shia-Sunni rivalry. "So far, India has been balancing its growing relations with the Arab nations with its traditional ties with Iran," added Singh. For most Gulf states, including UAE and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has been an important ally in South Asia. But in the past couple of years, the region is also looking to forge closer ties with India.

Since the attacks of 11 September, 2001 and the Arab Spring, terrorism has been a major focus of nations in the region. Counter-terrorism has become a key element in talks with Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia for one, has cooperated and helped to send back wanted terror suspects back to India to stand trial. In the past, this would have been unthinkable. The recent blast in the guesthouse of the Kandahar governor led to the death of five visiting senior UAE officials, starkly bringing home to the UAE government the unstable situation in Afghanistan.

The instability in Afghanistan will naturally come up in the discussions the crown prince will have with Modi on Wednesday, after he arrives in Delhi at around 4.30 pm on Tuesday. The formal welcome will take place on Wednesday morning in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The crown prince will then visit Raj Ghat and hold talks with the prime minister in Hyderabad House. He will also call on President Pranab Mukherjee.

The vice-president Hamid Ansari will pay the crown prince a courtesy call at his hotel before Thursday, which will be spent watching the parade. A contingent from UAE will march down Raj Path, in keeping with the new tradition set by the Modi government. Last year, it was a contingent from the French Army that added distinct colour to the military parade. Sheikh Zayed will then meet the president for tea, before leaving for home.

For India, the Gulf States — a crucial part of India’s extended neighbourhood — are pivotal to its economy. Historical and trade links have been in place for centuries. But in modern times, after the oil boom, the GCC countries began attracting Indian workers in hoards. There were at least six million Indians working in the region earlier. Now, with oil prices tumbling and the economy slowing down, some jobs have also been lost and a number of workers have returned home in the past two years. Even so, there are around 2.6 million Indians sending home around $15 billion in remittances every year.

The UAE also has large sums to invest. With oil prices falling, the government in Abu Dhabi is looking to invest its funds away from the energy sector . This opens an opportunity for India. In fact during Modi’s visit to the UAE, the two countries agreed to have a $75 billion fund for infrastructure. At a time when investments into India are slowing down and heading to Europe and the US, this would be a welcome change.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2017 12:15:00 IST