India's Modi hails 'unprecedented' UAE ties ahead of temple opening

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday said ties with the UAE had reached "unprecedented heights" as he started a visit to inaugurate the Middle East's largest Hindu temple in the Gulf state.

He spoke after the two governments signed deals, including a framework agreement on a major trade and transport route, at the start of his third trip to the United Arab Emirates in the past eight months.

His two-day visit comes ahead of India's national elections expected in April and is largely focused on galvanising the diaspora, according to experts, even though Indians in the UAE can't vote from abroad.

The UAE is home to about 3.5 million Indian nationals -- the largest expatriate community in the Gulf country.

Speaking at an Abu Dhabi stadium packed with 40,000 expatriates, Modi said "bilateral ties with the UAE are reaching unprecedented heights" as he vowed to boost the South Asian country's economy if voted back into office. "We have become the world's fifth largest economy from the world's 11th largest economy during my first two terms in office," he said. "It is my guarantee that we will be the world's third largest economy during my third term in office."

Modi was due to inaugurate the region's largest Hindu temple on Wednesday, a move he described as an "auspicious moment" in the making since the proposal was first made in 2015.

- 'Cultural bonds' -

Earlier on Tuesday, Modi met UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, their fifth meeting in eight months.

They signed several deals, including a bilateral investment treaty, building on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2022, India's foreign ministry said.

They also signed an "intergovernmental framework agreement" on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, a ship-to-rail transit network that will supplement existing sea and land routes.

The ministry did not elaborate on the deal which comes after an ambitious plan for a modern-day Spice Route was first announced on the sidelines of a G20 summit in New Delhi in September.

Ties have gradually deepened since a 2015 visit by Modi to the UAE, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than three decades.

The UAE is India's third largest trading partner, with a bilateral trade volume of around $85 billion between 2022 and 2023.

Before flying out to Qatar on Wednesday, Modi is due to deliver a keynote address at the World Government Summit, an annual gathering of political and business leaders in Dubai, the UAE's business hub.

But the highlight of his visit will be the inauguration of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Temple in Abu Dhabi, the region's largest.

It is the first Hindu temple in the UAE capital.

"The BAPS Temple is a celebration of UAE-India friendship, deep-rooted cultural bonds and an embodiment of the UAE’s global commitment to harmony, tolerance and peaceful coexistence," India's foreign ministry said.

- 'Broader narrative' -

Inaugurating a Hindu temple of this size in a Muslim country is significant for Modi and his Hindu nationalist government.

For Modi, "this visit will be focused on the diaspora", said Ian Hall, author of the book "Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy".

India's premier and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have sought to bring the Hindu faith to the forefront of public life since sweeping to power a decade ago.

The BJP is heavily favoured to win a third successive landslide victory in the upcoming elections, in part because of Modi's appeals to Hindu nationalism.

The new temple in the UAE helps "the Modi government's broader narrative" ahead of India's parliamentary elections, said Hall.

"It wants to show that it is a defender and supporter of the (Indian) diaspora throughout the world," he added.

"The diaspora could play a big part this year -- if they feel valued and appreciated, the BJP's hope is that they'll tell their family back home and encourage them to vote."

The opening of the Abu Dhabi temple comes just three weeks after Modi inaugurated a temple to the Hindu deity Ram, in Ayodhya in northern India.

It was built on grounds where a mosque had stood for centuries before being torn down in 1992 by Hindu zealots incited by members of the BJP.

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