The two-day visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to the United Arab Emirates last week is part of India’s strategy for the post-Covid-19 new normal. The growing bonhomie of the Indo-Emirati relations came to the fore; when External Affairs Minister called on Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The UAE is India’s important strategic partner in the Gulf region.
Besides conveying India’s ‘appreciation’ of the Emirati efforts in taking care of Indian citizens, both leaders also “discussed regional and global issues of mutual concerns.” Later, Dr. Jaishankar had detailed discussion with his Emirati counterpart that included a review of their “comprehensive strategic partnership including trade, investment, infrastructure, energy, food security and defence.” They also discussed recent regional and international developments and agreed to continue coordinating various multilateral issues.
This was the Indian External Affairs Minister’s maiden visit to the UAE since assuming office last year. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign travels have gradually ceased since mid-February. This was External Affairs Minister’s third overseas visit since limited foreign trips began in only in early September; Russia and Japan were the other countries visited by Dr. Jaishankar before his visit to the Emirates.
Amidst the locked-down, both Prime Minister Modi and Dr. Jaishankar have spoken to the Emirati leadership and coordinated the Covid related relief activities. Indeed, a day after the announcement of Emirati-Israeli normalization, on 15 August, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan called Dr. Jaishankar and briefed him.
The External Affairs Minister’s visit also included online interaction with members of the Indian community in the Emirates. Though a norm since 2014, this meeting assumes importance in the light of growing uncertainties over Gulf migration. As the Ministry reminded, “ways for Indian workers to resume job in the post-Covid scenario” is high on the Indian agenda.
Until 15 September, India has brought home over 1.38 million citizens under the “Vande Bharat Mission”, including 457,596 from the UAE. Currently, just over three million Indians live and work in UAE, and this is the largest concentration of Indians outside the county. Thus, External Affairs Minister was reassuring the safety and welfare of the expatriates
With several promising news on the vaccine front, India also is preparing for the slow return to a new normal, including the return of the migrants to the Gulf region. With economic meltdown, close to a million Indians have returned home from the Gulf Arab countries that hosted over eight million Indians in 2019. The Covid-19 also froze the annual migration of fresh workers to the region, and Emirate is key to the revival for labour migration from India.
Moreover, India’s economic recovery revolves around Indo-Emirati trade; before the pandemic struck, UAE was India’s third-largest trading partner accounting for over US$ 59.9 billion trade. The revival of the Indian economy (as also of the globe) rests heavily on an upward swing of Indo-Emirate bilateral trade. Though the details are sketchy and vague, one could flag a few possible issues that would have figured during Dr. Jaishankar’s visit. The electoral victory of Joe Biden has raised hopes for an American diplomatic engagement with Iran and a possible reduction in tensions in the Gulf. Though a welcome development, any automatic return to the nuclear deal abrogated by President Trump would have severe security ramifications for the UAE and its closest ally, Saudi Arabia.
In addition, partly due to its less than successful military campaign in Yemen, UAE is committed to increasing its military strength and is seeking 50 F-35, the frontline all-weather combat aircraft from the US. The normalization of relations with Israel was partly linked to the deal estimated at over US$ 10 billion and the sale was cleared by the US State Department, just days after President Trump lost to Biden. Above all, the Emirati-Israel normalization offers immense opportunities for India to increase and upscale its engagements with both these countries through closer technological partnership.
Since Mr. Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, UAE has emerged as India’s pivot in the Gulf region, manifested through political, economic and strategic partnerships. Dr. Jaishankar’s visit is a reminder of UAE’s strategic importance in India’s Gulf policy and an attempt to coordinate policy choices when the Biden Administration takes over in Washington in January 2021.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU