UAE and India should look beyond trade, oil and expats
Ground realities seldom change in the period between two visits of heads of state. But when the lag is as inexplicably long as three-and-a-half decades, as is the case with the Indian prime minister's visit to the UAE, the transformation of both countries is bizarre. In 1981, when prime minister Indira Gandhi visited here, the UAE's population was just a million, and India's 685 million. Today, the UAE's has nearly touched 10 million and India's population has doubled.
The UAE's GDP was $49 billion then and India's $196 billion. Both GDPs have recorded a 10-fold increase during the intervening period. And importantly, UAE-India trade was valued at about $180 million per annum (in the 1970s), but is now around $60 billion (after registering $72 billion in 2011-2012). As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the UAE, the relative prosperity of the two countries is equally prolific. Home to the second highest number of millionaires in the Middle East at 72,100, approximately every 125th person in the UAE is reportedly a millionaire. While hundreds of millions of Indians are still poor, there are now about 250,000 dollar millionaires, which could double by 2018, even touching a million by 2023.
Thus, the UAE and India have simultaneously recorded rapid changes to transform themselves from being mere players to becoming examples worth emulating on the global economic and political fronts. Though both have taken different paths towards independence and development, their historic experiences directed the formulation of foreign policies with several commonalities, the most important being conciliation, consensus and cooperation. It is to the UAE leadership's credit that it recognised India's importance as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council's ' Look East' policy. This was evident when the UAE's Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum visited India, not once but twice - in 2007 and 2010.
However, though India has often reiterated that the "Gulf region is part of India's natural economic hinterland," its UAE, Gulf and West Asia policy has played second fiddle in the quest to improve ties with the Western world. In a region that is bound by tradition (which the Chinese have mastered), a reciprocal prime ministerial visit should have been forthcoming earlier.