Hence, EAM’s visit to UAE (November 25-26) is timely to take stock of the emerging regional dynamic and to coordinate responses since the region is of critical significance for India.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Middle East has been witnessing significant shifts and drifts in the geo-political dynamic as the high-profile intervention of outgoing President Trump winds down. However, the recent visit by Secretary Pompeo to the region was to consolidate on the gains achieved through the Abraham Accords and to underscore the collaborative diplomatic and security mechanisms in the face of challenges from Iran and Turkey. Bahraini Foreign Minister visited Tel Aviv and PM Netanyahu may visit Manama soon. But even though officially not announced, what made news was an alleged late evening meeting at Neom between Crown Prince Salman, Pompeo and Netanyahu when rumours of formal normalisation of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv got the wind. Moreover, a likely strike by the US and Israel on the Iranian nuclear facilities to stymie the threat, before the current Administration moves out, was also reported. It was not followed through due to the reservations by the US security advisers and its less than salutary implications. But from the Saudi perspective at this stage perhaps implicit normalisation is preferable to the explicit. Meanwhile, Palestinians also seem to be coming around with a Biden victory and have returned their Ambassadors to Manama and Abu Dhabi while Security cooperation with Tel Aviv has been revived. Moreover, this year we have seen the passing away of the respected leaders and arbiters of regional peace in Sultan of Oman, Amir of Kuwait and Prime Minister of Bahrain.
In this fast-evolving background visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to Bahrain and UAE makes ample sense. Both these countries have recently normalised relations with Israel which is also a strategic partner. Hence apart from the bilateral and regional issues, an assessment of the potential for cooperation in the trilateral domain of trade, technology, maritime collaboration, energy, and food security are the areas of interest. Moreover, assuring the Indian diaspora of continued support as well as the possible return of the recent returnees from the Gulf countries in the wake of pandemic impacted low oil prices and an economic downturn would have been discussed.
Indian trajectory is on the rise in the Gulf. Covid assistance and cooperation are of immense significance for both sides as are the post-Covid collaboration in newer areas including AI, Space, sustainable technology, and renewables for which institutional frameworks have been assiduously worked out in recent past.
While Pakistan’s dusted chips with the Gulf countries especially UAE are of some interest to India more so in the context of containing Pak emanated terrorism. Especially return of the fugitive offender Dawood Ibrahim is of concern where UAE assistance has often been sought. Imran khan, while criticising UAE’s diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, recently implied that some brotherly countries were forcing him to normalise relations with Pakistan which he would not do. Meanwhile, UAE has suspended new visas for Pakistanis along with 12 other countries including Iran and Turkey.Pakistan’s attempts, to create an alternate Islamic group with Turkey to counter the OIC, have annoyed the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE, who have withdrawn financial support to Islamabad.
India and Bahrain have century-old people to people exchanges which are clearly evident in the presence of a functional temple for over 200 years which EAM also visited (Nov 24-25)apart from a virtual interaction with the prominent members of Indian community. He had productive meetings with HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bahrain and HH Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, Deputy Prime Minister and held talks with his counterpart Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Bahrain. He conveyed India’s condolences on the recent demise of the former PM. Key areas for discussion included s including in areas of defence and maritime security, space technology, trade and investment, infrastructure, IT, FinTech, health, hydrocarbon and renewable energy on which most agreements have already been signed. Manama wants to become a financial hub and is important in our maritime security and anti-piracy operations and figures in India’s Indo-Pacific contours. These could be followed up during the 3rd High Joint Commission meeting due shortly.
UAE, probably, has emerged one of the most important and vocal partners for India and the strategic relationship combined with bonhomie between PM Modi and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Zayed which has paid rich dividends. Not only it is one our major trading partner but has committed significant investments in critical sectors in India including strategic reserves. In 2018 UAE had tried to open an OIC channel when late FM Sushma Swaraj was invited to address the Foreign Ministers meet much to the chagrin of the Pakistanis. They also supported India during Balakot /Pulwama and abrogation of Art 370. They have also extradited key economic offenders and terrorist wanted in India. UAE has become a forward-looking country in the region wanting to expand in technology, space exploration and economic diversification while retaining its military edge as is evident in its quest for F35s and efforts to get US to relocate some of its bases from Turkey to UAE. Despite Caesar’s Act and Trump sanctions UAE reopened its Embassy in Damascus and looking to steer the reconstruction of Syria and it is here that India could partner with them given excellent relations with both. Another dimension is normalisation and intensification of relations between Israel and UAE have opened a new chapter of possible trilateral cooperation especially in Africa and elsewhere.
Hence, EAM’s visit to UAE (November 25-26) is timely to take stock of the emerging regional dynamic and to coordinate responses since the region is of critical significance for India. He called on Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and held talks with his counterpart, the Foreign Minister of UAE, HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He also virtually met the representatives of the Indian community associations in Abu Dhabi according to MEA. They reviewed cooperation on various facets of comprehensive strategic partnership including trade, investment, infrastructure, energy, food security and defence as well as on Covid-19 strategy.
UAE and Israel have been active in Socotra in Yemen and Horn of Africa and it would be desirable to work out a collaborative maritime mechanism to address the emerging challenges in the Gulf as our defence and security partnership acquires salience.
As the situation may stabilise in Syria it would be useful to bring Jordan into economic strategic calculations since it enjoys a web of FTAs with major markets and is not only shares borders with Syria and Iraq but could be a pedestal for reconstruction projects in due course. But time is ripe to take first steps.
(The author is former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta & Distinguished Fellow, VIF. Views are personal)