Good start, but Gulf game still open

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Asian Age 19-8-2015

Good start, but Gulf game still open

K.C. Singh

The US-Iran deal impinges on the UAE’s security, neutralising post-Shah US guarantees to contain Iran’s assertiveness in the Gulf. Thus it now views India as a net provider of ‘maritime security in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s August 16-17 United Arab Emirates visit produced pictures of bonhomie, ending with fist-clenched slogans to Mother India in Dubai in a stadium packed with expatriate Indians of diverse social classes — unheard of in UAE. But, above all, it produced an important joint statement, re-positioning India-UAE relations in a rapidly mutating geo-political environment in the Gulf and West Asia.

Sheikhs Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai created the union of seven emirates in 1971, which Bahrain and Qatar, though invited, skipped. With oil running out, Dubai re-invented itself as the commercial and, later, tourism hub in the Gulf. Abu Dhabi, at least till Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004 with its oil reserves of nearly a 100 billion barrels providing long-term financial security, was more conservative. However, Sheikh Mohammed’s elevation as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi following Sheikh Zayed’s demise in 2004 led to a re-jigging of their economic model and, in recent years, even adopting a more assertive military posture abroad. Abu Dhabi is turning into an education and culture hub, diversifying its economy to reduce dependence on oil revenues, which now constitute less than one third of the national GDP.

The joint statement notes that India-UAE relations in the past “have not kept pace with relations between their people or the promise of this partnership”. The reasons were historical and systemic. The UAE always balanced its relations with Pakistan, which were “brotherly” and on the same Western side of the Cold War divide, with relations with India — its traditional source for education, medical treatment, trade and tourism. The oil boom leading to prosperity drew workers from South Asia to drive UAE’s development. But it tilted the relations from dependence of the Gulf on India to the Indian need for foreign exchange, oil and a trade destination. Leaders of the UAE shrewdly maintained balance in the India-UAE-Pakistan triangle all through the turbulent phases of India-Pakistan relations.

The UAE has its own paradoxical relations with Iran. While Dubai and some of the northern emirates benefited from trade with Iran, Abu Dhabi has been a strident defender of UAE’s claims to three disputed islands occupied by Iran in 1971. The US remained silent as the Shah of Iran was then a vital ally, constituting with Saudi Arabia the US’ “Twin Pillars” construct for a post-British security order in the Gulf.

The Iranian nuclear programme, and now the US-Iran deal, impinge on UAE’s security, neutralising post-Shah US guarantees to contain Iranian assertiveness in the Gulf, particularly where Shia populations are dominant, as in Bahrain. Thus, UAE now views India as a net provider of, to quote the joint statement, “maritime security in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region”. Only UAE and Oman of the six GCC members abut the Indian Ocean.

A perusal of the themes in the joint statement establishes continuity from the past rather than revolutionary departure, though indubitably many past opportunities were missed due to domestic or external constraints of each nation.

On investment of Abu Dhabi’s nearly trillion dollar sovereign fund in India, Etisalat’s involvement in the 2G spectrum scam is a cautionary tale. When I brought Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to India in 2003, accompanied by his three brothers, India was unprepared for a strategic shift as Iran was still seen as the main asset in the Islamic world, its nuclear travails not having yet begun and the Taliban-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan as India’s principal security threat. Also, India was not yet disinvesting its oil and gas public sector assets in which UAE had interest. Dubai construction companies like Emaar were wooed by the then undivided Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, but have courted controversies. How the new infrastructure fund will be utilised is still unclear and needs new Indian mechanisms that balance mutual interests.

On terror, the language is vigorous, criticising boldly states sponsoring terror, i.e. Pakistan for India and Iran for UAE. But this is hardly a new beginning. As ambassador to UAE (1999-2003), I oversaw episodic cooperation that increased post 9/11. Two examples will suffice. Aftab Ansari, the 2002 American cultural centre attacker in Kolkata, was promptly arrested and deported; Dawood Ibrahim was warned to stay clear of UAE or face arrest. The UAE today confronts an assertive Iran and an aggressive Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It has conducted air operations against certain groups in Libya. The UAE needs to demonstrate resolve by uprooting the financial and support network of Dawood, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and their ilk.

Mr Modi’s UAE outreach will in turn be tested by India-Iran engagement. The joint statement would be read carefully in Tehran and Islamabad. Pakistan has time-honoured ways of wooing the Emiratis — flattery, military links, hunting privileges, etc. But Pakistan, in rejecting Saudi Arabia’s demand of troops for Yemen and aligning with Iran-China on the gas pipeline and transit corridor between Gwadar and Xinjiang, may find its strategic space having shrunk.

The joint statement mentions joint exploitation of cutting-edge technologies covering space, cyber security, clean energy, etc. There is also mention of the hydrocarbon sector, including helping India build a strategic petroleum reserve. All these need urgent enabling action at the Indian end.

Finally, the issue of temple land in Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Zayed allotted land for a cremation ground in 2001 as the existing facilities in Sharjah and Dubai were disallowing cremation of Indians from other emirates. The Abu Dhabi approval is welcome, but vociferous encomiums to the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince in Dubai without mentioning Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai having already allotted land for an Indian church and gurudwara many years earlier, was impolitic. The past teaches that India-UAE relations, unlike UAE-Pakistan, have been based not on flattery but mutual respect. Hopefully, that is how they will be pursued in the future.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

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