In the final few weeks of his term as India's ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor called for testing rules to be relaxed for passengers travelling from his country to the Emirates.
Mr Kapoor has sought the removal of a rapid PCR test requirement at airports in India, with travellers tested within six hours of a flight to the UAE.
This is in addition to a mandatory PCR test 48 hours before departure and another test on arrival in the Emirates.
“I hope as we are facilitating the return to normalisation of air travel between the two countries – I’m hoping these regulations will ease up soon,” he told The National hours before heading to his next posting in Russia.
He said he was "very hopeful" the rules would be updated soon.
Emerging strong from the pandemic
The support extended by UAE authorities to Indian residents during the pandemic has deepened ties between the nations.
“The pandemic, which was the bulk of my tenure here, was a big challenge to us as a community, but I think we have come out of it stronger,” he said.
“We realised how supportive the UAE leadership is and we have been able to keep the relationship going even deeper.”
India is the one of the top source markets for the UAE, with more than 2.9 million tourists arriving in the country in 2018.
The numbers were affected over the past two years and flight schedules have not yet been restored to pre-pandemic levels.
Mr Kapoor said there was a strong interest among people in India to visit the Expo 2020 Dubai.
“The enthusiasm is high and I’m hoping the numbers will go up as we come back to our regular air services,” he said.
Massive repatriation of Indians from UAE
Mr Kapoor assumed his post in the UAE in late 2019, a few months before offices, schools and businesses closed to slow the spread of Covid-19.
He oversaw one of the largest operations to help Indians return home from the Emirates owing to job losses caused by the pandemic.
The repatriation drive was an important part of his two-year stint in the UAE.
“The massive repatriation exercise was certainly a big challenge, but again with the support of the government of India, our community here and the UAE government in a big way, we managed to move out a fairly large number of people,” he said.
“It was more than 600,000 people in the first four months and that was certainly a challenging time to make sure that people who were the most deserving got to go back to India.”
Both India and the UAE shut down air travel last year to stem the spread of Covid-19.
When flights reopened in May 2020, the elderly, pregnant women and people who lost jobs were given priority on chartered flights.
Construction, hotel, catering and jewellery companies also arranged flights for their employees.
“We had to ensure the most vulnerable and needy were sent back and these were in large numbers,” he said.
“There were also large groups of workers in labour camps where companies wanted to send them home, so we initiated charter flights.
"That was certainly a very trying time, but with the support of the community, the UAE ministries of foreign affairs and health, we were successful.”
The Indian community of about 3.4 million people is the largest group of foreign residents in the Emirates.
About 1.3 million Indians left the Emirates in 2020, but more than 1.1 million have since arrived, Indian government officials have said.
Mr Kapoor also faced the challenge of providing daily meals for workers without jobs.
That initiative was carried out in co-operation with Indian community groups and UAE authorities.
Health authorities in the Emirates also provided free medical care for people who contracted Covid-19.
“There was the urgent need to care for our people here because we [India] had shut down our own air space,” he said.
“There was a large vulnerable set of our people, the blue collar workers, who needed all sorts of help and provision of basic food items had to be organised.”
Memories of the UAE
The quick response from the UAE government in introducing a mass vaccination programme and opening up businesses has left an impression on the departing diplomat.
“One memory that I certainly take back is the fact that it’s been amazing to see how the UAE has coped with the pandemic, how they have been far-sighted and supportive of all residents and not just nationals in treatment and vaccination access for everyone,” he said.
“And also the ability of a small country to think far ahead in different fields, whether it is in the field of renewable energy while being a member of Opec or how to retain and even attract expats.
"These are things I will take back positively from my experience here.”
Trade recovery after pandemic
India is the UAE’s second largest trading partner, accounting for 9 per cent of the Emirates’ total foreign trade and 13 per cent of non-oil exports.
The countries are strengthening economic ties with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that aims to boost the value of non-oil trade to $100 billion in five years.
Mr Kapoor said the CEPA was set to promote direct investment, attract talent and boost engagement across sectors.
“We have extended ties in areas of health care and food security, but more recently with our negotiation for CEPA, this is something that will contribute to trade in a big way and help in the recovery for both countries as they emerge out of Covid,” he said.
Move to Russia
Mr Kapoor takes over as India's ambassador to Russia this week and must work quickly to prepare for a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi in December.
Mr Kapoor is fluent in Russian and looks forward to leading India’s mission in Moscow.
He worked in Russia and Ukraine for four years at the start of a diplomatic career that spans more than three decades.
“The first thing after I present my papers and credentials will be to go into a deep dive into issues on the bilateral agenda,” he said.
“My effort will be strengthening the India-Russia relationship, which is a special and strategic partnership.”