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Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister knew of the positive vibes for the UAE

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By: Sheela Bhatt

“India-UAE relationship aap review karke to dekho,” (Review India’s relationship with UAE and see).

Soon after coming to power in 2014 India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made these remarks while chairing a high-level meeting with diplomats from Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and national security experts.

He advised his team to look for a fresh approach to the India-UAE relationship and its potentials. For many decades, the MEA analysts had categorised countries under static sub-heads.

As chief minister of Gujarat, a western state in India, Modi was well-aware of positive vibes that the Gujarati community had for the Gulf.

He was also well-abreast with the historic trade ties that India shared with the region. A positive “Gulf instinct” continues to exist in Gujarat.

That Gulf instinct and the knowledge of countries in the region led Modi to instruct his team to explore broader strategic spaces for the India-UAE relationship. One thing led to another.

“Are these bilateral ties between India and UAE, in India’s extended neighbourhood, growing?” I asked Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister.

“Yes, it is. India and UAE share a fast growing relationship. UAE is central to India’s extended neighbourhood. We see UAE on the crossroads of international trade. As Singapore is in the East, UAE is in the West,” the foreign minister told Gulf News in an exclusive chat.

Pertinently Jaishankar’s visit to the UAE as foreign secretary, just before Modi’s historic visit in August, 2015, proved important. Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Jaishankar quickly built a rapport. There was no looking back.

“Once Indian foreign policy thinkers came out of the box — of strict secular-communal branding of nations — the importance of the Gulf and the ASEAN nations was (fully) understood,” says a top diplomat.

What is more, Modi’s team came with a very different approach. They wanted to go beyond the perception formed about the Gulf countries through a narrow focus on Israel-Palestine issue or merely as sources of energy. The perceptions formed during the Cold War era had to change.

Over the last few years the UAE-India relationship grew. In fact, it helped improve India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, too, which had started to develop during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure.

In 2015, Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit UAE in 34 years. This was a turning point, as the last five years have proven so emphatically.

During the state visit of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces as chief guest at India’s 68th Republic Day celebrations, the two countries stepped up bilateral relations further.

India’s decision to stage the latest version of Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament, one the biggest sporting events, in the UAE is a case in point. It goes without saying that this was a political decision taken in New Delhi.

In the forthcoming Expo-Dubai 2020 (postponed to next year) India’s presence will be registered forcefully.

In his speech on Independence Day, Modi noted that the UAE has an important relationship with India and is part of new paradigm. Rarely have we found any foreign country being mentioned in these conventional national addresses.

The UAE has helped build Petroleum Strategic Reserve in South India, which was not possible without mutual trust. India has invested in some of the UAE’s oilfields. The defence cooperation talks between the two nations too are in early stages.

Big foreign policy achievement

Politically, the UAE has helped India at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and in expanding relations with other Gulf nations.

New Delhi considers excellent relationship with the UAE as one of the biggest foreign policy achievements of Modi’s six years in power.

While there were some initial problems faced by investors in India who found it hard to deal with the red tape, things soon changed.

Modi’s team reached out to ensure that India becomes the Gulf’s preferred investment destination. The India-UAE joint Commission is a “solution oriented” forum to help expedite pending decisions.

In effect, India-UAE relations are not just about oil security. It is now a defence relationship that includes sharing of intelligence on antiterrorism, among other things.

During the last six years, perceptions have changed as Modi visited the UAE three times. More than 15 important bilateral visits and events have also taken place.

Regarding the recent treaty between the UAE and Israel, foreign minister Jaishankar puts it aptly, “When two strategic friends come closer it opens up lots of opportunities.”

Jaishankar who has taken a special interest in the India-UAE bilateral relationship adds, “It is a relationship where the highest leadership of both countries have invested goodwill and energy. As a result, you can see the transformation during the last five years.”

After the recent Covid-19 lockdown, UAE was among the select countries permitted to fly special flights to continue with food supply when India’s air traffic was closed.

Jaishankar, who has recently written a book “The India Way — Strategies for an Uncertain World” has listed five nations that India must concentrate upon while conducting its foreign policy. UAE is one of those five nations.

– Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi. www.gulfnews.com

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