As I See It – Closing up the Gulf: India can be the new market the Arabs are looking for

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 03, 2016. (Photo courtesy / Flickr)
By KC Singh

The Saudis and Emiratis are finally seriously looking to invest in India. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is the third-biggest sovereign fund in the world, behind the trillion-dollar Norwegian and $900-billion Chinese funds. It has been wooed for long, but India so far presented investment challenges for sovereign funds, says the author.

Analyzing the Indian foreign policy from the nation’s Capital has the virtue of local input, but in the end, it has an echo-chamber effect. A three-day visit to the UAE, at the invitation of the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation to deliver a keynote speech at the AVSEC — a biannual aviation security gathering of global actors — gave one a chance to reassess the Gulf, the West Asian region and India’s place in it.

Firstly, the Sunni-Shia divide is now layered with a Sunni-Sunni split, with Turkey aligning with Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While Qatari economy is bleeding, the slowing down of the UAE economy is palpable. Property prices have fallen in Dubai after recovery from the 2008 downturn. In Abu Dhabi, despite deeper oil revenue-laden pockets, the excess supply of property is compelling the government to quietly bar display the of ‘to-let’ signs. Yemeni intervention alongside Saudi Arabia is taking its toll on finances and people. Arabic newspaper Al Khaleej, on October 11, had extensive visual coverage of pictures of children of ‘martyrs’ being consoled by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed. UAE military planes apparently have been ferrying the injured Yemeni civilians for treatment to Indian hospitals. An Indian Abu Dhabi-based tycoon has combined sycophancy with profit by directing them to his son-in-law’s recently acquired chain of Delhi hospitals.

Secondly, the newly elevated Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is tightly aligned with and advised by his namesake, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. This is a far cry from the old narrative of Sheikh Zayed, the creator of modern UAE, having resisted the Saudi annexation of Al Ain. The bonhomie between the two heirs to thrones is a product of shared concerns about Arab Spring uprooting their autocratic regimes. It was enhanced by resentment over President Obama unshackling Iran, by a nuclear deal with it, to facilitate the fight against the IS in SyriaIraq. Their collective lobbying with the Trump team, even before Trump assumed office, helped draw him to the Riyadh summit, where he reversed Obama’s Iran doctrine, treating it as a selective partner rather than a permanent antagonist. The consequences of this flip-flop are still playing out negatively.

Thirdly, the UAE has taken badly Pakistani reluctance to send troops to Yemen as it thought Nawaz Sharif owed it a debt for having intervened with President Musharraf in 1999, in combination with Saudi Arabia, to organize his exile rather than incarceration. The Indian Government and PM Modi are using this disenchantment to cement relations with the Saudis and Emiratis. Incidentally, Musharraf divides his time between a fancy house in the elite Dubai neighborhood of Emirates Hills, and London. There are whispers that Modi is headed to the UAE again early next year, to further isolate Pakistan from its erstwhile allies and please Malyalis in Kerala where the BJP is desperately seeking a political toehold.

The Saudis and Emiratis are finally seriously looking to invest in India. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is the third-biggest sovereign fund in the world, behind the trillion-dollar Norwegian and $900-billion Chinese funds. It has been wooed for long, but India so far presented investment challenges for sovereign funds. When the UAE did make a significant investment via its telecom giant Etisalat in an Indian partner, the 2G spectrum scam hit the deal. Special purpose vehicles were attempted to channelize incoming funds, but to little avail. Now, it seems an arrangement to the satisfaction of both sides is in the works. Even defense cooperation is possible as India has allowed the private sector to tap technologies, including from the West, narrowing thus the gap between Gulf countries’ desire for cutting-edge defense equipment and India marketing largely antiquated stuff.

Saudi Aramco CEO indicated the new approach, saying that they were looking at ‘mega investments’ as India was now a ‘market of investment priority and not a choice anymore’. India, on its part, is diversifying its procurement base with the arrival of the first cargo of US crude. The Gulf oil industry, seeing the US now as a competitor rather than a hungry consumer, is turning to India and China. Saudi Aramco has just opened an India office. Saudi King Salman has visited Russia. The Saudis are trying to have Russia agree to an extension of an earlier deal on production cuts to help oil price recovery. But the split with Qatar and Iran remains at the heart of any OPEC strategy as, indeed, US shale gas and oil production.

Sheikh Zayed once told a visiting Indian dignitary the story of an Arab shepherd losing a sheep every week to wolves. He was advised to keep dogs. He did, but then discovered he had to slaughter a sheep any way to feed them. The wolf in this case is the US, merrily selling new weapons systems to both sides, while merely rattling its sabre at Iran. India has to realize that excessive bonhomie with the UAE and Saudi Arabia will complicate its ability to engage Iran and Qatar. Euphoria over the allotment of temple land during Modi’s last trip to the UAE is mere theatre as Sheikh Zayed had quietly earmarked a huge site for a cremation ground in 2002, which would have had a temple. Sheikh Mohammad is merely continuing his father’s tolerant and inclusive policies and not making a special gesture for PM Modi, or India.

The Saudi-Emirati alliance will get tested first in how the Yemen war turns out. Using Trump to bait Iran will only exacerbate matters. The succession in Saudi Arabia may yet be contested, despite UAE support for Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Dubai ruler, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid, is quietly watching the impact on his city’s connectivity to the entire region curtailed. He has the maturity and guile of the founders of the UAE — his own father and Sheikh Zayed. The younger power wielders i.e. the two Mohammads in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have overplayed their hand and the region awaits resolution. The wolf, meanwhile, continues to howl, unconcerned about the uncertainty he causes. PM Modi must study the maze before recommencing his ‘huggy-feely’ journey through it.

(The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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