ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — India's prime minister began a two-day tour of the United Arab Emirates with a visit to its largest mosque on Sunday in a gesture of outreach to Muslims ahead of a planned speech to tens of thousands of Indian expatriates and bilateral meetings aimed at improving already strong trade links.
Narendra Modi is the first Indian premier to visit the country in 34 years. He will hold talks on Monday with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who greeted Modi at the airport, and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Modi, who has come under fire for his party's links to hard-line Hindu groups, kicked off his visit with a tour of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Modi, a Hindu like most of India's 1.2 billion people, has long had an uneasy relationship with his country's roughly 120 million Muslims. His nationalist Hindu party swept elections and he was sworn in as prime minister in May of last year.
Modi also visited the grave of the UAE's founder Sheikh Zayed, who is buried in the mosque compound. Dozens of Indians gathered at the gates of the mosque to catch a glimpse of the prime minister, who took a selfie with two Emirati officials outside the mosque and posted the picture on his Twitter account.
The premier plans to deliver a speech Monday at the Dubai Cricket Stadium. More than 52,000 people have registered to attend, according to the local daily Gulf News.
In an interview published in Gulf News on Sunday, Modi acknowledged that "there is a mini-India in the UAE." The UAE, a federation of seven emirates, is home to about 2.6 million Indian expatriates who comprise a third of the total population and outnumber the local Emirati population. Annual Indian remittances from the UAE are estimated at $14 billion.
Modi said India is the UAE's second-largest trading partner and the UAE is India's third largest trading partner behind the U.S. and China. Trade between India and the UAE reached $60 billion last year.
Many Indians have made their wealth living in the UAE after settling here just as Abu Dhabi and Dubai were transforming from fishing ports into bustling investment hubs buoyed by the discovery of oil.
Indians are among the largest investors in UAE real estate, and have helped make Dubai International the busiest airport globally for international transit passengers, with more than 950 weekly flights between the two countries.
However, half of the 2.6 million Indians living in the UAE are migrant workers, according to the Indian Embassy. Many work in lower paying construction jobs, building the UAE's dazzling skyscrapers and shopping centers.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the UAE's treatment of migrant workers, saying that despite government efforts, some employers continue to withhold wages, confiscate passports and provide substandard housing.
After his tour of the mosque, Modi visited one of the UAE's largest labor camps in Abu Dhabi, where 50,000 migrant workers reside. He spent about 10 minutes shaking hands and talking with some of them in a gymnasium.
Dharmindar Singh, a 27-year-old security guard who lives in the camp, said that he never imagined he would get the chance to meet India's prime minister and shake his hand. Prasad Adepali, a 32-year-old security guard who has lived in the UAE for 13 years, said he felt "very proud" after meeting Modi.
Mohsko Ramu, a human resource assistant who has been working in the UAE for 15 years, said he told Modi about how expensive it is for most workers to visit their families back home.
"They cannot afford to buy the airfare, even if they are going once a year or even once (every) two years," Ramu said.
Batrawy reported from Dubai.