Republic Day: Narendra Modi eyes trade relations with invite to UAE crown prince as chief guest

In what is an unprecedented gesture by the Narendra Modi government, on the nation’s 68th Republic Day, the parade at the national capital’s majestic “Rajpath”, is going to be led by a contingent of 179 United Arab Emirates (UAE) soldiers. And it is not a coincidence that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE is the guest of honour at this year’s Republic Day celebrations.

Of course, it is not the first time that a foreign contingent will be the part of the Republic Day parade. That distinction belongs to the French, which was allowed last year to participate, by the same Modi government. Last year too, the French President François Hollande was the Chief Guest for Republic Day celebrations. However, the difference this time is that the UAE contingent will lead the parade.

If symbolism is important in international relations, then the choice of a royal Sheikh from the UAE as the Chief Guest and according to his troops the special honour of leading the parade indicate the importance that India attaches to the UAE. This point may be best understood from the list of the Chief Guests at the three previous Republic day celebrations on the Rajpath - French President François Hollande (2016), United States President Barack Obama (2015) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2014).

The question, however, is: Why is the Indo-UAE relationship so important? If this question was asked a couple of years ago, the economic dimensions of the relationship would have occupied the prime attention. But under Modi, it is "economics and plus" that will better explain the relationship.

 Republic Day: Narendra Modi eyes trade relations with invite to UAE crown prince as chief guest

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

The UAE is India’s gateway to West Asia in general, and the Gulf region in particular, the region that is the source of 70 percent of our energy imports and home to more than six million Indians. In fact, the UAE alone has more than 2.6 million Indian expatriate — professionally qualified personnel constitute about 15 and 20 percent of the community, followed by 20 percent white-collar non-professionals (clerical staff, shop assistants, sales men, accountants, etc) and the remainder 65 percent comprises blue-collar workers. The Indian community has played a major role in the economic development of the UAE. It also contributes significantly to the Indian economy through annual remittances over $15 billion, as per a 2013 estimate.

Valued at $180 million per annum in the 1970s, Indo-UAE trade is today around $50 billion. making the UAE India's third largest trading partner for the year 2015-16, after China and the US. Moreover, the UAE is the second largest export destination of India with an amount of over $ 30 billion for the year 2015-16. For the UAE, India is the largest trading partner for the year 2015 with an amount of over $ 28 billion (non-oil trade). If one sees through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) figures, of the total Indo-GCC bilateral trade of $ 97,467.61 million, Indo-UAE trade accounted in this to the extent of $ 49,745.95 million.

India’ s exports to the UAE are well diversified with a large basket — petroleum products, precious metals, stones, gems and jewellery, minerals, food items (cereals, sugar, fruits and vegetables, tea, meat, and seafood), textiles (Garments, Apparel, Synthetic fibre, Cotton, Yarn) and Engineering & Machinery Products and Chemicals. The UAE is the tenth biggest investor in India in terms of FDI. There is an estimated $8 billion UAE investment in India of which around $4.03 billion (as on March 2016) is in the form of foreign direct investment, while the remaining is portfolio investment. Similarly, several prominent private and public sector Indian companies and banks (60,000 Indian companies in total) operate are also operating in the UAE, including companies such as L&T, ESSAR, Dodsal, Punj Lloyd, Engineers India Ltd. and TCIL.

Overall, Indo-UAE relationship has turned into a partnership, having mutual stakes in economic prosperity. That explains why leaders from both the countries have now increased interactions. In fact, most of the senior ministers in the Modi cabinet — external affairs minister, finance minister, road transport and shipping minister, small-scale and micro industry minister, commerce minister, petroleum minister, among others – have visited the UAE over the last two years. And to top it all, the prime minister himself had undertaken a visit to the UAE (the second Indian prime minister after Indira Gandhi in 1981) to the UAE on 16-17 August 2015, a historic visit that marked the beginning of ‘a new and comprehensive and strategic partnership.”

As Professor P R Kumaraswamy has rightly pointed out, Modi’s visit to the UAE, as has been to the other countries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar), constituted a pattern, the most important component of which has been to build “military-security cooperation”. Of the 31 issues that Modi discussed with the UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 17 pertained to security issues. For instance, it was agreed then that both sides would coordinate efforts to counter radicalization and misuse of religion by groups and countries; denounce and oppose terrorism in all its forms and manifestations; enhance cooperation in counter terrorism, intelligence sharing and capacity building; promote cooperation in cyber security; establish a dialogue between the national security advisors and the national security councils; cooperate in maritime security and strengthen defence relations; and establish a strategic security dialogue.

Another component of this pattern has been the fact that unlike in the past, each of Modi’s visit to the Gulf nations has been a standalone visit, not as a part of a regional visit to two or three countries at a time. This, in turn, has had an added emphasis to the seriousness of the visit and the importance that India attaches to the country concerned. And the UAE has been such a country for India. Here, the Modi- government has done a good balancing job in the sense that given the Prime Minister’s added emphasis on developing all round relations with Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other, his visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have dispelled the notion that India’s strategic goals in West Asia, the country’s “extended neighbourhood,” contained elements of zero-sum politics.

India has been able to develop defence-cooperation with both Iran on the one hand and Gulf countries on the other. Indian navy sends its vessels regularly to the region. India keeps a vigilant eye on the strategic choke points connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

However, of all the countries in the region, it is perhaps the UAE that exemplifies as an important country from the point of view of India in the sense that here there is no linkage between terrorism and religion. As has been pointed out by UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, “The model of the UAE is a Muslim country and at the same time it is a modern country. To achieve that, you have to be open to the world, tolerant and you should be able to offer something to a more globalised world. So, along these lines, I think we are doing very well.”

Considering all this, one has to conclude that transcending the commercial and cultural dimensions, Indo-UAE relations have gone to the next level in fitness of their strategic partnerships.

Updated Date: Jan 26, 2017 09:11:13 IST