Sport has been the game-changer in many of India's bilateral endeavours - and its strategic ties forged with the UAE is one of the finest examples of how cricket has been a brand ambassador for closer global relationships.
When the first ball of the Indian Premier League 2020 is bowled on September 19, it will only be the second time that the blockbuster tournament will take place outside India. And it will be the second time that the UAE will play host to the world's most popular cricket league.
As the Arab Gulf state gears up to welcome IPL teams and officials from around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, the frenzied preparations recall the last time that IPL was played in the UAE - in the summer of 2014. The opening ceremony of IPL7 was held in the UAE on April 15, 2014. The first 20 matches were held in the UAE at three different stadiums in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah with the tournament returning to India on 2 May - as India was in the throes of a general election that year that brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power with one of the strongest mandates in independent India. Six years later, things have come a full circle as the prestigious league returns to the shores of Arabia, reflecting not only Indian cricket's great power to cross the boundaries but also the kind of profound and strategic bilateral relations that PM Modi has built based on the mutual synergies of India and the UAE.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions - and what can be more extraordinary than cricket during the time of coronavirus Sport, as they say, has been the game-changer in many of India's bilateral endeavours - and the UAE is one of the finest examples.
“The Indian Premier League aside, our relationship with the Indian government, the Indian public and Indian trade is also an important aspect of our history, one that we are extremely proud of. Such support between our countries can only benefit our relationships in the future,” said Khalid Al Zarooni, the vice-chairman of the Emirates Cricket Board, the tournament organisers in the UAE. The depth of the relationship between the two countries can be gauged from the ease with which both agreed to facilitate the tournament even as India battles a surge in coronavirus cases and the UAE reopens its businesses and the economy, Al Zarooni told Times of India.
The foundations of this renewed momentum between India and the UAE - and for that matter much of the Arab and Muslim world - was made possible when Prime Minister Modi visited the UAE in August 2015. That visit came exactly 34 years after an Indian prime minister last visited the country - which was Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Since Prime Minister Modi's first visit, there have been several high-level visits by the leadership of the UAE and India, including two visits by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in February 2016 and January 2017 - the first on a state visit and the second as the chief guest of Indian Republic Day celebrations. The current momentum in bilateral relations is thus unprecedented not only on symbolism - but also in substance.
Whether it's about enabling greater mobility of people, diversifying mutual economies, evolving security priorities or simply setting up the historic foundation of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, the bond between India and the UAE have grown by leaps and bounds in the past six years - mirroring the flourish with which the IPL has consolidated its reputation as the ultimate entertainment in cricket.
With a 3.3-million-strong population, the Indian diaspora in the UAE is the largest in the world, and until the coronavirus pandemic was growing at a healthy pace. With a record 1,200 flights every week between the UAE and India in pre-pandemic days, there has also been a surge of tourists and visitors between both countries. The UAE has significantly eased visit visa norms for Indians - those carrying US visas or Green Cards as well as UK or EU visas or residency now get visas on arrival in the UAE, while India set up an e-visa and visa on arrival scheme for Emiratis at 16 airports across the country.
Similarly, foreign trade and the oil and gas sectors were the fulcrum of bilateral relations in the decades preceding the end of the oil era boom. But since then, the UAE has pursued an aggressive strategy of diversifying its economy, and its relations with India have benefited as a result. In 1982, foreign trade figures between the UAE and India were at $182 million, while in 2016-17, those numbers stood at $53 billion. From a traditional eye on the oil and energy sector, the focus of bilateral relations has now diversified to include many new ones such as IT, space technology, tourism, defence manufacturing and renewable energy.
In addition, both the UAE and India share a deeply common goal - that of fighting terrorism, combating extremism and ideologies of hatred. “We cooperate very closely with Indian authorities in fighting extremists and terrorists - both individuals and organisations,” Dr Ahmed Al Banna, the UAE Ambassador to India, was quoted as saying in 2018 on the eve of Prime Minister Modi's second visit to the UAE. The recent upsurge in relations is thus a reminder that both the UAE and India have leapfrogged in terms of global reputation and foreign policy since 1981 - when the Indian Prime Minister last visited before Modi's renewed efforts.
While India of the 1980s onwards was seen as a power aligned with the Soviet Union, a fresh direction in foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi has helped recalibrate India's relations with several countries - including the UAE.
It's not just the love of sport that strongly binds the UAE and India together - it's also the mutual vision for peace, security and stability without interfering in domestic or regional disputes. Devoid of the past binaries and passive ties which used to define India's relation with the Arab world, Modi's proactive and pragmatic foreign policy has helped India embrace several opportunities - and the hosting of the IPL this year is certainly among the most exciting of them.
Former Indian pacer Irfan Pathan, who played for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2014 edition, summed it up when he said that it was a “wonderful experience” playing in the UAE. “It was a wonderful experience. The fans were very excited about the cricket coming there when we went there in 2014,” Pathan told Star Sports.
Sport has been a critical tool of India's diplomatic outreach and soft power even before its independence movement - when India gained Test cricket status in 1932 to equal the British in their own game, and Indian hockey made its global debut only to represent Britain in the Olympics. But of course, sport can be menace in the course of such diplomacy too. During India's brass-tacks military exercise in 1987, it was Pakistan President Zia Ul Haq who is thought to have informed then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - while watching a cricket match at Jaipur - that Pakistan had developed a nuclear weapon.
From the heydays of the Cold War to preparing for a post-Covid world order, India's equations and the balance of power with Pakistan have undergo a sea change - as it has with most other countries - and sport has always been more than a silent spectator in the background. Last year, when Prime Minister Modi flew to Maldives in his first overseas trip after winning a thumping majority in his second term, the trip was widely viewed as a statement of intent to counter the rise of China, which had been making strategic inroads in the Indian Ocean to the alarm of New Delhi. Among the several critical issues on Modi's discussion agenda with Maldives President Ibrahim Solih were a proposed ferry service to India - and the funding of a national cricket stadium in the Maldives!
Tomorrow: We look at the business of sports and how it is attracting investments to India.