Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
India and Pakistan, the two dominant actors within the South Asian political spectrum, have remained at loggerheads since August 2019, when the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The status of Jammu and Kashmir has been a political flashpoint between India and Pakistan since the two states gained independence from Britain. The bilateral relationship had already deteriorated after an attack on Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir sparked tit for tat air raids by Indian and Pakistani air forces across the contested Kashmir frontier in early 2019.
Yet in a surprising turn of events, the heightened political temperature between the two nuclear powers rapidly scaled down as both sides reached an agreement in February to abide by the 2003 cease-fire agreement across the Line of Control – the de facto border dividing the Pakistani- and Indian-administered regions of Kashmir. However, unlike previous episodes in which great powers, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, played a critical role in defusing bilateral tensions, the peace broker this time was a relatively smaller, yet influential, Gulf actor – the United Arab Emirates. The UAE had previously met resistance when it advanced the very same idea of bilateral dialogue, and the public discourse within Pakistan particularly became quite hostile toward the UAE. However, a mix of regional and international geopolitical developments as well as mounting political and economic challenges on the domestic front for both the Indian and Pakistani governments made the timing right for the realization of this Emirati initiative.
Pakistan had traditionally been a foremost partner and ally of the UAE. Officers from Pakistan’s armed forces played a crucial role in the development of the UAE’s defense infrastructure, in particular its air force. The UAE, for its part, regularly supported Pakistan in its foreign policy agenda, including recognizing the Taliban government in Afghanistan, prior to 2001, along with Pakistan and backing United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.
This Emirati approach toward South Asia gradually started changing with India’s emergence as an economic power. Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi and Emirati military intervention in Yemen in 2015 had a further negative impact on bilateral ties. At the same time, economic ties between the UAE and India strengthened and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day military parade in 2017.
More recently, a partial rapprochement between the UAE and Pakistan was made possible by the personal efforts of Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, which led to Mohammed bin Zayed’s first official visit to Pakistan in 12 years in January 2019. This new political goodwill translated into a financial package for Pakistan – the UAE deposited $2 billion into the State Bank of Pakistan as foreign currency reserves as Islamabad was pressed to make international debt payments. This was a significant boost for Pakistan and the new government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, which faced an increasing economic crisis. Nonetheless, the Pakistan-UAE relationship never fully recovered and geopolitical developments put it again in rough waters.
As India scrapped the special status of Kashmir, Pakistan reacted strongly and sent out for support from its traditional allies and partners in the Muslim world. The UAE sent its foreign minister to Islamabad in a show of solidarity but emphasized upon the Pakistani leadership that Kashmir remained a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and should not be made an issue of the Muslim Ummah, or community. This was a spectacular snub for Pakistan, which expected the bloc of Muslim states, perhaps unrealistically given the risks involved, to stand with it in its latent confrontation with India. The only words of requisite political support for Pakistan’s Kashmir stance came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while in August 2019, the UAE government honored Modi with the “Order of Zayed,” its highest civilian award.
These developments affirmed the strength of UAE-India bonds and their strategic nature but also underscored a shared aversion for Islamist politics and movements. Meanwhile, Pakistan enhanced its political and security linkages with Turkey, drawing itself away from its traditional Gulf-centered alignments. However, these foreign policy divergences never resulted in a total disruption in the bilateral channels of communication between Pakistan and the UAE. And unlike Saudi Arabia, in recent weeks the UAE extended its financial support arrangement with Pakistan. The Emirati ties with Pakistan’s security establishment also remained intact.
These established relationships between the UAE and both Pakistan and India positioned Abu Dhabi to facilitate bilateral engagement between the South Asian neighbors if there were to be an emergence of political will from both sides.
However, political will remained scant as India and Pakistan took hard-line stances and dug in on their respective positions. Modi’s right wing Hindu nationalist government constantly rejected the possibility of talks with a Pakistani state that it accused of abetting terrorist attacks in India. And the Pakistani government made it clear that any engagement with India would only take place once the special status of Kashmir had been restored. These maximalist positions on both sides however began to soften by early 2021 due to a number of reasons.
From an Indian perspective, the political status quo with Pakistan could have continued indefinitely, but the opening of the eastern Ladakh front with China in May 2020 and the resultant encroachment of Chinese troops onto Indian-claimed territory came as a political and strategic shockwave. China seized several hundred miles of Indian-claimed territory and gained a strategically advantageous position that could compromise Indian military positions in northeastern Ladakh. This episode effectively brought China back into the “strategic triad” vis-à-vis Kashmir. It was the first time since 1962 that the Indian military had to seriously evaluate the strategic nightmare of a two-front war involving both of its nuclear neighbors. Facing this challenge, India was forced to revise its policy toward Pakistan.
From a Pakistani perspective, the continuing challenges on the economic front, lack of options regarding Kashmir, and the political uncertainty brought to the Afghan peace process by a new administration in Washington were major factors supporting a policy shift on India. Perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, its national security stakeholders, for reasons unrelated to the Kashmir conflict, are emphasizing the importance of economic security for national sovereignty, necessitating a move away from geopolitics to geoeconomics. In short, evolving strategic doctrine in Pakistan, accentuating economics, may have affected more parochial calculations regarding Kashmir, despite the tenacious hold Kashmir has had on the strategic horizon. Pakistan could no longer afford confrontational policies and became receptive to an Emirati-brokered dialogue with India.
For the UAE, this diplomatic initiative with India and Pakistan puts another feather in its soft-power cap after the agreement of the Abraham Accords with Israel, and it offers another positive deflection point from its controversial military interventions in Libya and Yemen. This Emirati venture also helps to impress upon Washington the UAE’s significance as a regional partner in securing important U.S. foreign policy goals that ensure a stable and secure South Asia.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan remains a key regional flashpoint for the UAE. Despite its efforts and once holding a meeting between the United States and the Taliban arranged by Pakistan, the UAE has not been able to exercise the same level of influence or political relevance as it has exerted most notably in the Yemen conflict. This has been mainly due to the insistence of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh for the inclusion of Afghan government representatives in the U.S.-Taliban talks, which the Taliban refused and instead turned to dialogue with the United States in Qatar. The Afghan peace process has therefore remained a purview of Qatar and the new location for intra-Afghan dialogue will be Turkey, another regional rival for the UAE.
The Afghan end game and eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops could have implications for not only the immediate Afghan neighborhood but also the Gulf countries. The formation of a new interim government would lead to the departure of the current Afghan government and its figureheads, who have been the principal points of contact for Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Such a development alongside the emergence of a Taliban-dominated political order in Afghanistan could be prone to openings for both Iran and political Islamists of various strands while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will have lost their traditional influence. This will essentially mean that all the Emirati contributions toward the development and stabilization of Afghanistan since 9/11 as a U.S. coalition partner will have come to naught. Being left out of the current Afghan political process could also affect perceptions about the UAE’s efforts to establish itself as an indispensable player for mediating or otherwise shaping South Asia developments, both within the region and in Washington. Nonetheless, rehabilitating political and economic engagement with Pakistan and increasing engagement with various Afghan stakeholders can provide the UAE with some leverage on the Afghan file, enhancing its relevance for this conflict as well.
The changes within the South Asian political chess board are representative of the evolving strategic calculus of both India and Pakistan while also putting on display a greater Chinese impact on regional security dynamics. Whether these developments point to a structural change in the political contours of South Asia or to just another chapter in a long story of regional jockeying for influence and strategic advantage, the UAE is almost certain to continue to exert political and economic efforts, in pursuit of its own ambitions for influence and relevance, to play a long-term role in promoting peace and stability in South Asia.
is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
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