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Modi in Abu Dhabi: Upgrading the Indo-Emirati Strategic Partnership

On August 23rd, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India made his third state visit to the United Arab Emirates as part of a three-state visit that included Bahrain and France at a time when bilateral ties between India and Pakistan took yet another hit after New Delhi decided to revoke Article 370 which granted special status in Kashmir and tightened security around India-administered Kashmir. During his visit in Abu Dhabi, Prime Minister Modi received the country’s highest civilian honour, known as the Order of Zayed, a move that immediately prompted Islamabad to cancel a pre-scheduled visit by the Chairman of the Pakistani Senate to the UAE.

Relations between the UAE and India have for the last decade been elevated, in the words of Narendra Modi, from a “buyer-seller relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership” – a term that has been frequently used by Indian policymakers to describe the transformation of India’s partnerships in the Persian Gulf, especially with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE is the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to India, which accounted for roughly 8% of India’s oil imports and plays a significant role in investing in the Indian market and infrastructure as bilateral trade between the two countries by some estimates is worth $60 billion. Economic ties are not the end of the story in the UAE-India partnership. New areas of cooperation have been explored in the last couple of years in areas that include defense manufacturing and technology, research and development.

But no new major announcements and agreements were made during Modi’s visit. Only the rhetoric of being strategic partners was discussed. India has being pivoting to the Middle East for the last two decades as its dependence on oil and natural gas from the Middle East grows, but also as a number of countries in the region are looking for a labor force that could help them boost their economies, a task that India is able to fulfill. Trade between New Delhi and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has grown from $5.5 billion in 2001 to more than $107 billion in 2017 as the region serves as India’s top regional trading bloc, larger than India’s trading ties with the European Union and ASEAN. The Persian Gulf is part of India’s own Indo-Pacific strategy, which is broader than how other states define the Indo-Pacific, as it incorporates a wide swath of territory.

But there is also the development of political relations that are developing quite dramatically between India and some Middle East countries, and New Delhi understands that there is a lack of mutual interests in most of this part of the world, which offers an opportunity to expand its partnerships, while not finding a lot of objections with respect to its ties with Pakistan.

But the UAE-India relationship is not an alliance. In the Middle East, India plays on a thin line, strengthening and exploring partnerships across the region is what India has been doing in the last decade, while avoiding being trapped into the regional enmities between the major regional powers in the Middle East which is a strategy that has also been used recently by China to improve its economic and energy partnerships in the region, while avoiding taking one side against the other in the regional geopolitical and security rivalries. India is a major investor in Iran’s Chabahar Port while strengthening its partnerships with countries that maintain a strategic rivalry with Tehran, most notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The difference between China’s balancing strategy in the Middle East and India’s is that New Delhi’s is global in nature.

In the words of Ian Hall, an expert on Indian foreign policy, India’s foreign policy has been characterised as “multi-alignment,” rather than its traditional “non-alignment” as a “means to achieve what it perceives as its core interests and ideals in international relations” and to “boost its national security and economic development,” but also to “boost its status as a leading power.” This is not a trend that started with Narendra Modi, but it continued and further strengthened during his last tenure (2014-2019) and is expected to continue for this term, although there could be some challenges in the near term, including how New Delhi may balance some of its relationships, especially the ones it has with the U.S., Iran, and Russia, which strengthened during the last decade, but are now under pressure and are still important ties.

However, this works for both sides. While elevating its relationship with India as a comprehensive strategic partnership, Abu Dhabi has also improved its bilateral ties with Pakistan, India’s key strategic adversary in South Asia. The UAE along with Saudi Arabia and China have played a significant role in rescuing the Pakistani economy last year to ease its balance of payment crisis, well before Islamabad started a negotiation with the International Monetary Fund to secure a $6 billion bailout. So this is a mutual strategy that works for both sides, while it is not intended to make both sides happy all the time, it at least benefits their major strategic interests, while avoiding being entangled into an alliance, where their interests do not always converge

All in all, while new developments were not announced during Modi’s visit to the UAE, the visit itself could be interpreted as internal politics in India would not have a major repercussions to its foreign policy, especially its ties with Pakistan’s closest partners (like the UAE), which also happens to be India’s largest trading partner. But it is also a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides, as India offers an important market for the UAE to export its energy resources to an energy-thirsty nation of more than one billion people and in the short-term, both sides see an opportunity to expand their partnership, rather than obstacles that could hinder the prospect of a strong “comprehensive strategic partnership.”