The region is divided over many issues but India is best placed to benefit from it. Minister of External affairs Dr S Jaishankar's trips to Bahrain and UAE last week builds on the gains of the last few years.
Ever since Narendra Modi led NDA to a thumping majority in India in 2014, a feat he would repeat in 2019, the one region where his government has invested considerable diplomatic capital is the middle east. Through countless visits--some of them by Modi himself, India has drawn ever closer to the Arab world that holds critical importance for many different reasons.
The importance that India accords to the region was again on full display when external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar visited Bahrain and UAE last week. These are only a few of the countries the minister has been able to physically visit in this unprecedented year where virtual meetings have become the norm. Since the pandemic struck, Dr Jaishankar had thus far only visited Russia for a meeting of foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Japan for a Quad engagement. The visit to Bahrain was his first as a minister and he called upon the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy prime minister Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa and his counterpart foreign minister Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani. It followed barely a year after Modi had himself visited the country in 2019, which was the first ever such visit by an Indian head of the state. The discussions centred around areas of defence and maritime security, space technology, trade and investment, infrastructure, IT, FinTech, health, hydrocarbon and renewable energy.
In the UAE, the minister met his counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and took stock of bilateral ties between the two countries, opportunities for greater cooperation in a fast changing world and exchanged notes on lessons learnt in dealing with the pandemic. Like Bahrain, UAE is also one of the countries that Modi has visited frequently--thrice since 2015 including once in 2019. Modi shares a particularly close rapport with crown prince Sheikh Mohammed Zayed, which has contributed to UAE becoming one of the staunchest supporters of India in the Middle East.
How did India get to this position of comfort in a region that has traditionally been close to Pakistan due to their common Islamic foundations Through soft diplomacy and good old business dealings. As the world's fastest growing economy in the pre pandemic era, need for energy has vaulted India as one of the biggest guzzlers of crude oil and natural gas. Which has in turn enhanced its standing as a consumer for countries like UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
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In 2019-20, UAE was India's third largest trading partner behind only China and the US with bilateral trade valued at over $ 60 billion. Further, as the US-Iran relations soured in 2018 and spilled over to the rest of the world, India looked at alternate sources of oil in the middle east, which again strengthened ties with other countries in the region.
It has already led to tangible benefits diplomatically. In 2018, UAE invited former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj as a guest speaker at the 46th meeting of foreign ministers of OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) even at the cost of a peeved Pakistan, which is a full time member of the OIC, which boycotted it. It was followed up by the Arab world remaining muted when India abrogated article 370 in Kashmir and did not succumb to pressure from Pakistan and China who wanted it to be raked up in multilateral forums. Similarly on the contentious issues of NRC-CAA, they have largely refused to meddle, calling it India's internal matter. In any other time in history, these would have been political hot potatoes.
Jaishankar's timing of the visit to the two middle eastern countries on this occasion was more significant for reasons beyond the domain of bilateral ties as well. UAE and Bahrain earlier in September signed the Abrahams Accord with US and Israel agreeing to normalize diplomatic relations with the Jewish nation. They became only the third and fourth Arab country to do so after Egypt and Jordan and it signifies a crack that has created an unprecedented flux in the region--one that indicates a readiness by these countries to let go of history and work even more closely with countries outside the Islamic world.
India which already has robust ties with Israel as also a solid foundation with the Arab world, stands to gain significantly from this. At the same time, due to its own miscalculations, the influence of Pakistan in the region is abating. Its attempts to create an alternate islamic group with Turkey to counter OIC has peeved the monarchs that have as a retaliation either suspended new visas or withdrawn financial support. Any loss of stature for Pakistan only increases possibilities for India. It is a tailwind that Jaishankar by his mere presence has duly capitalized on.