What's in it for Modi to visit Palestine?

The prime minister's three-nation tour of Palestine, the UAE and Oman will begin from February 9.

 |  5-minute read |   08-02-2018
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After the lovefest with Israel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is turning his attention to Palestine and the Gulf neighbours. Despite India’s historical support for the Palestinian cause, no Indian prime minister has ever visited that country. 

On Saturday (February 10) when Modi lands in Ramallah he will be the first Indian sitting PM to make an official visit. From here he will go to the UAE and Oman in a clear message that despite the hype and hoopla about the personal equation between Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestine as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries continue to be vital to India’s strategic interests.

The Modi government has taken care to de-hyphenate Israel-Palestine ties. The earlier norm was for all Indian visitors to take in Tel Aviv and Ramallah together, much like western visitors in a trip to South Asia would throw in New Delhi and Islamabad. This annoyed India no end as it seemed like an attempt to box in India into the sub-continental bracket. New Delhi always saw itself as a major power not to be hemmed into a matrix with Pakistan.

Taking it from here, India is careful now not to link the two. Before Modi’s visit to Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas was invited to India on a state visit to make the larger point that Modi had not forgotten the traditional support to the Palestinian cause. This was reinforced by India’s surprise vote against the US at the UN in December against Washington’s decision to shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

mo-pa_020818024817.jpgImage: PTI file photo

Prime Minister Modi’s three nation tour of Palestine, the UAE and Oman is from  February 9 to 12. His first stop will be Ramallah. He will travel to Ramallah via Amman with Jordan providing the logistic support for the transit. Unlike Pranab Mukerjee, who spent a night in Ramallah during his 2015 presidential visit, Modi’s is a day-long trip. After laying a wreath at the Yasser Arafat Museum, the PM will hold talks with President Abbas and his team. At a news conference on the visit, joint secretary (West Asia and North Africa division)B Bala Bhaskar explained the importance of Modi’s visit to Palestine.

"Number one, PM's going itself is reiterating our commitment personally to the Palestinian leadership, I mean our commitment for the past 70 years, the PM is going there and he is reiterating and he is expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people directly,’’ India, he pointed, out was also "continuously participating in the Palestinian nation-building and capacity building, infrastructure".

So far, India has undertaken projects worth $30 million. A clutch of MOUs will be signed during Modi’s visit. The prime minister will also visit the India-Palestine ICT park, which is under construction and expected to create employment for young Palestinians.

Prime Minister Modi will fly to the UAE from Ramallah. Here, as also in Oman, apart from the political discussion, the focus will be majorly on the economy. With national elections just a year away, the government is going out of its way to bring in investments for job creation, a major election promise of the PM which has not taken off.

In fact, MEA spokesman Raveesh Kumar admitted that: "The prime minister’s visit is being undertaken as part of larger exercise to fulfil the government’s domestic and international agenda and also to bring some benefit to the people on the ground, to the common people. I think there are certain elements in the programme where there will be direct benefit to the people."

Since Modi became the prime minister in 2014, India’s engagement with the rich Gulf region has shown an upward trajectory. India’s stakes in the region are high with as many as nine million Indians working in the region. These workers send back as much as $35 billion to their families back home. The six GCC countries account for 20 per cent of India’s bilateral trade and amounts to roughly $110 billion. Again 50 per cent of India’s oil is bought from the region. As much as 60per cent-65 per cent of energy requirements like natural  gas are also sourced in the GCC.

GCC members are also cash rich and looking to move away from oil revenue. India is a lucrative destination and now more and more Gulf business houses are looking to invest here. During Modi’s earlier visit to the UAE in August 2015, the hosts had promised to invest $75 billion in India. Although the MEA refused to give the exact amount of investments that have so far flown,  Mridul Kumar, joint secretary Gulf (MEA), said the FDI from the UAE has gone into "hardcore infrastructure areas, areas which are very critical to not only for the development of the country but also to making sure that these developmental fruits are passed on to individuals who are at the bottom of our society." He was referring to the UAE investments in low-cost housing.

Oman will be the last leg of the prime minister’s visit. It is the first Gulf country to have formal military ties with India since 2006. The  navy and air force  of the  two countries hold regular exercises and the Indian Navy has berthing rights in Muscat and uses Oman’s portfor anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The defence agreement with Oman help the projection of the Indian Navy to the Gulf region and adds to the country’s maritime reach.

In short, the PM's visit, while mainly economic, will also lend depth to New Delhi’s growing defence co-operation with the Gulf region, considered as India’s extended neighbourhood. Like successive Indian governments, Modi is also delicately balancing ties with Israel as well as Palestine and the Arab world.

Also read: Dear Modi, this is why Andhra Pradesh loves you


Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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