Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just-concluded UAE visit has paved the groundwork for India to play a much more meaningful role in West Asia—a region of immense strategic importance. But it also poses an important challenge: how does India manage to strike a balance between contending parties of the sectarian Shia-Sunni religious divide threatening to tear the region asunder.
The significance of Modi’s visit cannot be overstated. What made a series of his predecesors avoid a visit to the UAE—a country with over a two-million strong Indian diaspora, one of the main sources of its energy needs and its largest trading partner—is a mystery of Indian diplomacy.
Experienced South Block mandarins cite several reasons. An over-obsession to engage with Southeast Asia since the economic liberalisation could well be the key reason why the Gulf’s importance was often downplayed in the Indian establishment. The tendency to see the Gulf mainly through the prism of community and oil might have been another factor that failed to elevate the UAE—one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the region—to the level of a strategic partner.
A serious question of propriety may be raised at Modi’s lashing out against Pakistan in Dubai.
Modi has done well to do away with the old prism. But his otherwise successful visit also raises some important questions.
Breaking away from tradition, the Emirati leadership allowed Modi to address the Indian diaspora at the Dubai stadium. But should the Indian PM have used the opportunity to lash out against Pakistan? While there are concerns on what his remarks will do to the existing harmonious relations between the Indian and Pakistani communities in the Emirates, it also raises serious questions about propriety.
The commentaries in the Indian media on the joint statement have stressed mainly on Pakistan and how the UAE leadership joined the Indian PM in criticisng its role for being a state sponsor of terrorism. But irrespective of the Indian euphoria, it will be naive to think that the Emirati leadership or those in the other Gulf countries are now poised to abandon Pakistan. The concern over Pakistan’s implosion in the face of threats posed by a variety of jehadi groups notwithstanding, the importance of the country for the key players in the region will not diminish. If anything, the message from the joint statement should be read as a signal to the civil and military leadership in Pakistan to get its act together. A country like the UAE survives and thrives on peace and stability. An insecure and unstable Pakistan next door does not instil much confidence to the Emirates. This is the basic message that the UAE seems intent on conveying to Pakistan.
The joint statement also expresses concern over states supporting terrorists in West Asia. While no country was mentioned by name, it is not difficult to guess a finger pointed at Iran. After the successful nuclear deal with the US and the West, it is the assertion of a confident Iran that worries many of the Arab Gulf countries.
If the concern gets more acute in the coming days, don’t be surprised if India is asked to specify where exactly it stands.
Pranay Sharma is Senior Editor, Outlook; E-mail your columnist: pranayda [AT] gmail [DOT] com