India envoy to UAE signs off having witnessed 'transformation' in ties
Navdeep Suri helped to prepare the groundwork for closer UAE-India cooperation
Navdeep Suri, India’s envoy to the UAE, retires this week from government service and a final posting in which he played a key role in drawing the two nations closer together.
The 60-year-old diplomat’s stint as India’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi was marked by frequent high-level visits between leaders and fresh ties in everything from port operations to defence and energy to space co-operation.
He returns home to India on Tuesday after 36 years in the civil service. That career took him to missions in Egypt, Syria, the US, UK, Tanzania and South Africa.
Mr Suri rates his three-year UAE stint as one of the most memorable.
It has been a privilege to be here at a time when a transformation was taking place in the relationship between these two nations
Navdeep Suri, India's Ambassador to the UAE
“It has been a privilege to be here at a time when a transformation was taking place in the relationship between these two nations," he said.
"To not only have a ringside view of history being made but also have a little role in shaping that history.
“There is a recognition on both sides that this is one of the most important relations for each country. It manifests in the attention it now receives from the highest level of government in both countries.”
President Sheikh Khalifa conferred the Order of Zayed II first class on Mr Suri last month in recognition of his contribution to relations between the UAE and India.
"I was deeply moved and gratified by the decision of Sheikh Khalifa to confer on me the award," he said.
“I recognise and appreciate this award is rarely given to a diplomat of a foreign country."
The action-packed final month of Mr Suri’s tenure reflects the brisk pace of dialogue.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UAE in September for the third time in four years and received the Order of Zayed, the nation's highest civilian award from Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for forging close ties between the two countries.
Sheikh Mohamed was the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations in 2017, his second state visit in less than a year. Before Mr Modi’s visit, Indira Gandhi was the last Indian prime minister to visit the UAE way back in 1981.
Senior Indian petroleum and commerce ministers also met the Rulers, government officials and UAE businesses this month to grow cooperation and resolve bottlenecks to investment.
“We have moved towards identifying new areas of opportunity,” said Mr Suri.
“This time we brought a team that outlined the government of India’s plans in areas like highways, infrastructure, civil aviation, petroleum and natural gas so each side can get a sense and find levels of interest.”
During ministerial visits, New Delhi formalised its support to the World Expo with about $50 million toward a pavilion on a large 1.2 acre plot that will be among the permanent installations when the expo ends in 2021.
“India has committed at the level of the prime minister himself to have a very major participation at the expo. This is in keeping with the size of our economic relationship and the profile of our bilateral ties,” Mr Suri said about the pavilion that would merge stories about emerging technology start-ups with India’s heritage.
“The government has pledged 3.5 billion rupees ($49.6m) upfront and we have welcomed Indian and UAE-based businesses as sponsors.
“We asked the Non-Resident Indian business community to come on board as a visible symbol of the connection between the two countries.”
Mr Suri’s successor Pavan Kapoor, currently envoy in Israel, will take up his new role later this month.
The UAE is India’s third largest trade partner with annual bilateral trade estimated at around $60bn.
The challenge for diplomats would be to stay in step with the leaders, Mr Suri said.
“This is a very dynamic relationship and the level of ambition that both Prime Minister Modi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed have is very high. For the diplomatic missions and our teams on ground it will remain a challenge to translate that vision into reality,” he said.
“The sky is the limit now and politically I expect the high level engagements will deepen even further.”
Three-year stint in Damascus in 1987 was “truly heartbreaking to see the state to which Syria has been reduced," Mr Suri said, in reference to the deep economy crisis and self-imposed isolation from the global economy at the time.
"We have the fondest memories of Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest, most historic cities on the planet.
“It was also the time of the first Gulf war that followed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. We had already completed our tenure and our baggage had been shipped out when war broke. We spent the next two months in Damascus living out of our suitcases and monitoring the deteriorating situation.”
After a Washington posting, he was second in command at the Indian mission in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1997.
“Dar was a tough place in those days with fairly basic medical facilities and limited availability of a range of essential goods and services," he said.
"The first few months were plagued by water scarcity and 18 hours-a-day power cuts. But we settled down and made friendships that will last a lifetime. Looking back, the wonders of Serengeti and Zanzibar seem more than fair compensation for the tough living conditions.”
He moved to London in 2000 as spokesperson and head of the press office at the Indian High Commission in Aldwych. On major stories such as the Gujarat riots, the terrorist attack on Indian parliament and the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, he conveyed India’s perspective to the British media.
As consul general in Johannesburg from 2006 to 2009 it was back to a focus on economic, commercial and cultural work.
“It may sound clichéd but meeting Nelson Mandela was truly something special," he said.
Back in India, he took charge of a relatively new public diplomacy division in New Delhi in 2009. Indian diplomacy accounts on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were created in 2010 and audio-visual material was digitized.
After his very first diplomatic assignment in Cairo in 1984, he returned as ambassador in 2009 during what he describes as a “turbulent time” working with the government of President Mohammed Morsi and then the interim government that followed.
Updated: September 30, 2019 09:48 PM