In a multipolar Middle East, a strategic partnership between India and the UAE evolves

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The August 2015 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United Arab Emirates marked the first visit in 34 years of an Indian leader to the UAE and Modi’s first official trip anywhere in the Middle East.  There has been much debate over the success and relevance of the visit. What is clear, however, is that the prime minister has grasped the Gulf’s increasing strategic importance for India.

India has a long history of relations with the Middle East, more than any of today’s existing or emerging great powers. Emperor Ashoka had ties with ancient Egypt’s Ptolemy II. Arab traders settled on India’s eastern coast. One of the earliest mosques in the world was built in Kerala in 629AD. Mughal rule then saw the entry of Islam to India on a mass scale. During British colonialism, the Raj administered autonomous Gulf Arab states from India.

This legacy is far better remembered amongst Gulf states than it is in Delhi. Gulf policymakers exhibit a comfort and familiarity toward India that was not always shared by Indian leaders, who tend to be hamstrung by sensitivities over domestic Hindu-Muslim relations. For this reason, as well as geopolitical factors like the India-Pakistan rivalry and Cold War divisions, India-Gulf relations tended to emphasize commercial interests in recent years.

Modi’s visit of course touched on these. The UAE agreed to invest $75 billion to support India’s massive infrastructure needs. Infrastructure investment is key to India’s rise to great power status and always ranks high on Modi’s agenda for international visits. The Gulf states are particularly useful given their large foreign currency reserves. The UAE ranks as one of India’s top trading partners, and the two countries agreed to aim for a 60 percent increase in trade in the next five years.  

As important as they are, economic interests can no longer be the primary focus of the bilateral relationship. And Modi, whose political resume and fractious relations with India’s Muslim community would seem to make him the least likely candidate to strengthen Middle East ties, may be the one to turn around decades of strategic neglect.

The Gulf states’ strategic relevance for India

Several factors make the Middle East, particularly the Gulf, more strategically important for India. 

First, New Delhi’s existing economic interests have gained a strategic dimension with a growing reliance on Gulf oil and gas. The joint statement signed at the conclusion of Modi’s visit heralds the promise of a strategic partnership in energy, including in the development of petroleum reserves, upstream and downstream investments, and collaboration in third countries.

Secondly, the central geopolitical shift in the region is the diminishing of US interest and influence, making for a more multipolar Middle East. China will be the greatest beneficiary of this. New Delhi, wary about the implications for its energy security, is compelled to act.  

Furthermore, the fluid security situation in the broader Middle East provides new opportunities for an ambitious India. The Gulf states are looking to diversify their security guarantors and may seek to maintain leverage by working with multiple strategic partners. It is unlikely that China will be able or interested in replacing Washington in the medium term.

The Gulf states sit at the western rim of the Indian Ocean, Dehli’s perceived sphere of future strategic influence. More broadly, problems of increasing state fragility and growing threats from terrorist groups in the Middle East jeopardize India’s energy interests and migrant workers.

For this reason, Modi’s visit elevated the UAE relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” including the establishment of a “Strategic Security Dialogue” and engagement between their respective national security advisors and national security councils. There will be regular exercises and training of naval, air, land and special forces, and in coastal defense. This reflects a broader agenda in the Gulf as seen in recent days with the high-profile visit to Qatar of Indian naval ships.

The UAE will participate in India’s 2016 International Fleet Review, and cooperate in defense manufacturing in India. The two countries will also collaborate on cyber security, intelligence, and even space exploration. At the global level, the Statement called for expeditious reform of the UN, with the UAE supporting India’s bid for UN Security Council permanent membership.

Modi’s visit also led to the establishment of joint counter-terrorism efforts. The prime minister astutely harnessed the UAE’s image as an Islamic country to condemn the use of religion to incite hatred, and he even tweeted a ‘selfie’ with the UAE minister who had earlier warned Pakistan of heavy consequences for its neutrality on Yemen.

The factors facilitating India’s strategic outreach to the Gulf

In pursuing an intensified strategic partnership with the UAE and the Gulf, India has two key advantages over other great powers, which Modi emphasized in his visit. The first is India’s peaceful, pluralistic and tolerant image among many in the Middle East. The concluding bilateral statement sought to highlight this soft power, referencing support for sovereignty, non-interference and peaceful resolution of conflicts. It highlighted parallels between India and the UAE as multicultural societies and highlighted the values of tolerance and peace as inherent in all religions. Modi visited the Grand Mosque, and notably, the UAE agreed to allot land to build a Hindu temple, a major step forward in the eyes of Modi’s domestic constituencies.

Secondly, India has a diaspora population of seven million across the Gulf region that is central to the functioning of Gulf states. Modi tipped his hat to them in his speech at a stadium hosting 50,000 of the 2.6 million Indians in the Emirates. Noting the large proportions from a few southern states, he spoke in Malayali. Modi also visited a camp housing migrant laborers, underscoring concerns over their welfare.

Modi’s visit harnessed the high-profile, personalized, rock-star-like pizzazz typical of his international visits to recalibrate the UAE relationship. This could be the first step in steering India’s relations with Gulf states in a more strategic direction. While it may be one small step for Modi, the visit could herald India’s long awaited giant leap into the great game’s Middle Eastern theater.