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A privileged strategic partnership, without a gulf

‘The India-UAE story goes beyond temples, faith or the signing of strategic partnerships’
| Photo Credit: REUTERS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to pay an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from February 13-14, 2024 which will include inaugurating a temple built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha in Abu Dhabi. This is Mr. Modi’s seventh visit to the UAE since 2015 and the third in the last eight months. In this short duration, India’s relationship with UAE has evolved into becoming one of the most prominent bilateral relationships for New Delhi. Not only has the UAE become India’s strategic partner but it has also become one of the most important linchpins of India’s engagement in the Gulf region. There is a close rapport between the President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Mr. Modi.

The BAPS temple, which is built on a 27-acre plot of land donated by the UAE President, will be the second big Hindu temple to be inaugurated in the UAE in recent years, the first being the Hindu Temple in Dubai, opened in October 2022.

Mr. Modi will also address the World Government Summit on February 14 in Dubai as the ‘Guest of Honour’.

The pillars of ties

The India-UAE story however goes beyond temples, faith or the signing of strategic partnerships. This special relationship was evident when the UAE President was felicitated in a road show when he was in Gandhinagar in January this year as the chief guest of the 10th Vibrant Gujarat Summit. The convergence of ideas on global climate issues too was clear when Mr. Modi was in Dubai for the COP28 climate summit. Both India and the UAE co-launched the Global Green Credit Initiative.

Another special and strong pillar is the economic partnership. Bilateral trade grew to $85 billion in 2022-23, making the UAE India’s third-largest trading partner and India’s second-largest export destination. The UAE is also the fourth-largest overall investor in India. The India-UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, signed on February 18, 2022 in a record time of 88 days, aims to increase trade in services to $115 billion in five years. On February 1, 2024, the Indian government also approved the signing and ratification of a bilateral investment treaty with the UAE, which would significantly boost bilateral economic engagement, especially manufacturing and foreign direct investment.

Fintech is yet another area of mutual convergence. The RuPay card, a key component of India’s Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), is accepted in the UAE since August 2019, while from July 2023, the rupee was being accepted for transactions at Dubai’s airports. India and the UAE also operationalised a rupee-dirham settlement system when, in August 2023, the Indian Oil Corporation made a rupee payment to the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company for crude oil imports.

Energy security

The UAE is also India’s trusted partner in energy security, being the only nation from the region which has strategic oil reserves stored in India. An agreement was signed in Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd (ISPRL) and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to to invest in the strategic crude oil storage facility in Mangaluru with an initial investment of $400 million. Defence and security cooperation and people-to-people ties too are critical cogs in the relationship.

Both countries have often gone out of their way to make exceptions for each other. When the UAE hosted the OIC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in 2019, it invited India’s External Affairs Minister (the late) Sushma Swaraj as a keynote speaker/guest of honour country despite protests from some nations, including Pakistan. Earlier, in 2018, India was the ‘Guest of Honour’ country at the Abu Dhabi Festival (ADF), the UAE’s annual cultural festival. During his visit to the UAE in August 2019, Mr. Modi was conferred the UAE’s top civilian honour, the Order of Zayed. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces) was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in Delhi in January 2017. The UAE was one of few nations specially invited for the G-20 summit, in September 2023, under India’s G-20 presidency. The IIT Delhi Abu Dhabi campus has been established, and the UAE opened a consulate in Hyderabad in June 2023.

Strategic ties

Within the region, both countries are in close coordination and a part of a number of important groupings such as the I2U2 or the West Asian Quad comprising India, Israel, the United States and the UAE. The UAE is also part of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) infrastructure project that was signed during the G-20 summit in Delhi. The corridor aims to connect India to Europe across the Arabian peninsula, and is a potential rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The visit also comes at a critical time with the war in Gaza enveloping the region. The visit will provide the two leaders an opportunity to confer on this very critical issue.

India has numerous strategic partnership agreements across the globe, but none displays more convergence and mutual respect at all levels than the one with the UAE. There are few major issues of divergence, which is something unique even among the best of friendly nations. While India recognises and values the UAE’s role in the region, the UAE too is cognisant of the ‘global leadership’ role that India is set to acquire. Both countries recognise that this privileged strategic partnership is only set to grow stronger in the years ahead.

Rajeev Agarwal, a retired colonel, is the Assistant Director of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. He has served as Director in the Ministry of External Affairs and as Director, Military Intelligence

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