The crown prince will be second Arab leader to witness the Republic Day parade, bringing with him 13 agreements to forge a strategic partnership.
“The UAE leadership, government is honoured and glad for the invitation that was extended to the highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, deputy chief commander of UAE armed forces. We know the meaning and how important the choice of the Republic Day chief guest is in India. We appreciate the honour,” he said. A contingent of the UAE’s armed forces are taking part in the parade – the second time that foreign troops will be marching down Rajpath.
While 17 agreements had been signed in the past, the new strategic partnership will be take the relationship “to another level”, providing a umbrella framework to work on all aspects of cooperation, the ambassador said. “It puts us on a different path…more of a closer relationship, more coordination, more understanding, more work in terms of getting the government and leadership of two countries closer,” he added.
The decision to ‘elevate’ the relationship was taken when Modi visited the UAE in August 2015. A reciprocal trip was made by the crown prince in February 2016. “Since the visit of PM Modi and the visit of his highness in 2016, the whole relationship went to a new track where other sectors are being looked at – renewable energy, nuclear energy for peaceful uses, IT, R&D centres, manufacturing, aerospace and defence cooperation, security cooperation,” he stated.
The strategic partnership will have a biannual mechanism at the level of minister of states. The first meeting will be held on September 2017. Just like most visiting leaders, the Abu Dhabi crown prince would be accompanied by a large business delegation. But, unusually, he will be also bringing with him two separate ‘cultural’ and ‘tolerance’ delegations.
The ‘tolerance’ delegation will comprise of members from two UAE groups set up to devise messages to counter the extremist narratives from terror groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The two chosen organisations are the Hedayah International Centre of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism and Sawab Centre, a collaboration between the UAE and the US’s state department to respond to online extremist propaganda.
“The tolerance delegation will meet some of its Indian counterparts at a round-table on January 25. This will touch on some of the softer aspect of diplomacy and clarify that UAE is a modern, peaceful, country of tolerance, a country which has created a special ministry for tolerance and future,” he said.
When asked if UAE could use its influence over Pakistan to get it to end its alleged patronage of terror groups, Al Banna refused to enter into a diplomatic minefield.
“I am not going to talk about specific countries. But we work very closely and coordinate our efforts in counter attacking terrorism all over the world,” he said.
India and UAE’s initial outreach in 2015 had occurred a few months after Pakistan had refused to take part in the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.
The UAE ambassador refused to answer a question about a report in a TV channel, which was touted by the ruling party’s social media handles, about the ‘confiscation’ of properties of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim – asserting that there was no basis to them. “I don’t actually like to talk about reports that have any firm source or foundation,” he asserted.
On the economic side, the UAE is hoping that India is quick to put in place the governance structure of the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund, which will funnel the $75 billion long-term investment by the Gulf country’s sovereign wealth fund.
“$75 billion was dedicated for infrastructure projects in India. Actually, one or two months ago, the NIIF in India has appointed their CEO and there has been one meeting… The whole ball is in the court of India to finalise the governance for the $75 billion and we are ready for it,” he said.
The bilateral trade stands at $50 billion, with UAE investment in India totalling $10 billion.
“In the last eleven months alone, $1 billion worth of investment has come in,” said the ambassador.
A new bilateral investment agreement is under negotiation, along with an air services pact that UAE hopes to develop into an open-sky policy.
Currently, 1070 flights operate every week between Indian and UAE airports, out of which 580 are by Indian carriers.
With 2.8 million Indians in the UAE, the gulf nation is also a major source of remittances for India. Al-Banna noted that there was negotiation going on with the Indian ministry of external affairs over the terms of the e-migrate system, which he indicated “trespassed” into UAE’s sovereignty. “Now there is a team which is handling and looking into it,” he said.