That Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, went to the airport along with five of his brothers and five other ministers to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an apt reflection of the esteem in which the UAE holds India. Of the crown prince’s brothers, two are deputy prime ministers, one the national security advisor, one the foreign minister and one the managing director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds at nearly a trillion-dollar worth. Similarly, the fact that the UAE allowed, for the first time ever, a visiting foreign dignitary to address thousands of his compatriots in what was a loaded, hyper-nationalistic speech was another diplomatic coup, although it is feared that its content may vitiate the otherwise cordial relations between Indians and Pakistanis living in the country. Moreover, it is also apprehended that the hitherto covert activities of the Sangh parivar elements here will become more bold and organised.
This was the first visit by an Indian premier to the UAE in 34 years, although a close India-UAE relationship has thrived over the past few decades. It has always been a symbiotic relationship—the Indians needed jobs and business opportunities and the UAE needed affordable labour. This symbiosis and its inherent pathologies make our characteristic superpower-in-the-making posturing look untenable, even ludicrous, because millions of Indians came here in search of menial jobs and lived rough for decades on end without the comfort and company of their families.
Indo-UAE Joint Statement
The much-touted joint statement issued by the UAE and India was impressively wide-ranging, though action plans on any of the areas remain unclear. The UAE offer of investing around $75 billion in India in infrastructural projects is the most important takeaway. The following statement, which constitutes a subtle yet unmistakable condemnation of Pakistan’s use of terror in India, was inevitably pounced upon by television anchors and ‘strategic experts’: “The two nations reject extremism and any link between religion and terrorism. They condemn efforts, including by states, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries. They also deplore efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian colour to political issues, including in west and south Asia and use terrorism to pursue their aims.”
The UAE has fought the two main sources of religious bigotry in modern Islam—Islamism and Salafism.
The UAE’s stand on issues of religious extremism and hate speech, unlike that of our PM and his party, is immensely credible for several reasons. Firstly, the UAE has had no history of sectarian tension. Crucially, it has succeeded in hosting many cultures and nationalities without any major incidents of violence or conflict. (While Modi’s party keeps banning beef in states it controls, the UAE allows non-Muslims to buy and consume pork.) Thirdly, the UAE’s legal system has strong curbs against bigotry, including the recently issued anti-bigotry law. An Islamic Praveen Togadia or Sakshi Maharaj is an impossibility here. Finally, the UAE has consistently fought against or dissociated itself from the two primary sources of religious bigotry in contemporary Islam—Islamism and Salafism.
PM of India or PM of the Hindus?
The chasm between Narendra Modi and his party on the one hand and the idea of a secular India on the other triggered a war of words on social media between Modi bhakts and their critics. It was likewise evident in the demographics of the crowd that gathered for his speech in Dubai. Commenting on the warmth shown to Modi by UAE leaders, V.M. Sathish, an Indian journalist in Dubai, wrote on Facebook: “This is Hindu-Muslim brotherhood! Namo, please do it back home too and advise your fans to follow suit. No hate politics please. Also, UAE is allotting land to build a Hindu temple. Please don’t demolish any more Indian mosques and churches.” Incidentally, the first announcement by the prime minister after arriving was one of thanks to the UAE government for their decision to allot land for building a temple in Abu Dhabi. In his speech, he asked the audience to give a standing ovation to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed as a mark of respect for the land allotment. Repeatedly mentioning the Abu Dhabi crown prince in his speech in Dubai while not even getting right the name of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (just once was he referred to by Modi, as ‘Maktoumji’), was an avoidable faux pas.
The UAE’s offer of support for India’s UNSC bid, for which Modi took credit, was made years ago by Khalifa Bin Zayed.
The fact that a temple will come up in Abu Dhabi is a welcome gesture, but this is by no means a UAE first: Dubai has two temples near a major mosque. There are several churches and at least one gurudwara. A Saudi-based Indian blogger, Basheer Vallikkunnu, described the Abu Dhabi leadership’s gesture as sweet revenge to a man whose rise in Indian politics was integrally linked to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. However, it is not yet clear if the offer of land for the temple was a new one or he was merely taking credit for a similar offer which the Times of India had reported way back on July 9, 2013. The UAE’s offer of support for India’s bid for a permanent membership in the UNSC, which Modi took credit for, was likewise initially made by Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, to Pratibha Patil, when she visited as president in November 2010.
Most crucially, Modi was silent on the many long-term grievances of Indian expatriates, such as the issue of voting rights and exorbitant air-fares during busy seasons. He spent much of his time in doing what he loves most—revelling at splendid photo opportunities and dazzling spectacles. In short, Modi’s visit, like all of his hifalutin foreign trips, was rich in optics and short on substance.
By Shajahan Madampat in Dubai
(Shajahan Madampat, based in Abu Dhabi, writes on politics and culture)