Welcome to your second home,” smiled Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) — the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE — as he welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his second visit to the country in February 2018. The ‘second home’ greeting is used by the Emiratis when they welcome a special guest, and it will probably be heard quite often during the next few months as the Indian Premier League (IPL) unfolds in the cricket stadia at Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
This is, of course, not the first time that the IPL will be held in the UAE. The opening ceremony and the first 20 games of IPL-7 were held there in April 2014 in view of our General Elections. But as media and public attention again get focused on the UAE, it is important to note the extent to which our ties with this small but crucial country in the Gulf have blossomed between the 2014 and the 2020 editions of the IPL.
When PM Modi visited Abu Dhabi in August 2015, it was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi had gone in 1981. During that long period of 34 years, we had broadly seen our ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the Gulf through the prism of our trade and energy relationship and our large Indian community; we hadn’t paid as much attention to the strategic significance of the region as a part of our near neighbourhood, one that has historically enjoyed exceptionally close ties with India. This changed with Modi’s visit, followed in quick succession by MBZ coming to India in February 2016 and again in January 2017 as the chief guest for our Republic Day function when the two countries signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement.
But the change wasn’t just about the high-level visits and important sounding agreements. It was also about the more substantive dimensions of the relationship.
On the economic side, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority — the world’s second largest sovereign fund with assets of almost $900 billion — committed to invest up to $75 billion in India. It has since put in $1 billion (Rs 7,500 crore) into our National Infrastructure and Investment Fund and invested several billion dollars into key sectors like housing, highways, renewable energy and logistics. This is in addition to their very substantial investments through the Indian equities market. Leading Dubai-based business groups like Emaar, DP World and Sharaf have also overcome their initial reticence to step up investments in real estate and logistics.
The strategic partnership is also reflected in the energy sector, where we have moved well beyond the simple buyer-seller relationship of yore. We got our first oil concession in the already producing Lower Zakum basin of Abu Dhabi in 2018, followed by a second one in 2019. In partnership with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), we have already established our first strategic petroleum reserve in Mangaluru and more could be in the pipeline. ADNOC and Saudi ARAMCO have also agreed to invest $25 billion in a new greenfield refinery that will come up in Maharashtra.
In the field of defence and security, we have not only held our first joint naval exercises but also moved to an exceptional level of information sharing and cooperation between the relevant agencies, leading interdiction of suspected terrorists and repatriation and extradition of high-profile suspects like Dawood Ibrahim’s aide Farooq Takla.
And on the political side, the UAE showed a spirit of exceptional friendship by hosting our late minister Sushma Swaraj as the guest of honour at the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Abu Dhabi in March 2019, standing firm despite Pakistani tantrums that it would boycott the opening session if India were invited.
The same resolve was demonstrated after the abrogation of Article 370, when the UAE described it as India’s internal matter and when PM Modi was given the country’s highest civilian award at a special ceremony in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks after the abrogation.
The Indian community also forms a key bridge between the countries. Pre-Covid, an estimated 3.42 million Indians lived in the UAE, constituting almost 35 per cent of the country’s population. While the wealthy UAE-based NRIs have made major investments in healthcare, retail, hospitality and real estate, the remittances of the less affluent amounted to $19 billion (over Rs 1,40,000 crore) in 2018. These constitute a quarter of India’s total global remittances and play a critical role in supporting millions of families. These numbers are likely to take a hit due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.
While there is no doubt that Modi’s outreach has paid us rich dividends, it always takes two to tango. The UAE leadership has taken a pragmatic and forward looking view of the inevitable rise of India. It also sees a convergence of interests in standing against religious extremism. MBZ has personally articulated a zero-tolerance approach towards radical Islamists, banned Muslim Brotherhood affiliates like Al Islah and taken a pro-active approach to promote inter-faith harmony. Apart from designating Sheikh Nahyan as the world’s only Minister for Tolerance, he has hosted Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar to sign the historic Document of Human Fraternity. He has supported the construction of a major Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi and announced the development of an Abrahamic Family House that would host a mosque, a church and a synagogue in the same complex.
These are remarkable initiatives in an emirate that was traditionally defined by conservative Islam. As the IPL kicks off and Indians start to focus their attention on the UAE, it is important to shed our own stereotypes, to update our perspectives and take a fresh look at a country that has emerged as such a vital partner in such a short span of time.
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