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Op-Ed

UAE visit part of Modi’s Look East, Link West strategy

CNN-IBN

WPS Sidhu would like to wait and watch out the India-UAE cooperation on counter-terrorism is actually going to play out

This interview first appeared on 17 August 2015 on CNN-IBN. Watch the full interview here.

What is your assessment of the India-UAE counter-terrorism cooperation talks?
In many ways it is unprecedented but we will need to see how it is operationalised. In the past there were always statements of very close counter-terrorism cooperation, but now we know the different sets of challenges including recruitment of Indians into ISIS, for example. Even if there is a desire on both sides to work more closely together on counter-terrorism, the nature of the terrorist threat itself is changing. The question remains whether this strategic partnership is just going to play catch up or will actually be able to pre-empt some of the challenges that both the countries are likely to face.

With the UAE, our obsession in the past has revolved around Dawood, the D-Company, the underworld links etc. but if you look at this joint statement, Mr Modi tries to take it to a different level, ISIS included.
In that sense it is looking at it much more strategically. I’m not in any way discounting the value or the unprecedented nature of this particular strategic partnership and the joint statement. Where I reserve my judgment would be on how it plays out. Is there capacity in India to actually have this of joint cooperation and what are the pluses and minuses. We know that in some areas the UAE is certainly way ahead in some of the kind of abilities that they have. To what degree is that kind of cooperation going to play out in reality is one thing that I’d like to see.

Politically why is this visit important, both internationally and domestically, for the Prime Minister?
Although the Modi government has highlighted Neighbourhood First as the first priority, and then Act East as the second dimension, but Link West is a very important component that was missing in this grand scheme of things. In my opinion, I don’t think the three of them actually add up to a whole and stand to its own logic, but nonetheless all three are important elements, and that’s why the approach to West Asia was long overdue and we were already hearing pronouncements about outreach to Israel, for example.

Certainly the region has been very keen to engage much more closely with India. There have been a number of high-level visits, the latest by the Iranian Foreign Minister recently. It was important in India to reciprocate if it was to be taken seriously in terms of the Link West.

If you’ve seen the pattern of Prime Minister Modi’s visits, he’s rarely done single country visits, except in the immediate neighbourhood. This gives the impression that perhaps he could not go to other countries because they were not ready to engage or receive at that strategic level that has become a hallmark of Prime Minister Modi’s visits. For example, he was very keen to go to Saudi Arabia, but for some reasons that didn’t work out.

Every international visit has got a domestic constituency. The Biharis in the UAE, for instance.
I’m not quite sure what is the percentage of Biharis working in the Middle East, and particularly in the UAE, and it’s not insignificant. That’s an important element to keep in mind as well. Certainly there are domestic components to this, which a Prime Minister and a politician like Mr Modi would be very aware of.

A large chunk of his speech was about terrorism. An Indian Prime Minister in the Arab world saying that there’s no difference between the good Taliban and the bad Taliban, saying that there are countries which practice terrorism and part of state policy.
Let’s not forget that within the Arab world, there are countries are quite uncomfortable with the distinction that some of other countries are making, like Qatar, for example, which have negotiations in supporting the conversations with the Taliban. There is a nuance there. But he’s certainly playing in to some of that concern as well because UAE has been extremely cautious and successful about countering the ISIS threat. There’s a recognition right there. He knew he would get a very sympathetic ear to that perception.

What’s your opinion about the economic engagement, since the Crown Prince of the UAE has promised Rs 4.5 lakh crore of investment in India.
We need to see when and how it’s going to come through, and what is the capacity of India to actually absorb that.

About the speech itself, at 60 minutes, it’s probably one of the shortest speeches by Mr Modi. We just heard him speak for 90 minutes in his Independence Day speech. Secondly, there is a missing component on foreign policy in the Independence Day speech and we heard it today.

There is a bit of a contradiction between on the one hand celebrating, rightly, the breakthrough framework agreement with the Nagas through negotiations, but on the other hand also saying no negotiations with terrorists. You could make a distinction between cross-border terrorists and militants within the country, but he didn’t quite do that.

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