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Last Updated Wednesday October 28 2020 07:36 AM IST

Modi's well-timed wade into the waters of West Asia

TP Sreenivasan
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Narendra Modi in his  West Asia visit Prime minister Narendra Modi waves the Indian community people, at iconic Dubai Opera in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: File photo

For prime minister Narendra Modi, no single journey has been so rich in symbolism and practical wisdom as his four-day trip to the four Islamic countries.

The sight of him traveling in a Jordanian helicopter to Palestine with Israeli air escort has been called 'history in the making' even by the usually matter-of-fact spokesman of the ministry of external affairs.

His visit to Ramallah took place within weeks of the triumphant visit to India by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was, by his own admission, part of his quest for political power by winning strong friends.

Although Pandit Nehru had visited the Palestinian territory, it was before Palestine was recognized as a state in 1988. So, PM Modi’s claim to became the first Indian prime minister to visit Palestine cannot be refuted.

Although the speech that PM made in Ramallah fell short of restating the traditional Indian position that Israel should withdraw to its 1967 borders and East Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, his words in support of an independent Palestinian state were categorical enough to deserve the highest Palestinian honor conferred upon him.

The real significance of the visit is that it has happened at a time when the entire West Asia is churning in volatility.

Not to be deterred by the advice of caution, PM Modi took the bull by the horns, causing speculation that he could play the role of the peacemaker in place of President Trump, who has burnt his boats with the Arab world by declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Despite the progress, the permanent members of the Security Council would never concede their prerogative for peacemaking in West Asia and president Trump still holds the key to the negotiations his son-in-law is pursuing in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, clearly in Israel’s interests.

The present configuration of relations in West Asia does not permit a fair peace process. But India being considered a possibility for the role is significant in itself.

India has not given any indication of its initiatives, though its balanced and realistic position on Palestine has attracted attention. Indian assistance to Palestine, announced in the wake of the US threat to cut off aide to it, thus has more than symbolic value.

Trade pacts

The PM’s visit to the UAE had special significance in more ways than one.

According to a local political analyst, “the last three years of political engagement between the UAE and India has resulted in an upswing of multi-dimensional strategic collaboration. If the past was about oil, trade and expatriates, the present is about food security for oil security, defence and maritime cooperation and teamwork in frontier science etc.

“ The future could well be about converting bilateral ties into multilateral cooperation. Further, Modi hosting the Israeli leadership in New Delhi and visiting Palestine just ahead of the UAE tour reflects the versatility of the Indian foreign policy, which seeks to balance competing and sometimes contradictory, interests.”

The World Government Summit in Dubai and the 'bhumi pujan' for the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi were significant enough to determine the time of the UAE visit, but the UAE-India Strategic Dialogue under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement was at the center of the visit as the comprehensive Joint Declaration revealed.

It covered extremism and terrorism, security, defence and space cooperation, energy and climate change, people and skill development, culture, education and tourism and international and regional cooperation. India’s concerns about the export of terrorism from one state to another and safe havens found a prominent mention in the Declaration.

It also enigmatically deplored 'the efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian color to political issues.'

This could apply to several sensitive areas.

The real highlights of the visit were outlined by the Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Suri, in a Facebook post.

'Every PM visit is accompanied by the usual slew of agreements and MoUs. We had two that, sort of, stood out. We got our first oil concession in the Gulf. An OVL led consortium got a 10 per cent stake out of the 40 per cent available in the Lower Zakum field. In a rich, producing field, it translates into roughly 2.2 million tonnes of crude per year for the next 40 years. And we also sealed, finally, the strategic petroleum reserve agreement, which means that we should soon have 6 million barrels of UAE crude in our caverns in Mangalore. The second one is smaller but significant in its own way. DP World will set up a major inland container terminal in J&K. Apart from the obvious benefit of improving logistics connectivity for J&K, the message from a UAE investment into J&K is significant.'

To this could be added a historic agreement which will enable businesses on both sides to bypass the US dollar or any other foreign currency and trade directly in UAE Dirhams and the Indian rupee. The agreement will mean large savings for business communities on both sides as trade between the UAE and India soars to new hieghts.

Clearly, the UAE visit showed that the trajectory of relations between India and the UAE, marked by frequent high level visits, was assuming the nature of a model for countries with different beliefs and political systems, caught in today's tumultuous world order.

The complementarities between them transcend religion, regional commitments and other traditional relationships.

It holds the potential for creating bonds among countries which wish to keep out of the emerging Cold War and build beneficial partnerships.

All the way to Oman

The Oman visit, too, had its importance because the special ties with the Arab nation preceded the new links with the UAE.

The wide-ranging discussions covered measures to strengthen cooperation in trade and investment, energy, defence, security, food security and regional issues.

India and Oman signed eight agreements, related to defence, health and tourism. PM Modi addressed nearly 20,000 Indian expatriates in Oman.

During his address, he criticized the previous Congress governments saying India's image had suffered due to scams and that his government worked hard to change the 'style of misgovernance'. PM Modi said that ties between India and Oman remained strong and that the Indian community in Oman played a key role in strengthening the ties. He visited the 125-year-old Hindu temple and the Grand Mosque in Muscat.

The highlight of the trip was the pact signed between the two countries during Modi’s visit, which will give India a foothold in its extended neighborhood.

The Duqm port will act as India’s entry point to wider West Asia and Eastern Africa, a welcome development at a time when China has deployed strategic assets in the Indian Ocean Region.

Though the visit to Jordan was in transit, PM Modi was warmly welcomed.

Jordan is key to the peace process in West Asia and PM Modi did well to establish connections with Jordan at this time.

Prime minister Modi has often been accused of turning his foreign visits into glittering stage shows that lack substance. But his visit to West Asia was well-timed, well-planned and executed with finesse.

His 'hugplomacy' happened to be in harmony with the Arab tradition, unlike in some other cultures, where it had appeared inappropriate. In symbol and substance, the visits to West Asia turned out to be worth the money and the effort.

(The writer is a former diplomat and the deputy chief of the council for higher education in Kerala.)

Read more from the exclusive T P Sreenivasan column | Indian dilemma in Maldives

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