Monday, 30th October 2017

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Lessons from the past

The engagement between India and the Gulf has deepened

By Diplomacy - K.P. Nayar
  • Published 8.02.17
Narendra Modi at the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque, August 2015

The most valuable lesson on how to go forward in cementing relations between India and the United Arab Emirates after the visit of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, as chief guest at this year's Republic Day can be found in the pages of history of relations between the two countries.

Forty two years ago, Sheikh Mohamed's father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding inspiration for the UAE and its first president, visited Aligarh Muslim University and made a generous contribution to the university, which was then approaching the centenary of its original incarnation as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College founded by the social reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

It was Sheikh Zayed's wish that his contribution should be used to start petroleum studies at this 'institution of national importance' as declared by Parliament under the seventh schedule of the Indian Constitution. As a friend of India in need, Sheikh Zayed realized that New Delhi was reeling under the first oil shock of 1973. He foresaw that India had the potential to emerge in the long run as one of the biggest consumers of Abu Dhabi's main national resource, namely oil. He could also see for himself that India had the human resources needed for quality research and innovation on this valuable energy resource.

Perseverance by dedicated academics at AMU resulted in the setting up of a department of petroleum studies at the university. But it is a sad commentary on India's inability to put to optimum use the opportunities that are handed on a platter even in areas critical to the country's growth and well-being that it took eight years down the line to set up an Institute of Petroleum Studies and Chemical Engineering at AMU. Although Sheikh Zayed's gift was made in 1975, it was only in 1983 that the University Grants Commission sanctioned the creation of the institute. That too in what AMU euphemistically describes as a "phased manner".

The UAE commemorated its founding father's visit to AMU with a similar gesture of support for this university during Sheikh Mohamed's January trip to India, but that gesture got crowded out of public attention and appreciation amidst the pomp and celebration of the 68th Republic Day.

The Khalifa Foundation's gift to AMU last month, in cooperation with a UAE-based Indian healthcare company, V.P.S. Healthcare, is important because it shows the way forward in all areas for avoiding the kind of bureaucratic delays that bedevilled the setting up of a full-fledged petroleum institute at AMU even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi impatiently nudges his bureaucrats to realize the full potential of a diplomatic, economic and strategic alliance between India and the Gulf.

Wiser by the 1975 AMU experience - and similar instances across the world - the UAE is now increasingly opting for public-private partnerships in bringing to fruition joint ventures and humanitarian initiatives, which would otherwise fall by the wayside because of red tape despite the best of intentions. A two-million-dollar worth elekta synergy digital accelerator, which will aid cancer patients at AMU's Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, is an example of how public-private partnerships can avoid the past pitfalls of lost opportunities in India's ties with the Gulf.

Such partnerships are the way forward especially with countries like the UAE where a synergy between Indian businesses in that country and the local governments is simply waiting to be tapped. The idea of a state-of-the-art cancer treatment equipment for the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College came out of a visit by Shamsheer Vayalil, managing director of V.P.S. Healthcare, to AMU three years ago. A medical professional from Kerala who has specialized in radiology, Shamsheer was visiting AMU to receive an honorary doctorate awarded to him by the university. As a doctor, he naturally wanted to do the rounds of AMU's Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College.

Shamsheer returned to Abu Dhabi after visiting the medical college and discussed his experiences recalling the al Nahyan family's AMU links with Mohammed Hajji al Khouri, director-general of the Khalifa Foundation, a non-profit organization established by Sheikh Zayed's eldest son and current UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan. The Khalifa Foundation, which is active in 87 countries, aids initiatives in health and education: both education and health converged in Shamsheer's discussions with the director-general on working with the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College.

Then came along Sheikh Mohamed's Republic Day visit to India and V.P.S. Healthcare, together with the Khalifa Foundation, announced the two million dollar gift of cancer treatment equipment to AMU. Shamsheer narrated his experiences at AMU to this columnist on the eve of Republic Day, stressing that "the UAE and AMU share a special bond that began with the late Sheikh Zayed's visit to the university in 1975."

Mohammed Hajji al Khouri pointed out that the UAE's 'close ties with India in general and AMU in particular are not new. Sheikh Zayed's visit to AMU 42 years ago was in appreciation of the sterling role the university had played in the field of higher education in India for over a century. The visit of Sheikh Mohamed to India as chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations is in continuation of the close ties that Sheikh Zayed established with India, both at the levels of the governments and the peoples'.

The death of E. Ahamed, president of the Indian Union Muslim League, and the exile of Najma Heptullah from New Delhi as governor of Manipur are turning points in India's relations with the UAE, indeed the Gulf as a whole. Politicians like Ahamed and Heptullah capitalized on their Muslim identity and, in the process, held to ransom the all-round growth in New Delhi's engagement of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and other similarly placed countries, which all along looked up to India as a potential partner in their remarkable growth story.

Since Ahamed's death is fresh in memory, it would be in bad taste at the moment to narrate instances of how his myopic view of India's engagement of the Gulf stunted the flowering of what could have been a thriving, all-round relationship, which had everything going for it for reasons that are geographic, historical and pragmatic. As for Heptullah, the real surprise is that having pulled the wool over the eyes of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi over what she could do in the Gulf for India, she was able to do the same across the political divide with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and even a very discriminating and alert Modi and his external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj.

The new generation of rulers and younger ministers in the UAE who hail from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to mention two examples, while committed to genuine Islamic causes, have no hang ups about Islam in India which an older lot of Muslim politicians like Ahamed and Heptullah - and several others of their ilk - could exploit. Fortunately, their outreach to the Modi government coincides with the political rise of a secular Muslim, M.J. Akbar, as the minister in charge of the Gulf in the ministry of external affairs. Akbar can be counted on to go beyond the myopic perceptions in the past of every single Muslim minister who has handled the region in MEA notwithstanding the party in power.

Kuwait, Oman and the UAE actually reached out to Vajpayee as early as 1997 when he was in the Opposition, reflecting such a change in approach by even the previous generation of Gulf leaders. Perhaps the time for such sweeping changes in strategy had not come then. Oman was the first country to send a special envoy of its sultan, Qaboos bin Said, to New Delhi after Modi became prime minister.

It is a reflection of the success achieved by this special envoy, the veteran diplomat, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, that Sushma Swaraj soon chose Oman as the destination for her first foreign visit as Modi's external affairs minister. The enthusiasm with which the UAE and other Gulf states are reaching out to the Modi dispensation is proof that a change in approach in their engagement of India is being rolled out.