Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Abu Dhabi on his way back from the G7 meet in Germany to personally convey his condolences at the passing away of the President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan last month and greet the new ruler Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan is a measure of India’s growing friendship with the United Arab Emirates.
India and the UAE together with the US and Israel are already part of an emerging power bloc, popularly dubbed the 'West Asian Quad'. This group will be holding its first summit next month, during US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region.
Modi’s visit comes in the wake of protests by all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council over controversial remarks by former BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma against the Holy Prophet. Arab leaders called in Indian envoys to protest. The UAE had also protested but did not summon the ambassador.
India’s ties with the Gulf kingdoms, especially the UAE has improved dramatically in the last decade, more so since Modi came to power in 2014 and changed the political equation with the region. Thought Indian workers had been working in the Gulf ever since the oil boom, the region was closely aligned with Pakistan politically. In any India-Pakistan issue, the Arab states of the Gulf would side with Pakistan. That is no longer the case as new equations are being forged to suit the emerging international dynamic. The fact that Prime Minister Modi received the highest civilian award of the UAE in 2019, the year the government decided to revoke Kashmir’s special status tells its own story. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since a couple of years handed back several criminals and "terrorists" who took refuge in those countries. Combating terrorism is an important element of India’s relations with the Gulf nations, particularly the UAE.
I am touched by the special gesture of my brother, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of coming to welcome me at Abu Dhabi airport. My gratitude to him. @MohamedBinZayed pic.twitter.com/8hdHHGiR0z— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 28, 2022
India too had gone out of its way to accommodate the ruling family. In 2018, when Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, daughter of the now-deceased ruler of Dubai, fled her home in a yacht heading to Sri Lanka, from where she was to take a flight to the US, Indian Coastguards stormed the ship and handed her over to the UAE authorities. This was all done quietly. It was much later that the news was out.
Israel is no longer an untouchable for Arab rulers in the Gulf. The UAE, Bahrain, and Israel have established diplomatic and political relations with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. Normalising ties between Israel, once the sworn enemy of the Arab rulers could not have been possible in earlier decades when support for Palestine was strong. Jordan was the only Arab state to have established diplomatic ties with Israel as early as 1994.
But the perceived threat from Iran had got the Sunni Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join hands with Israel to scuttle Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These three countries were also against the nuclear deal signed with Iran which is now difficult to salvage. All three countries see Iran as a threat, the Saudis and UAE mainly because Iran is a Shia power.
Considering India’s excellent ties with Israel and UAE’s new found friendship with Israel and overarching relations of all three nations with the US, a West Asian quad gives a chance to all four members to work to their interests. It will be called I2U2 ---India and Israel for the letter 'I' and the US and the UAE for the 'U'.
A West Asia Quad had been in the making since 2021. On October 18 last year, when foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was visiting Israel when a part person part virtual meeting of foreign ministers of the four countries took place.
For India the i2u2 makes perfect sense. The Gulf has always been important, and oil rich UAE with as many as 3.5 million Indian working there makes an excellent partner for outreach to the region. Domestically and internationally it plays out well. Despite a crackdown on Indian Muslims, the PM can point to the excellent ties with the Gulf countries.
India as is well known sources most of its oil requirements from the Gulf, but in recent years trade has also picked up considerably. Bilateral trade in FY 2021-22 was about USD 72 billion. UAE is India’s third-largest trade partner and second-largest export destination. UAE FDI in India has continuously increased over the past few years and currently stands at over USD 12 billion. With a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) sealed and signed in February and in-force since May of this year, trade volumes are expected to go up. The aim is to raise it to $100 billion in the next five years. This incidentally is the first comprehensive free trade agreement signed by the Modi government with a Gulf nation. Defence relations with the UAE are also on track. India has been holding naval exercises with the UAE for some time. The latest was the Zayed Talwar 2021, which was held between the two navies off the coast of Abu Dhabi. .
The i2u2 is also good news for Israel. For any government in Tel Aviv having more and more countries do business with Israel, especially neighbouring Arab powers in the region, is a bonus.
Oil rich UAE is looking to play an important role in the region, the 12u2 forum offers an opportunity to pull above its weight. With just 10 percent of the population in the UAE are actual citizens and the rest made up of foreigners, the UAE leaders do not need to worry too much about public opinion. So signing the Abraham accords was no problem. But in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where the Crown Prince MBS is as keen to repair ties with Israel, it is not that easy. The Saudi monarch as the custodian of two of Sunni Islam’s holiest shrines has to pay much more attention to the voice from the mosques and the general people who are anti-Israel.
US President Joe Biden wants to ensure American presence in the Gulf and not leave the space clear for China and Russia grab business. The US has always courted the rich Gulf states. The UAE as an influential member of OPEC can play a part in helping to cap Russian oil prices. The West Asia quad is at the moment largely symbolic but a four member pact for trade and investments is never a bad thing. Much will depend on how this will pan out . Ends