Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi got Barack Obama, then US president, to participate as chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2015, the invitee each year is seen to carry weight in India’s strategic calculus. This certainly was the case last week with the state visit of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) armed forces. Relations with the UAE in particular and India’s “Think West” strategy in general have been under-appreciated successes of Modi’s foreign policy.
Modi’s visit to the UAE in August 2015 was the first by an Indian prime minister in 34 years. It was reciprocated by the crown prince in February 2016 and his decision to visit again is telling of the quick progress the two countries have made in less than two years. In an effort to build “a comprehensive strategic partnership”, the first India-UAE strategic dialogue preceded the visit of the crown prince. The UAE’s pledge in 2015 to invest $75 billion in India has not seen much progress since, largely owing to structural concerns vis-à-vis India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund. With that problem now solved, investment flows can be expedited.
The latest joint statement also notes the desire of the two countries “to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, the UAE and in third countries”. In a significant development, a memorandum of understanding signed between Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) will enable half the capacity at the Mangaluru oil storage facility to be filled by Adnoc. The other half is filled by—also marking the success of India’s Think West strategy—Iranian oil.
The phrase Think West was used for the first time in the inaugural Raisina Dialogue (March 2016) by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. Despite long historical ties, India’s links to the Gulf countries in the last few decades had come to be defined by the twin factors of energy imports and labour exports. New Delhi could do little to harness the interdependencies to build a more robust relationship. But that was going to change, as Jaishankar announced that “we are no longer content to be passive recipients of outcomes”. India’s landmark “Act East” policy, he added, “would be matched with ‘Think West’.”
The numbers on trade between India and the Gulf countries are impressive; with the UAE alone, trade has hit the $50 billion mark. The remittances sent by Indian labour migrants—numbering 2.6 million in the UAE and more than 7 million in the Gulf—have added to the economic relationship. But there are other structural factors at play. One, the desire of the US to cut down its global security role is timed with India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean. Two, the fall in commodity prices—the recent bump notwithstanding—has driven down the logic of diversification among the oil-rich nations in West Asia. Three, the rise of religious radicalism globally and India’s ability to largely escape that ominous trend has underlined the success of India’s multicultural social fabric. And lastly, in a world reeling under the long-term negative effects of the financial crisis, India is a remarkable anchor of stability as it continues to notch up high growth numbers.
The change in attitude towards India is seen in starker terms when viewed against a longer arc of history. After India was forced to stay out of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1969 at Pakistan’s insistence, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar decided to show solidarity with India after the Pakistan-sponsored terror attack in Uri in September last year. Further, the recent killing of five UAE diplomats in Afghanistan has altered the ground situation considerably from the days of Taliban rule when India and the UAE stood clearly on opposite sides of the divide.
But Modi has not achieved this transformation single-handedly. It was during Manmohan Singh’s tenure that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia was invited as the Republic Day chief guest, in 2006. The Delhi Declaration (2006) and Riyadh Declaration (2010) tried to breathe life into the somnolent bilateral relationship. Atal Bihari Vajpayee hosted President Mohammad Khatami of Iran at the 2003 Republic Day, and it was during that visit that the plans for India’s cooperation in building Chābahār port in Iran first came up. And before all of them, P.V. Narasimha Rao had shattered the myth that India cannot open up to Israel without harming its relationship with Islamic countries in West Asia.
However, many of the initiatives taken earlier were not followed up adequately. The Modi government has worked on correcting that shortfall and consolidated all the previous efforts into its Think West strategy. Today, New Delhi is building infrastructure in Iran while also sharing intelligence with Saudi Arabia. And while the UAE is cooperating with India on maritime security, Israel is selling arms to New Delhi. The next logical step may be for India to assume—as suggested by Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE—“a catalytic role in promoting an inclusive Gulf security arrangement…in concert with principal Asian countries—China, Japan, and Republic of Korea”.