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India and the UAE: Tackling terrorism together

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A strong strategic partnership between India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which once seemed impossible given the latter’s close ties with Pakistan, is taking shape. India and the UAE have formally advanced their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, with the two sides signing a framework agreement during the just-concluded visit of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Thirteen other agreements covering the areas of defense, energy, maritime transport, etc were signed as well during the Crown Prince’s visit. Under an agreement between Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Limited and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), India will lease out a part of its crude oil storage facility at Mangalore in southern India to ADNOC. In return it will have first rights to the stored oil in the event of an emergency. This will enhance India’s energy security.

Deepening ties

Although the two sides failed to sign a much-anticipated agreement on a US$75 million fund to be used for infrastructure development in India, bilateral relations have never looked so good. The two countries are wooing each other like never before.

Signaling the importance it accords the UAE in its foreign policy, India invited Al Nahyan to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade during his recent visit. An Emirati army contingent led the parade too, the first time that a foreign contingent has been so honored in this manner.

India-UAE relations have revolved mainly around trade. Worth just US$180 million per annum in the 1970s, this trade touched $50 billion in 2015-16, making the UAE India’s third largest trade partner. Oil accounts for the bulk of the trade and 8% of India’s oil imports comes from the UAE. Energizing the bilateral relationship is the 2.5 million-strong Indian expatriate community in the UAE, which has not only contributed to the UAE’s economic development but also sends home $15 billion as remittances annually.

UAE’s ties with terror

India’s outreach to the UAE was constrained in the past by the latter’s close defense and security ties with Pakistan. The UAE and Pakistan held similar views too on terrorism-related issues and both sponsored terror groups. Together with Saudi Arabia, they were the only countries to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the UAE was seen in India as unsympathetic to its concerns over terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Rarely did it co-operate with India. In 1999, for instance, when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked, UAE authorities did not co-operate with India to end the crisis when the plane landed at Dubai for refueling.

The UAE also provided sanctuary to terrorists and underworld dons wanted in India. Consequently, India-UAE relations could not expand beyond a point.

That has begun to change in recent years. Alarm over the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group is believed to have prompted the Emiratis to rethink their long-standing policy of supporting religious extremism and terrorism.

Their relations with Pakistan too have begun fraying. The latter’s refusal to join a Saudi Arabia-led coalition for military intervention in Yemen riled the UAE. The recent killing of five Emirati diplomats in a terror strike in Kandahar by the Pakistan-backed Haqqani Network has soured UAE-Pakistan relations further.

Opportunity arises

This has opened space for India and the UAE to explore security co-operation

Since August 2015, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UAE, the first Indian prime minister to do so in over three decades, counter-terrorism co-operation has grown steadily and includes among other things intelligence sharing and steps to control the flow of terror funds.

Although statements issued at the end of high-level bilateral visits have not mentioned Pakistan by name, their wording suggests a significant meeting of minds between India and the UAE on the issue of state-sponsorship of terrorism.

The joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s 2015 visit to the UAE, for instance, called on all states to abandon the use of terror against others, an oblique reference to Pakistan’s nurturing of anti-India terrorist groups. Similarly, the statement issued at the end of Al Nahyan’s recent visit to Delhi contained a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan’s support of terrorism in Kashmir and other parts of India. It “condemned efforts, including by States, to use religion to justify, sustain and sponsor terrorism against other countries.”

Importantly, when Pakistan-based terror groups attacked an Indian Air Force base at Pathankot and an Indian army camp in Uri last year, the UAE came out swiftly in India’s support as it did when India carried out surgical strikes on terror camps based in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

The growing proximity between the UAE and India on counter-terrorism issues has raised hopes in India. But Delhi should avoid the temptation to use its growing ties with the Emiratis to isolate Pakistan.

Its strategy towards the UAE should be aimed not so much at getting it to pulling away from Pakistan as at convincing the Emiratis to use their substantial influence over Pakistan to rethink its policy of sponsoring religious extremism and terrorism. That may serve New Delhi’s long-term interests better.

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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