On this day, exactly a year back, on the rain-soaked streets of the Indian capital of New Delhi, history was made.
A contingent of 179 Emirati soldiers marched on Rajpath for the first time as a part of India’s 68th Republic Day parade, where His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, was the chief guest.
That moment of pride was the culmination of more than two years of invigorating diplomacy.
Celebrations erupted in the UAE on that day to mark the historic occasion — the Burj Khalifa was draped in Indian tricolours, as was the ADNOC Tower in Abu Dhabi.
Some jubilant Indian expats in the UAE skydived, others participated in cultural festivities.
Sitting ensconced amid a sea of white kandoras and black abayas on the barricaded precincts of Rajpath, I was awestruck on that morning at the sight of dozens of fluttering UAE flags and Brigadier Obaid Al Zahumi leading the march of the UAE Army in the heart of the Indian capital: The first Arab troops to march on the historic boulevard that connects the Indian presidential palace to the iconic India Gate.
The biting cold of a foggy Delhi morning was in sharp contrast to the ever warming ties between India and the UAE and the clear direction it is headed in.
Now, a year later, the UAE is getting ready to host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next month, for his second visit to the country.
The fourth high-level visit between India and the UAE in less than three years underlines the importance both countries attach to accelerating economic growth and maintaining regional peace and stability.
But between the visits, and beyond the grandeur of the celebrations, both the UAE and India have quietly forged deeper collaborations on a host of issues.
India-UAE relations now have a greater depth and diversity, are institutionalised within a strategic partnership based on shared ambitions rather than ad hoc goals and crises, and have created unprecedented momentum.
This is an extraordinary partnership at a time of global uncertainty, resurgence of protectionism, social strife and political flux.
The initial momentum to elevate the bilateral relations came from the comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) — signed last year by Shaikh Mohammad and Modi.
It is a fitting tribute to the UAE being home to the largest Indian diaspora as well as the decades-old relations between them. In less than a year, the first green shoots of the CSP and the 13 other agreements signed last year are already sprouting, and it’s most visible in the area of economic engagement.
The recent announcement of a $3 billion (Dh11 billion) investment by the UAE in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (Naif) is a clear sign of that.
The Naif, which was created as a vehicle to channel UAE investments into major Indian projects, has already garnered collaborations with DP World to create an investment avenue for ports, terminals, transport and logistics businesses in India.
The Naif also recorded the first closure of its Master Fund last year, with significant contributions from a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Indian businesses based in the UAE are also making increasing forays into India.
Another sector which is set for immense gain from bilateral synergy is space exploration and research. A perfect example of that synergy is the Nayif-1 nanosatellite.
Created by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre and seven Emirati engineering students at the American University of Sharjah, Nayif-1 was among the 104 satellites propelled into space last year by the Indian Space Research Organisation from Sriharikota in southern India.
Space, infrastructure, investments
As the UAE prepares to launch its ambitious Mars mission in 2021, cost-effective solutions and technology from the Indian space science fraternity will only help fuel its ambitions further.
Similar acceleration is expected in a variety of sectors — from maritime cooperation and renewable energy to protection of seafarers, roads, highways and infrastructure.
From Kandahar to the treacherous terrains of Yemen, the UAE has been as much a victim of terrorist and extremist attacks as India.
Both nations have therefore found common ground to assiduously build closer cooperation on counter-terror and security — with an increasing frequency of Indian naval ships calling on UAE ports.
From a people-to-people perspective, bilateral flights are booming, more steps are being taken to protect the rights of Indian workers seeking employment in the UAE; and the shared cultural heritage of both nations is being strengthened at its core. A new temple in Abu Dhabi for the Indian community is yet another recognition of the UAE’s proud values of tolerance and coexistence.
But there are obviously challenges ahead.
Navigating the complex trade and investment landscape of India has never been easy for any foreign partner. India’s significant jump in ease-of-doing-business rankings should pave the way for Emirati and other investors to overcome any potential hurdle.
As the UAE builds on its knowledge economy and creates a diversified economy beyond oil, India’s potential to emerge as the fastest-growing large economy in terms of its gross domestic product fits in perfectly with mutual economic goals and ambitions.
Bilateral flights remain yet another potential area for exponential growth — with tourists and businesses picking up pace in visiting both countries, the weekly seat capacity and reciprocal landing rights must be augmented to cope with it.
Way before the UAE and India established any formal diplomatic contact, their people had already set up robust relations — collaborating on informal trade to education to entrepreneurship or simply indulging in life-long friendships.
What makes this relationship really special is its centuries-old foundation based on people-to-people contact.
The rupee was common currency in the Arabian peninsula; many Emiratis travelled to India for higher studies or medical treatment; Bombay (now Mumbai) and butter chicken were as popular in many Emirati households as London and the lugaimat.
Conversely, many Indian traders and entrepreneurs who moved to the UAE in the early 1960s and 1970s now call the country their home and have become part of its social fabric.
Is it mere serendipity that all this is happening as the UAE celebrates the Year of Zayed?
For it is the UAE’s founding father who had foreseen the everlasting benefits of closer relations with India even before the official formation of the UAE, and said: “Our relations go back some 4,000 years when we had flourishing trade and commerce with India; and now that we are about to be independent, we would like these bonds to be restored and strengthened in every possible way — there are boundless possibilities for trade, commerce, even joint projects.”