India and the UAE are looking to expand cooperation in the areas of defence, maritime security, space, civilian nuclear energy and combating terrorism.
The visit of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, as the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day parade is a step towards consolidating the comprehensive strategic partnership between India and the UAE. Notably, a unit from the UAE armed forces – comprising personnel from army, navy, air force, air defence and the presidential guard, accompanied by a UAE military band – will be marching at the parade with its Indian counterparts. This is the second visit of the crown prince to India after February 2016.
Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit of to the UAE in August 2015, the momentum of cooperation between India and UAE has accelerated. A solid platform has been built by the leaderships of the two countries to elevate the bilateral relationship to the strategic level. The current flux in West Asia; the rise of radical and extremist forces; changes in the regional order; uncertainties over US policy under President Donald Trump; and India’s growing interest in the Gulf region driven by its economic and trade ties, energy stakes and the over seven-million strong Indian diaspora in the Gulf (including 2.6 million people in the UAE), are important factors pushing India and the UAE to enhance their engagement.
Valued partnership: trade, infrastructure, oil
The crown prince’s participation in the Republic Day parade signifies the importance India attaches to its relationship with the UAE. New Delhi considers UAE a “valued partner” and this visit is expected to open doors for bilateral cooperation in many new areas. All these years, energy, trade and the Indian diaspora have been the focus areas of any debate on bilateral relations, but now a new dimension has been added. India and UAE are rapidly expanding cooperation in the areas of defence, maritime security, space, civilian nuclear energy, defence manufacturing and collaboration between security agencies with an eye on fighting terrorism.
In the last two years, both countries have been looking at translating into reality the commitments made by each other. Nine agreements were signed during the crown prince’s visit to India in February 2016 including on cyber security, infrastructure investment, renewable energy and space cooperation. New Delhi is looking at UAE’s commitment to invest $75 billion in India’s infrastructure projects and the UAE is seeking to enhance engagement in the areas of defence, security and space. Navdeep Singh Suri, India’s ambassador to the UAE, said in a recent interview: “We hope that we can encourage some of the top companies in the UAE to either undertake investments or expand their investments in India, in real estate or petrochemicals, for example.”
India is the UAE’s largest trading partner, while the UAE is India’s third largest trading partner after China and the US. Trade between the two countries during 2014-15 was around $59 million and UAE’s Jebel Ali Free Zone is home to more than 800 leading Indian companies. Today, there are many opportunities emerging as the oil-based Gulf states are focused on diversifying their economies. Countries in the region are estimated to be spending more than $4 trillion in developing economic infrastructure suitable for nurturing non-oil business activities. More importantly, Expo-2020, the world’s third largest global event after the Olympics, is going to be held in Dubai and will boost infrastructure-related activities in the UAE, opening opportunities for Indian investors.
Further, to give impetus to India-UAE cooperation, the Indian Union cabinet has approved the MoU for cooperation in the road transport and highways sector to be signed between the two countries. The proposed agreement will not only help increase investment in infrastructure development and enhance logistics efficiency but also help both countries in creating institutional mechanism for cooperation in the field.
Bilateral energy ties are likely to see further momentum during the crown prince’s visit. The UAE accounts for 8% of India’s oil imports and was the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to India in 2015-16. Now, India is trying to import more oil from the UAE. In 2016-17, it plans to import 2.5 million tonnes more than what it purchased (16.11 million tonnes) in 2016. Significantly, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, in a first of its kind deal, has agreed to store crude oil in India’s maiden strategic storage facility and give two-thirds of the oil for free to India.
Another significant pillar of bilateral ties is the growing cooperation in the defence sector. In February 2016, agreements were inked to boost cooperation in defence and security through joint defence training and exercises. An important event that flowed from this agreement was the ‘Desert Eagle II’, a ten-day air combat exercise between the air forces of the two countries held in May-June 2016. Taking the relationship forward, on January 18, 2017, India approved the bilateral pact on maritime education and training. In addition, the Indian cabinet has also approved an MoU to promote maritime transport, simplification of customs and facilitation of the use of existing installations for the disposal of waste. India has already announced its willingness to extend assistance to the UAE to achieve its Mars Mission in 2025.
The growing strategic partnership between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi can be seen in their approach towards fighting terrorism and extremism. The most significant support from the UAE came to India after the Uri attack when Abu Dhabi sent out a very clear public statement suggesting India take decisive action against perpetrators of the attack. The UAE also supported India in the aftermath of the Pathankot attack. Besides, the rise of ISIS and its extremist activities are of serious concern to the UAE government.
The assassination of five UAE diplomats in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on January 10, 2017, has raised serious concerns in Abu Dhabi regarding terror attacks on its citizens in Afghanistan. This was the first occasion that UAE diplomats were targeted in a foreign country. According to some media reports, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Haqqani Network could have had a hand in the attack, possibly due to growing defence and security cooperation between India and the UAE. Despite such incidents, India-UAE strategic cooperation is likely to grow in the future because it is based on solid mutual security interests.
The way ahead
In order to take the strategic partnership forward, the two sides held their first ‘strategic dialogue’ on January 20, 2017, in New Delhi. During the meeting, both sides agreed to expand ties in the areas of trade and investments, and boost cooperation in areas of energy security, renewable energy, defence and security, electronic and information technology, and space. This dialogue provides the perfect background for the crown prince’s forthcoming state visit.
His visit is expected not only to give impetus to existing ties but also introduce new ways of strengthening bilateral and regional cooperation. If his last visit added “new vigour and momentum,” as Modi had tweeted, to the strategic partnership between India and the UAE, the forthcoming visit is likely to open a new chapter in bilateral cooperation providing a real meaning to the comprehensive strategic partnership.
Meena Singh Roy is a research fellow and coordinator of the West Asia Centre, IDSA, New Delhi.
Categories: External Affairs