The UAE, which once had a low-profile military, has over the last few years become the world's third largest importer of arms

India and the UAE have forged strong strategic ties within less than a decade

by R Prasannan

The Gulf region is in a flux - not only politically since the advent of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, but also strategically ever since the early 2000s. This is prompting many of them, especially the moderate Islamic states like the UAE to reach out strategically to medium and regional powers like India.

India and the UAE have forged a strong strategic partnership within less than a decade. Since 2008, India has emerged as one of the biggest trade partners of the UAE. But the game-changer was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 2015 visit—the first prime ministerial visit after Indira Gandhi's in 1981— aimed at increasing cooperation in energy and trade. Till now dependent on the oil economy, the Gulf states, too, have come to realise that they would soon have to diversify their economies in a world that is getting less and less dependent on oil which had been their primary—and in some cases singular— source of revenue all these years. So they, too, are seeking opportunities for investment in India.

This week, just as two Indian warships are exercising with the UAE navy in Gulf Star 1, UAE's cabinet minister and minister of state for foreign affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash was in Delhi seeking ways to further deepen the strategic engagement. 

The end of global bipolarity and the subsequent and sudden eclipse of the United States as the sole domineering power have prompted the Gulf states to seek their own strategic partnerships. “One lesson we have drawn from these developments is that we have to undertake our own security,” Dr Gargash said at a lecture organised by Delhi's Observer Research Foundation. “For this, we need a capable military.”

No wonder, the UAE, which once had a low-profile military, has over the last few years become the world's third largest importer of arms, and has sent more than 38,000 of its troops to gain combat experience in Afghanistan in the last few years. “We need a capable military; we realise that the [US] interventions like the one in 1990-91 to liberate Kuwait won't happen any longer... We understand that there cannot be subcontracting our security to a major power” any longer.

India, which has high economic and human-resource stakes in the Gulf region, is one of the regional powers that the UAE is now seeking out and has forged a strategic partnership with. That also converges with India's increasing strategic profile in the region, especially in the maritime domain. “We know our limits; we need partners like India, Egypt and others,” the minister said. India is also making common cause with moderate Arab states in combating terrorism and religious extremism. 

Though the minister would not spell it out clearly, his views on Iran's role in the region would not appear to be converging with India's. India continues to enjoy fairly close strategic relations with Iran, a country that is increasingly viewed by the Sunni Arab states, including the UAE, as the major destabiliser of the region, even more than the traditional enemy Israel. “Iran as a civilisation, we have no problem with. It is Iran's expansionist and hegemonistic foreign policy” that the Arabs have issues with, the minister said.

The Sunni Arab states accuse Iran of funding the encouraging terrorism and civil unrest in the Sunni states. “Iran is spending 5 billion US dollars in Syria,” alleged the minister. Iranian generals are active in Syria which has resulted in the civil war going in favour of the Assad regime. But the thorn on the Gulf side appears to be Qatar, “a small state trying to play a big role,” by being “the largest funder of extremism, and by encouraging radical preachers.” 

In the minister's assessment, fundamental changes are happening in the Arab world, “which is good”, and the biggest news on this is coming from Saudi Arabia, where the society is opening up.