India learnt nothing, forgot nothing in the Gulf

Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit the UAE on Aug 23-24, 2019

Media reports began appearing lately that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit the Persian Gulf region once again— this time around, to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Hopefully, the tour has a raison d’être despite its atrocious timing — when the waters of the Strait of Hormuz are so choppy and the world statesmen keep away. 

This will be Modi’s third visit to the UAE in the past five years. But he will be touching down on Bahraini soil for the first time as PM. 

For a head of government, Modi is a frequent flyer. Probably, no other world leader can match his record, including leaders of western countries that exercised overlordship of the region historically and/or have extensive, deep and highly strategic relations with the Persian Gulf, such as Britain, the US, France or Germany.  Modi has had as many as six “bilaterals” to the Persian Gulf region since 2015. 

India has vital interests in the region. But that doesn’t quite add up still for such excessive attention. One reason could be that Modi is still in the campaign mood and is wooing the Diaspora. It was from the local representatives of Bharatiya Janata Party in Bahrain that we first got to know the contours of the visit. 

According to those “well-placed sources”, Modi is expected to be accompanied by a “senior delegation” and will likely take part in celebrations marking 200 years of the Krishna Temple in Manama.

Both the temple visit and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi conferring on Modi the prestigious Order of Zayed are guaranteed to be glittering occasions. They will be televised live and beamed to the home audience.  

But, where is the beef? Clearly, every time PM embarked on a visit to Abu Dhabi, he pledged to take India-UAE ties to “new heights”. The hype that was created during PM’s last visit in 2017 — that the petrodollar state was to make massive investments in India — hasn’t materialised yet. And in the prevailing dismal state of our economy, which is descending into deep recession, the shrewd Sheikhs will think hard about our country as investment destination. (As for Bahrain, the small archipelago with a pop. of 15 lakhs (and no oil) of the size of Hamburg city, it gets along largely due to Saudi, UAE and Kuwait largesse plus “tourism” — plainly put, being a watering hole for wealthy Arab elites and the 6,000 US servicemen in Juffair naval base in search of R&R.)  

Weekend traffic jam on King Fahd Causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia

According to official Indian figures, there is an estimated US$10-11 billion UAE investment in India of which roughly half is in the form of foreign direct investment, while the remaining is portfolio investment. During Modi’s visit to UAE in August 2015, it was decided to establish a UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, with the aim of reaching a target of US$ 75 billion to support Emirati investment in “India’s plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks.” The two leaderships at the highest level have since “reviewed the progress”. That’s the last we heard of it. 

Of corse, the Sheikhs are legendary in their hospitality and the elaborate Arab courtesies are a moveable feast to the eye and human vanity of outsiders. For sure, Modi’s upcoming visit will generate lots of photo-ops. But at the end of the day, the big question is how far such gala spectacles turn out to be productive.

Alas, we are unable to tap optimally the vast reservoir of goodwill among the petrodollar states in the Persian Gulf. The primary reason is that those countries are used to expecting high world standards of economic partnerships —both in terms of efficiency and execution — whereas Indians are largely vacuous and don’t deliver. Compare, for example, the recent visit of the UAE Crown Prince to China. 

Without doubt, the Chinese have a “big picture” as well as a road map and they purposively move ahead and the UAE is eager to present itself as a regional hub for China’s Belt and Road and 5G technology — and this is despite the leadership in Abu Dhabi having wonderful equations with the Trump administration. See my blog Belt and Road takes a leap forward to the Gulf. 

For sure, the hype reappears in the formal announcement about Modi’s state visits to the UAE and Bahrain: “The award in the name of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, acquires special significance as it was awarded to Prime Minister Modi in the year of the birth centenary of Sheikh Zayed … The presence of over 3000 Indian-owned/Joint Ventures in Bahrain indicates the intense economic engagement between the two countries.” 

Did you know that – “3000 Indian-owned / joint ventures”? Talleyrand’s famous quote about the restored Bourbon dynasty comes to mind — “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”