The Prime Minister’s Office and South Block are busy planning a visit of PM Manmohan Singh to the United Arab Emirates later this year. Officials in New Delhi are calling it a “thanksgiving” visit because of the considerable assistance provided by the UAE authorities to Indian intelligence agencies in the last year.
The arrests of wanted terrorists like the man who guided the 26/11 terrorists over a satellite phone from Pakistan, Syed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal alias Abu Hamza, bomb expert and key Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, Abdul Karim Tunda and Indian Mujahideen co-founder who planted the bomb at Pune’s German Bakery, Yasin Bhatkal, wouldn’t have been possible without UAE’s assistance.
This visit is being viewed as at least as crucial – if not more – as his visits to China and Russia in the third week of October. India is the UAE’s largest trading partner, while the federation of seven emirates is one of India’s major trading partners and also one of its top five sources of crude oil.
The PM’s visit to Abu Dhabi would also be the first visit to the UAE by an Indian PM in over three decades, and will take forward the recent vibrant security and economic cooperation between the two countries. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the UAE way back in 1981.
South Block hopes the visit would serve another purpose, if it is scheduled for November – somehow clash with the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) Summit that Colombo is hosting from November 15 to 17.
It has been evident for sometime that the PM cannot visit Sri Lanka because of domestic political reasons. The Congress party and its ally, DMK, could lose whatever chances they have of improving their tally of seats in Tamil Nadu in next year’s general elections if the PM were to visit the island nation. South Block, understandably, is wary of committing to anything at the moment.
“Our view has been that we will take a call on this issue in due course and this has also been reflected elsewhere, including by the organizers. We will take a call well in time and we will also inform you (the media) on this,” said External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.
Unfortunately, the Sri Lankans have so far turned a deaf ear to New Delhi’s fairly loud signals about the PM’s unavailability to visit Colombo for CHOGM. In mid-August, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his Foreign Minister GL Peiris to New Delhi to hand over an invitation to Manmohan Singh to attend the CHOGM Summit. Dravidian parties protested inside Parliament, demanding that the PM skip the CHOGM Summit as Colombo was yet to deliver on its promise of devolution of powers to the Tamil minority.
The PM also failed to mention CHOGM as one of his impending foreign visits this year during his onboard media interaction while returning from Saint Petersburg after attending the G20 Summit earlier this month.
He is slated to visit Washington DC on September 27 for a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama. He will then proceed to New York to address the UN General Assembly on September 28, and will meet Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on September 29. October will also be hectic for the PM. He will be in Brunei on October 9 and 10 to attend the ASEAN Summit, then travel to Jakarta for the India-Indonesia bilateral summit and then again to Moscow for the India-Russia annual summit. On the way back, he will stop over in Beijing.
However, the PM’s November calendar is comparatively open with only the CHOGM Summit on the anvil, which New Delhi is desperate to skip.
A thanksgiving visit to Abu Dhabi is important to strengthen India-UAE commercial ties and for the assistance that the UAE has given Indian intelligence agencies in the arrests of wanted terrorists like Tunda, Bhatkal, Jundal and several other lesser-known catches.
But Indian diplomats and intelligence agencies are busy working towards the biggest catch of them all. Dawood Ibrahim, wanted by in India for masterminding the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts that killed over 250 people, and his network has had UAE as its base in the past.
India thinks the UAE and the US can help New Delhi get Dawood even though he is believed to be in Pakistan. “We have arrested some most wanted terrorists (of late) and have killed a few on the border. As far as Dawood is concerned, we are in touch with the FBI,” said Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde earlier this month. He said there was already a red corner notice against Dawood. “We have proposed a joint action with the US (to arrest him). US Attorney General Eric Holder has also agreed to this,” said Shinde.
Beyond the counter-terrorism cooperation, India and the UAE have vibrant commercial relations. Their bilateral trade is a respectable USD 75 billion, the biggest that the UAE has with any country. Over 1.75 million Indians work in the UAE, constituting 30 per cent of its population. In yet another signal of closer economic ties, the Indian cabinet in early September cleared a bilateral civil aviation agreement between India and the UAE, paving the way for Etihad to buy a 24 per cent stake in Jet Airways. Singh was scheduled to visit Abu Dhabi in March on his way back from the IBSA Summit in South Africa. However, the visit was postponed.
The PM had skipped the last CHOGM Summit in Australia in 2011, as well, ostensibly because Canberra refused to supply uranium to India while having no problems continuing to sell to China. Vice President Hamid Ansari represented India at that CHOGM Summit. The CHOGM Summit will be attended by UK PM David Cameron, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and heads of states of most of the 54 member states.
The PMO hopes the visit to Abu Dhabi in addition to the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will convince Colombo of the compulsions of the PM for skipping the summit, being occupied with his domestic and foreign engagements.
South Block sources privately warn that spurning Sri Lanka may nudge it further towards China. But a catch as big as Dawood Ibrahim would be a political masterstroke for an embattled UPA as it heads into an election year.