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  • Writer's pictureDetained in Dubai

Expanding Indo-UAE ties unsettling in light of Latifa incident

Indo-UAE ties to expand Emirates’ sphere of influence a troubling development, given UAE’s record of human rights abuse and disregard for the rule of law; reveals short term thinking of Modi govt

To anyone who has lived in, or even visited the United Arab Emirates, one thing is obvious: the country could not function without Indians. Foreigners often joke that the national language of the Emirates is Hindi or Urdu, not Arabic. Indeed, in the 1950s, rupees used to be legal tender in the UAE. An Indian official once quipped that Abu Dhabi was India’s cleanest city.

Aside from supplying the UAE with the largest portion of its work force, India has always been one of the Gulf nation’s most important trading partners. Under the government of Narendra Modi, Indo-UAE ties have deepened, sometimes in unorthodox, even troubling ways.

“In some ways, what is emerging is a replication in third countries of the model that already exists inside the UAE; that is, Emirati money utilizing Indian labour and expertise to develop successful, profitable projects,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and a leading international expert on the UAE, “The Emirates want to expand their reach and influence; they want to become a truly global player, and they see strategic partnership with India for development projects in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as the most effective way to achieve that.”

Delhi and Abu Dhabi are in talks to set up second strategic oil reserve in India with UAE's support, which will increase India’s access to funds for infrastructure projects and defence purchases. India and UAE plan to set up an IT centre in Ethiopia using Delhi's expertise and the UAE's financing, with still further projects in the pipeline. Now, typically, such civil development projects by the UAE are offered part and parcel with more aggressive types of investment that give the Emirates dominance in key economic sectors, control of ports, and approval of military installations. “This is particularly true in the Horn of Africa, where the UAE wants to have a powerful presence in connection with their ongoing military campaign in Yemen,” Stirling explains, “And in all these ventures, the UAE-India partnership plays a significant role.”

The increasing closeness of the two historical allies may have a dark side, however, Stirling warns, “Sheikh Mohammed, the UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, was able to recruit the support of India in an illegal raid of an American vessel in international waters back in March, in order to capture the Sheikh’s daughter, Latifa Al Maktoum.

"Latifa was attempting to escape the UAE after what she claimed were years of abuse at her father’s hands; she was seeking asylum, and wanted to travel on to the United States. No official protocols were followed, Sheikh Mohammed simply called Prime Minister Modi on the phone, and on that basis a joint military operation between the UAE and Indian Coast Guard was undertaken to violently raid the boat, abduct Latifa (who has not been heard from since), and detain all others aboard, one of whom was an American citizen.

"This constituted a gross violation of international law, maritime law, and every charter and treaty pertaining to Human Rights and bilateral friendly relations between both the UAE and India with the international community. The rationale for the attack given to the detained US citizen by an Emirati official was that Islamic Law had been violated. In other words, India assisted the UAE in imposing Sheikh Mohammed’s interpretation of Shariah Law on the open seas, well beyond the territorial jurisdiction of both countries. This is a serious cause for concern, when we see the UAE and India growing their combined sphere of influence in the region.”

While the UAE provides the financing for expansion, and India the human resources, it is expected that the Emirates will maintain control over how that increased influence is used. “When we have documented evidence of rampant human rights violations in the UAE; when we have an endless list of examples of wrongdoing by the Emirates’ legal system; when we see blatant disregard for the rights of foreigners in the UAE; and see increasing belligerence by the UAE in its treatment of key allies, such as in the recent outrageous sentence against British academic Matthew Hedges,” Stirling says, “No one can feel comfortable with the UAE spreading its presence across the region.”

India would do well to seek partnership more with the US, UK and Europe for a long term strategy for stability and development, Stirling suggests, “Just as innumerable Indian businesspeople have discovered, often too late; there is no security in a partnership under Emirates’ control. There may be short term benefits; like the UAE agreeing to extradite this or that suspect to India as a gesture of good will; but the endemic hubris of the government and the arbitrariness of the UAE’s behaviour will inevitably embroil India in disastrous controversies and conflicts that are against their long term interests.

"We have already seen this as the United Nations is currently seeking India’s explanation for their participation in the illegal raid on Princess Latifa’s boat. Prime Minister Modi can expect further such enquiries in the future if India continues to do the UAE’s bidding.”

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