Hindu monks walk down the stairs of the first stone-built...

Hindu monks walk down the stairs of the first stone-built Hindu temple in Abu Mureikha, 40 kms, 25 miles, northeast of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. The soon-to-open BAPS Hindu Mandir signals just how far the United Arab Emirates has come in acknowledging the different faiths of its expatriate community, long dominated by Indians who power life across its construction sites and boardrooms. Credit: AP/Kamran Jebreili

ABU MUREIKHA, United Arab Emirates — Pink sandstone spires decorated with deities and the pious soar above what was once a barren patch of desert between Abu Dhabi and Dubai — now the site of the first stone-constructed Hindu temple in the Middle East.

The soon-to-open BAPS Hindu Mandir signals how far the United Arab Emirates has come in acknowledging the different faiths of its expatriate community, long dominated by Indians across construction sites and boardrooms. The temple nods back in its seven spires, the number of sheikhdoms in this autocratic federation on the Arabian Peninsula.

It is also a sign of how close relations have become between the UAE and India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive Tuesday on his seventh trip to the Emirates just ahead of elections in the world's largest democracy. He hopes to further business, defense and cultural ties while cementing his relationship with a man he calls his brother, UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“Modi is not going to travel widely this year before the election,” said Viraj Solanki, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The fact that he is willing to go to the UAE shows how important this relationship is for India.”

The Hindu Mandir stands out in the emptiness of Abu Mureikha, otherwise known for being where the UAE's sheikhdoms agreed in 1976 to have a unified military. Just off the main highway linking Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the temple is made of sandstone imported from India’s Rajasthan state. Inside, Italian marble shines.

Smaller temples have existed for decades in the UAE, but none following the traditional building techniques of the Hindu Mandir. Its carved stones fit like a jigsaw puzzle and provide support without relying on the steel beams of modern architecture.

Hindu monk, Swami Akshaymunidas, one of the main designers of...

Hindu monk, Swami Akshaymunidas, one of the main designers of the temple, poses for a photo under the dome of the first stone-built Hindu temple in Abu Mureikha, 40 kms, 25 miles, northeast of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. The soon-to-open BAPS Hindu Mandir signals just how far the United Arab Emirates has come in acknowledging the different faiths of its expatriate community, long dominated by Indians who power life across its construction sites and boardrooms. Credit: AP/Kamran Jebreili

Stone dioramas ring its exterior, beginning with a scene in 1997 with a Hindu leader, shaded by an umbrella, in the sands of Sharjah calling for a temple in Abu Dhabi. The last is a tiny UAE in relief, with religious leaders in front of a temple and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building.

Elephants, oryx and other animals abound. Also seen are symbols relating to ancient Egyptians and Mayans and architectural nods to Islam, the UAE's official religion. Builders hoped to show all faiths are welcome at the site where Hindu worshipers will be able to pray before deities representative of Hinduism's different denominations.

“Harmony is the only future we have," Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, a religious leader overseeing construction, told The Associated Press. "If we cannot coexist on this small planet that we have, then do we have a future?”

Of the over 9 million people living in the UAE, India estimates more than 3.5 million are Indian expatriates, making them the largest group of people in the country, including Emirati citizens. While many are low-paid laborers, there’s a growing number of white-collar professionals and multiple generations of Indian families.

Hindu monks talk to each other at the first stone-built...

Hindu monks talk to each other at the first stone-built Hindu temple in Abu Mureikha, 40 kms, 25 miles, northeast of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. The soon-to-open BAPS Hindu Mandir signals just how far the United Arab Emirates has come in acknowledging the different faiths of its expatriate community, long dominated by Indians who power life across its construction sites and boardrooms. Credit: AP/Kamran Jebreili

Modi’s visit highlights the nations' long-standing economic and historic ties, from spice selling and gold smuggling in the UAE’s formative years to tens of billions of dollars worth of annual bilateral trade today.

The countries signed a free trade deal in 2022 aimed at doubling their bilateral trade to $100 billion. India remains a key buyer of Emirati oil, while the UAE hopes to boost its local industries. The countries have agreed to allow India to settle some payments in rupees as opposed to dollars, lowering transaction costs.

The relationship also underscores the Emirates' realpolitik foreign policy. The UAE has embraced Modi as Muslims in India increasingly come under attack by Hindu nationalist groups. Modi received the Emirates' top civilian honor in 2019 even as he stripped statehood from the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

Modi's original visit to the Emirates in 2015 was the first by an Indian prime minister in 34 years.

His personal connection to Sheikh Mohammed seems to be driving the deepening relationship, Solanki said. In January, the Indian and Emirati armies held the first edition of a military exercise called Desert Cyclone in India.

“It just enables the trust levels and the two sides being more willing to work on these sensitive issues," Solanki said.

The Abu Mureikha temple is one of many built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha or BAPS, a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect. Modi has close ties to the organization and one of its transformative leaders, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who died in 2016.

Officials put the price of materials for the temple at just under $100 million, but BAPS relies on volunteer labor, which blurs lines between uncompensated work and the concept of selfless service. A 2021 U.S. civil lawsuit alleged forced labor, meager wages and grim working conditions at a BAPS temple in New Jersey. The suit was on hold as of late last year pending a U.S. federal investigation.

A visit Monday by AP journalists saw volunteers preparing for Modi's visit to the temple, with monks in seamless saffron robes shifting around bouquets of flowers. Pujya Brahmavihari Swami praised Sheikh Mohammed and Modi for their cooperation.

“The leadership of the UAE ... has been so generous and supported us," he said. "The leadership of India, the prime minister, he thinks not just of trade, he thinks beyond — that the exchange of culture, the exchange of values, is equally important.”

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