Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one-day visit on June 28 to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is as much about reiterating India’s economic and geopolitical commitment to the emirates it is about sending a message of reconciliation after the massive controversy over comments on Prophet Muhammad made by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma, sources in the know say.
The PM’s visit on his way back from the G7 summit in Germany has been put together to clearly send a message that India remains a close ally of nations in the region and is unwilling to let domestic politics come in the way of bilateral relations, senior sources said.
“It is about establishing trust not only with the governments in the region but also communicating to the people that India remains a key partner nation in the region,” one of them said.
Officially, the PM will be paying his personal condolences on the passing away of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Khalifa passed away on 13 May and India had declared a day of national mourning.
But sources said the visit will also serve to signal India’s commitment to the region in the wake of a damaging controversy. In the aftermath of the comments made by Sharma, every nation in the region had criticised the move.
“However, major regional powers such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia had quickly welcomed the Indian government action against the now-expelled BJP spokespersons. Later, Iran too expressed satisfaction over India’s action. The visit is a nod towards that as well,” a person aware of the matter said.
India has stated clearly that it does not tolerate insults targeted against any religion, and that freedom of religion is upheld by the government for all communities, but vested interests in many countries are looking to escalate the issue, officials close to the development told Moneycontrol.
They added that during Tuesday’s visit Modi will also take the opportunity to congratulate new UAE President and ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan on his election as the new leader of UAE and Abu Dhabi.
Incidentally, 2022 marks the 75th year of India’s independence as well as the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s foundation.
Placate irritated allies
Apart from the UAE, Modi’s visit will also serve to placate ally nations that have hitherto had good relations but have strongly protested against the remarks by Sharma, sources said. This includes Qatar and Kuwait, where politicians and influential citizens have increasingly questioned the BJP’s track record on communal issues.
Early in June, Qatar’s Shura Council, the country’s 45-member consultative parliament, had reiterated its demand for a public apology while departmental stores in Kuwait had begun to take Indian produce off their shelves.
While 20 nations, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan, have protested against India for Sharma’s comments, Qatar and Kuwait were the first to summon Indian ambassadors stationed in their countries and hand over protest notes.
The government has continued to point out that the monarchies of both nations, separate from the civilian governments, have not put out any statements against India. Qatar and Kuwait are both semi-constitutional monarchies with the hereditary emirs wielding significant power in governance and politics.
The PM was set to visit Kuwait and the UAE in early January. But the visit had to be cancelled due to the third wave of the Covid pandemic.
Modi’s visit to the UAE was announced on June 11. Officials said it has been much delayed, given that he was travel to the country first in January. On February 16, the prime minister had a virtual meeting with Sheikh Mohammed to discuss bilateral cooperation and exchange views on regional and international issues of mutual interest. In a major development, both sides had also officially announced the signing of a free trade agreement on February 18.
The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was the first major trade deal signed by the Modi government since coming to power in 2014. India expects it to especially boost the export of gems and jewellery, and apparel to the UAE and raise total trade to $100 billion in the next five years.
The UAE is India’s third-largest trade partner globally, after the United States and China. Bilateral trade between both nations stood at $43.3 billion as of 2020-21 and is spread across thousands of traded items. In 2019-20, the pre-pandemic year, trade between the two countries was estimated at $59 billion. The UAE is also home to 35 lakh Indian-origin persons.The PM has visited the country on three occasions now, the last being in August 2019.