The terror assault on Mumbai in November 2008 fundamentally transformed the perception of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries relating to the political dynamics of South Asia. Till then, the GCC members were allies of Pakistan, with ties going back to the Cold War and solidified over the years through substantial defence co-operation and alignment of strategic positions. In the battlefields in Afghanistan, the “global jihad” honed these relations into a close camaraderie.
India had no place in this scenario; Pakistan-sponsored jihad in Kashmir and the rest of India through the 1990s and then in this century was seen as a fallout of the longstanding Kashmir dispute. All our attempts to assert that Kashmir was being discussed bilaterally, that jihad constituted a new challenge in the South Asian security situation and threatened the whole region without respect for national borders fell on deaf ears. Mumbai changed all that.
The audacity of the midnight intrusion into the sleeping city, the attack on the iconic symbols of the metropolis, particularly the Taj Mahal hotel, and the wanton killings, finally drove home the point that diplomacy had failed to do: that a new menace had entered our shared neighbourhood whose epicentre was in Pakistan, and which had powerful state and non-state sponsors in that country that had generated forces of hate founded on religious zeal that now directed their frenzied violence across the region.
The UAE felt itself particularly vulnerable. It had a long and relatively unguarded coastline and was much closer to Karachi than Mumbai was. It was feared that the city of Dubai would just not recover if a similar assault were to be directed at it.
These concerns resonate through the joint statement issued in Abu Dhabi at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE. In this document, the two countries have pledged “to oppose terrorism in all forms and manifestations”. To this end, they have agreed “to enhance cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, intel sharing and control of flow of funds”. The document also calls on other states “to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructures … and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice.”
While these remarks have been rightly seen in India as the expression of deep concerns that both India and the UAE share about the proliferation of the jihadi mindset, and the wide support base and endorsement of extremism in certain official circles in Pakistan, it is important to widen our perspective beyond South Asia and recognise that the forces of extremism and violence have become much more broad-based since the Mumbai attacks seven years ago.
Today, the entire swathe of territory from Pakistan to the Mediterranean and across North and Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s most vicious jihadi groups, with trans-national, national and local affiliations and operational spaces. Given the emerging co-operation among various jihadi groups in terms of training and operations, there is every likelihood of them coalescing across South and West Asia and North Africa. Hence, Indo-UAE concerns relating to terrorism have to be seen as a broad and long term threat to the region. This has set the stage for the aspiration to realise a “strategic partnership” that India and the UAE have pledged to attain.
The basis for this is clearly set out in the joint statement—the two countries are major economic powers with considerable potential for further expansion and diversification. They have great civilisational affinity due to their millennia-old commercial, intellectual and spiritual connectivities; they share the values of multi-culturalism and accommodation, and have a common understanding of the challenges that threaten regional peace, security and stability. It is in this context that the two countries have agreed to cooperate against terrorism, radicalism and organised crime, and to promote maritime security and “inter-operability” in regard to “humanitarian assistance, natural disasters and conflict situations”, strengthen defence ties through exercises, training and in coastal defence, have regular meetings of national security advisers and a high-level “Strategic Security Dialogue”.
A blue print for action
It is important to understand that the joint statement is not just a narration of what needs to be done if a “comprehensive strategic partnership” is to be realised; it is a blueprint for action to be taken by both sides within a specific time frame. For instance, the UAE side has committed itself to the setting up of a $75 billion bilateral infrastructure fund. But, its economy minister has also made it clear that India on its part will have to take wide-ranging measures to make itself more business-friendly. Given the failure of several UAE-funded initiatives in India in the recent past, this will be a daunting challenge.
Similarly, on the political side, India will have to maintain the rhythm of regular high level interaction—the Gulf sheikhdoms’ principal policy-makers are the senior members of the royal family who attach considerable importance to personal and frequent interactions. Given the rapid pace of change in the region, with dramatic developments upsetting the status quo regularly and throwing up new challenges, regular meetings are also functionally desirable. This will call for a robust regional engagement at a high level in coming years, something India has not been able to achieve in the past due to our leaders’ preoccupation with domestic affairs and the wide spread perception in our media that foreign tours are essentially jaunts for pleasure.
However, the proposed interactions will be meaningless if they are not part of a broad vision of India’s regional interests and the role it should shape to achieve them. Thus, central to the initiatives set out in the joint statement is the commitment to “Work together to promote peace, reconciliation, stability, inclusiveness and co-operation in the wider South Asia, Gulf and West Asia region”. This recognises that the security of India’s western neighbourhood across South and West Asia is interlinked and that India has to work with its neighbours to promote stability.
Stability in West Asia is crucial for India’s long term political and economic interests, given its dependence on the region for its energy security, investments for its infrastructure, and the continued employment and welfare of its eight million-strong community. In short, India’s economic well-being and the resilience of its political order and institutions is closely linked to continued stability in West Asia.
But, the collapse of state order and security in large parts of the region, the burgeoning threat of jihad in various manifestations, and the deep divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia—all of these have combined to create an environment of insecurity that has not been witnessed in the last few decades. To complicate the picture, the US has now re-engaged with Iran, which has aggravated concerns in the GCC, even as it has conveyed a diminished interest in military interventions in West Asia, thus sapping Saudi Arabia of confidence in the face of what it sees as an “existential threat” from the Islamic Republic. West Asia seems to be experiencing a strategic vacuum at present, which has encouraged fratricidal sectarian conflicts and brought the region’s major powers to the brink of war.
Shaping a new diplomatic initiative
India thus faces the challenge of shaping and pursuing a diplomatic initiative to promote dialogue and enhance confidence between the various estranged powers in West Asia so that the regions’ resources can be used for national development and to combat jihad. To buttress its effectiveness, it may co-opt other Asian nations like China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia as partners since they have the same concerns pertaining to West Asian security. These will be daunting challenges since India has not undertaken such initiatives before, while there is hardly any precedent for major Asian countries to work with other Asian allies to focus attention on security issues outside the bilateral context.
The Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE has recognised India’s historic links with the region and its present political and economic status has extended the country’s strategic space beyond the confines of South Asia. It has opened up new partnerships as also responsibilities in a region of enduring importance for India. India’s actions in the next few months will indicate whether the India-UAE joint statement is just a piece of paper or truly a historic document that is the harbinger of a new political vision and diplomatic endeavour.
The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to the UAE and an expert on the region