The Increasing Role of Middle East Diplomacy in South Asia

Recently, in a sudden revelation the United Arab Emirates (UAE) envoy to the US revealed that his country is in the process of initiating dialogue and discussions between India and Pakistan. In course of a virtual discussion, he talked about UAE desire to help the two countries to have a functional and operational relationship, accepting that they might not turn out to be the best of friends in recent future.

Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba confirmed that his country played an important role in bringing down the tensions on the borders. The UAE was also instrumental in the sudden and unexpected Line of Control (LOC) border agreement on 25th January. It was followed up by the visit of UAE foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to New Delhi and Islamabad subsequently.

The powerful Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa who virtually holds a veto in military and diplomatic issues also voiced his support to the development when he publicly talked about “to bury the past and move forward” for two nations. There have also been reports of secret parleys on the issue among top intelligence officials from Research & Analysis Wing (RAW, India) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI, Pakistan) in Dubai in January.

Surprisingly whereas Pakistan has for years been demanding the role of a third-party in promoting interaction and discussions with India, the latter has been explicitly against it. It has been the consistent stand of India under successive governments that the two neighbours can and should talk to each other and resolve all outstanding issues, including Kashmir (the core issue for Pakistan) and terrorism (the major issue from Indian perspective).

However, even after media revelation, the Indian government did not show its opposition to the ongoing third-party role in a purely bilateral relationship, indicates times and situation have changed. What prompted this significant change in Indian stance, could be seen from the evolving geopolitical realities in the region and around.

With a greater uncertainty looming in Afghanistan as the US prepares to leave the country in a few weeks or months, the stakes have become greater for all regional powers and neighbours. For Pakistan, of course, a government of its choice there could well help it to run the politics, economy and diplomacy of its interest/choice. More importantly, it would try to reduce the Indian influence and interest in Afghanistan and finally, prevent allowing India to use the country as a strategic point in its tactical battle. It could also help China gain a greater foothold, which of late, has become very keen on exploring and exploiting Afghanistan, economically/commercially and strategically.

Turkey also has its commercial, ideological and strategic interests in Afghanistan while another neighbour Iran, would like to promote its own brand of Islamic ideology and commercial interests there. The lone superpower in the region Russia, however would prefer using the country to promote a friendly and stable government who could cater to its politico-strategic interests there.

India also has plenty of stake in Afghanistan. It needs a stable, moderate and economically open government that could provide a market for it. Already India has a positive image among Afghan populace, administration and even among many of the militant groups. It already has made a substantial economic, commercial and political investment in the country and wish to see a friendly government that will not provide sanctuary to Pakistani and Kashmiri terrorists, using it to target India.

Further, India would be uncomfortable with a highly religious, pro-Pakistan government there that could be misused from time to time by its western neighbour. It also has made significant investments in training of Afghan police, military and administration. The common Afghan people moreover, are also enamoured by the globally popular Bollywood movies and songs that India uses as a means to develop people-to-people relationship. It would be uncomfortable in seeing government driven by religious ideology and promoting Pakistani strategic interests there.

So Afghanistan could be an issue that has made a change in Indian thinking. The other issue could be the continuous tensions and build-up on the Chinese borders. The June 2020 military skirmishes in Ladakh has made India extremely suspicious of Chinese. The evolving post-Corona global order where the middle kingdom is trying to usurp the position of Russia, by emerging as the second superpower and its manoeuvres in south China Seas and against Taiwan, all have made India to think about a real-life two-front war on eastern and western borders.

While the scenario has been perceived and gamed about in Indian military circles for years now, the reality is it could well stretch India to its economic and military limits. As a military strategy too, taking on a potential military adversary, one at a time, makes more strategic sense and that probably has led to rethinking in South Block about bringing a thaw in relations with Pakistan.

Now using the UAE diplomacy for this however, raises a question. While as recently as Trump’s repeated public declarations were snubbed by India, accepting the middle east diplomacy could be to India’s advantage. One, UAE has for years been a financial patron to Pakistan and given the stressed economic state of Pakistan, the country will find it difficult to ignore its influence. More importantly when members of the royal family are involved in the process that will have a greater bearing on Pakistani decision-making.

Second, Modi government has developed a very good personalised relationship with all major middle east countries, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. They have tacitly even accepted the finality of Kashmir’s integration with India. So there is little likelihood of they pushing India on this core issue. And India itself being a huge market for oil, petroleum and provider of talented human resources, also comes in country’s equations with the middle east kingdoms.

And finally, India also is enhancing its sphere of influence and reorienting its diplomatic and foreign policies accordingly. A greater stress on economic reinvigoration in the post-Corona order and tactical conflict-management are going to be used more significantly. As part of it, a peaceful neighbourhood needs to be top priority and hence, the acceptance of UAE mediation could be part of that diplomatic strategy.

As for the role and involvement of the UAE in the Indo-Pakistan quagmire, one has to see it in the tectonic shifts in its foreign policy in the last one decade. Starting with the 9/11 attacks in New York to strengthening of radical Islamism in Iraq and Syria, in the form of ISIS, to waning influence of US in global affairs and its increasing antagonism against China to politics of oil and increasing competition in middle east neighbours and growing Iranian aspirations, all have resulted in it getting into an active, interventionist mode.

The contemporary UAE administration has a different idea and vision about the country and its role in world affairs. It no longer intends to play a mere oil trading country but one that has a greater say in shaping the regional and global order. In consultation with the bigger neighbour, UAE is today actively participating in global diplomatic manoeuvres, especially one involving its regions and interests. The Abrahams accord with Israel in September 2020 that was unthinkable till a few months ago, provided an idea of the new way of thinking in the UAE foreign policy establishment. Its involvement in the India-Pakistan peace process where it has greater influence over Pakistan, is part of that new vision and confidence emerging out of Abu Dhabi.

Rajesh Kumar Sinha
Rajesh Kumar Sinha
Rajesh Kumar Sinha, MA, MLISc, MPhil, PG Diploma in Journalism is a serving Librarian with the Indian Railways, INDIA. He has worked in print and web media for seven years and writes for Foreign Policy News (US), South Asia Journal (US), Indian Railways (India), OPEN Journal and Rail Journal (India).