India just found its first genuine ally in the Middle East. Earlier this week Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan announced the signing of 14 MoUs to enhance bilateral ties. This was days before the Crown Prince was an honored guest during the 68th Republic Day parade on the 26th, a Thursday, when a contingent of UAE soldiers joined the martial procession. Beneath the ambiguous official language of the MoUs was one particular linkage that could see Indian weapon systems transferred to the United Arab Emirates soon.
The UAE is the top destination for Indian migrant workers, whose skills are badly needed in construction, services, and logistics. India is also the second largest customer for the UAE’s natural gas and its second largest trade partner. Since 2015, however, there’s been a serious effort by New Delhi to cozy up with the federation that commands the sole choke point of the Persian Gulf.
It’s worth mentioning India isn’t pursuing any major foreign policy goals in the Middle East. But the 14 MoUs, whose scope is as varied as another collection of agreements with Russia last year, are specific to trade and the UAE’s entry into the subcontinent’s vast market. According to one Indian newspaper the crown jewel of the partnership is a $75 billion investment fund paid for by Abu Dhabi.
The MoUs did include three agreements related to defense matters. First was an overarching “strategic partnership.” Second was cybersecurity. Third and last involved state-owned arms industries.
The specific MoU related to the arms industries of the UAE and India offered few details. Media outlets simply described its scope as cooperation “…in armaments, defense industries, and transfer of technology.” While India does possess an enormous “defense sector” its counterpart in the UAE is a smaller affair called Tawazun Holding based in Abu Dhabi, from where President Khalifa al Nahyan commands the Union Defense Force or UDF.
Even with the mediocre track record of India’s arms industry its expertise in specific fields like munitions, shipbuilding, and missiles could prove valuable to the Emirates. It also counts as a win if Indian firms can service high profile contracts from the UAE, whose generous defense budget ranks it among the world’s top arms importers. The UDF in particular are now poised for expeditionary missions ever since its token role during Libya’s civil war in 2011 and subsequent deployments to Bahrain and Yemen.
But as MoUs go the fruits of these deals have yet to materialize.