NaMo moment in Dubai

S Madhusudhana Rao

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to a mammoth crowd of over 50,000 Indian expatriates at Dubai Cricket Stadium on Monday was described as a repeat of New York’s Madison Square Garden event last year when the PM wowed a similar number of Indian-Americans.

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Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, presenting a Hindi translation of his book to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In fact, the number of Indian expats present at Dubai meet to hear Modi was a fraction of the total Indian expat population working/living in the United Arab Emirates. Had the organizers found a bigger venue than the limited capacity cricket stadium, it would have been a record of sorts for Modi meetings overseas. With extra seats provided inside and outside of the stadium, the organizers had restricted the entry through a strict registration process.

For most of the Indian expats – 30 per cent of the UAE’s total population of 9.2 million – it is their second home. For many, the seven Emirates that constitute the UAE, the Gulf country is first home because they have been living and working or doing business for generations. Though there is no concept of granting citizenship to expatriates, they feel at home because of liberal socio-economic policies of the UAE in general and Dubai in particular.

So, when Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Abu Dhabi-Dubai in 34 years, his visit could be termed historic in many ways. The last visit an Indian PM made to the Emirates was in 1981 by Indira Gandhi. Since the 1980s, the Emirates has progressed phenomenally and the two chief architects of the federation – Dubai Ruler Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi Ruler Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – and Rulers of other Sheikhdoms had given way to young, progressive and western-educated royal scions.

In other words, the current leadership has a better understanding of geo-political situation and the UAE’s strategic importance in the Arabian Gulf region. Despite Modi’s surprise visit –it was announced just about a week back – on August 16 and 17, the UAE leadership went out of its way to accord him an unprecedented welcome and attached great importance to his visit.

As usual, Modi proved to be an instant hit with the royalty and the laity, thanks to his judicious use of selfie diplomacy. His visit to the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, the third biggest in the world, raked up a controversy and triggered needless nitpicking back home. But it was a PR exercise that impressed the Islamic country with a healthy dose of tolerance for other religions. Moreover, the tour of the mosque, which is also an architectural wonder, must have sent a message to those who harp on Modi for his Hindutva credentials.

Similarly, his visit to zero-carbon futuristic city of Masdar on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi was yet another proof that he was ready to embrace new technologies and in the coming days, we need not surprise if he adopts some of the cutting-edge knowledge projects being developed at Masdar and seek Indian partnership in them there.

However, the icing on the cake was the Dubai event. A majority of Indian expats work in and around the most modern metropolis in the Middle East. It’s a magnet that attracts skilled and unskilled manpower and billions in investment from around the globe. It’s a mini India as well as a mini world. Its commercial importance could be gauged from the fact that most of the business is in the hands of Indian expats. Those who have gone there and prospered in hospitality, education, health, import-export trade, industry, realty and retail sectors are legendary.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

With $60 billion trade turnover in 2014-15, India is the second largest trading partner for the UAE and for India it ranks third after China and the US. While 45,000 Indian companies operate in the seven Emirates, UAE companies have their presence in Indian real estate, energy, ports, and other sectors. More importantly, the number of flights between the UAE and India –a staggering 950 per week – shows how closely the two countries are air-linked and connected by traditional relations. At the same time, expat remittances from the UAE to India, estimated to be between $12-15 billion in 2014, were a source of foreign exchange for the government while they help improve the economic conditions of families of lakhs of Indian migrant workers back home.

Considering these facts, why closer ties with the Arab Gulf countries in general and the UAE in particular have been relegated to the backburner by India? Until the NDA government came to power, Indian foreign policy had been West-centric. First, the US followed by Russia and others and then the balancing act to give our non-aligned status a veneer of uprightness.

With Look East policy, there is a tectonic shift in India’s foreign relations but the volatile Middle East has been largely left out despite the fact the Gulf countries have the mass of Indian workforce which is instrumental in the region’s economic and infra development.

The Indian government’s standoffishness has only helped Pakistan to fill the space, invoking brotherly ties. Incidents like Babri demolition and communal riots had also helped Pakistan to stoke anti-India feelings in the  Gulf country. Until recently, these were very strong and now the perceptions are changing with Pakistan emerging as the hotbed of militancy. The Gulf region itself is facing threats from Islamic militants and terrorist groups. The raging wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and the spread of Islamic State have serious security problems for oil-rich Sheikhdoms. In such a scenario, the UAE seeking strategic partnership with India to fight terrorism is a significant and important development for India.

UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has summed up what his country is looking up to during Modi’s visit in an article published in local press.

He wrote: “From a foreign policy and regional security perspective, the UAE has placed India at the forefront of its international partnerships and recognises the importance of broadening a comprehensive dialogue with India that deepens and diversifies our areas of engagement. There are particularly strong opportunities for UAE-India security cooperation in combating terrorism, which both our governments condemn in the strongest terms in all its forms and manifestations, as well as in the maritime domain.

“The UAE feels strongly about the need to counter extremism and incitement to violence, and has recently passed legislation that bans hate speech and the promotion of violence. India shares our concerns over the rise of extremism. The barbaric ideology that extremists embrace threatens values that the UAE and India hold dear, and both our countries have a mutual desire to see the region and the entire world free of the scourge of extremism.”

The article seems to be a catalyst for Modi’s full-throttled lambast at terrorism in his one-hour Dubai speech. From good Taliban, bad Taliban to good terrorism and bad terrorism, Modi took a dig at Pakistan. This was the first time that a foreign leader has hit out at Pakistan, which considers itself close to the UAE and other Gulf States and assiduously cultivates them, on the Emirates’ soil. In a way, it’s a strategic move to convey the message in unambiguous terms. Earlier, the UAE had never allowed anyone to directly or indirectly criticize Pakistan from within the country. Thus Modi’s reference to terrorism and militancy shows the UAE has come on to India’s page to tackle the terrorism menace.

The understanding or the strategic relationship for which the foundation was laid has some other benefits for India. For a long time, Dubai is known to harbor elements that are inimical to India’s interests. It also has been a transit point for Pak-trained Jihadists to sneak into India through Bangladesh. Criminals wanted in India find Dubai a safe place or use it as a springboard to move out. A case in point was Dawood Ibrahim. The new partnership will help Delhi to ferret out ‘rats’ from the UAE.

Besides elevation in UAE-India relations, Modi’s trip would be remembered by expats for the Abu Dhabi government’s munificent gesture: Land for a temple, a long-standing demand of Hindu community. And, the Prime Minister’s announcements of a welfare fund, a portal to address expats’ grievances and other problems were music to their ears.

On the economic front, the UAE has agreed to invest $75 billion in India’s development and open more avenues for Indian companies to take part in the Emirates’ growth. Modi’s statement that India’s investment potential is more than a trillion dollars should enthuse potential Emirati investors. But they will also be wary of our notorious red-tape and bureaucracy, the two demons that spoil the party.

Modi has done well, but the momentum he has given to Indo-UAE ties has to be maintained in the coming years to tap the huge investment the Emirates has offered. Otherwise, it becomes another wasted opportunity to cash in on goodwill generated by Indian expats in the UAE.

(The writer has worked over two decades with Dubai-based Khaleej Times)

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