In February 2021, India and Pakistan announced a ceasefire
along the contested Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir, the most militarised border in the world. This came as a surprise to many, and the security adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said that this achievement was due to behind-the-scenes contacts.
While India and Pakistan are not new to the dance of ceasefires and fallouts over the decades, reports of a third-party-led mediation between the two nuclear powers to achieve the latest silencing of guns was both surprising, and—from an Indian perspective—a significant change away from its traditional policy of keeping the Kashmir issue strictly as a bilateral affair between India and Pakistan. The third party this time, however, was none of the Western powers such as the US, nor the likes of Russia—usually the states that have both capacity and will to enter conflicts beyond their geographies.
In March, reports
suggested that it was in fact the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that was looking to facilitate rebuilding bridges between New Delhi and Islamabad. This was confirmed in April, when the UAE’s envoy to the US, Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, speaking at a discussion at Stanford University
said that the Gulf state was mediating between India and Pakistan to reach a “healthy and functional relationship”, specifically since the 2019 Pulwama terror attack in India which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan, and which was followed by a launch of airstrikes inside Pakistan by India
However, amidst all these developments, the question remains as to why India relented and allowed third-party intervention, why the UAE, and what Abu Dhabi’s rulers themselves hope to achieve for their own state. To begin with, reports suggest that some of earliest outreach that Pakistan and India constructed on intelligence agencies level could have been in 2017. If true, this is when then US President Donald Trump was at the helm in Washington, had made off-the-cuff remarks on being ready to mediate between India and Pakistan
, and in general was attempting to cement his legacy by placing himself in between long-running and historic crisis points and trying to fix them. The signing of the Abraham Accords in the Middle East
that normalised political and diplomatic ties between the Gulf states of UAE and Bahrain with Israel was one arguably successful outcome of this policy trajectory of the Trump administration.
However, the UAE itself has, in the recent past, attempted to cast itself as a significant regional-plus player; meaning, of course, having a strong grip on the Middle East’s regional geopolitics but also expanding its influence beyond this geography, for example in conflicts such as Libya, in Africa; and now as a mediator in South Asia. Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de-facto chieftain of the UAE, christened as the “most powerful Arab ruler
” by The New York Times,
developed a good relationship with Trump to promote his own aims and agendas. With Trump’s four years in Washington, the UAE consolidated power and influence as the former president gave almost unquestioned support. This included a significant increase in UAE’s regional power, military outreach, and recalibration of certain bilateral relationships, and this included India.
Analyst Huma Yusuf arguably highlights the UAE’s strategy in South Asia well
, that Gulf states such as the UAE are pursuing parallel engagements, keeping aside the potential of issue-based hyphenations, and investing in diplomatic equity in both New Delhi and Islamabad, the former relatively new and thriving, the latter historical and recently, troubled. The UAE’s design to broker some sort of thaw between the two South Asian nuclear powers, while also led by the state and MbZ’s wish to be seen as a global player, an Arab power for good and so on, is rooted in Abu Dhabi also securing its own interests. Alarmed by the outcomes in Afghanistan, as President Joe Biden announced a complete US military withdrawal from the 20-year long war by 11 September 2021; and the Afghan peace negotiations fracturing between various interest groups, both Afghan and foreign; a conflict-active Durand Line on one side and the Kashmir crisis on the other has strong possibilities of a precarious security situation in South Asia spiralling out of control.
There is a level of worry in the Gulf states on the eventual outcome of the Afghan processes in a post-US system. While some analysts have orally highlighted that to facilitate the process MbZ has attempted to squeeze the ideological funding taps of Wahhabism between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the potential of the country falling into a full-fledged civil war and giving rise to newer challenges on terrorism and extremism
is something Abu Dhabi is not looking to deal with once again. It had taken tremendous effort in a post 9/11 world for Arab states to regain some semblance of normality in global discourse, a repeat of the same could tarnish the new economic directions they have embarked upon and bring them to a point of no return once again.
As the UAE, like others such as Saudi Arabia, continues to move away from hydrocarbons and recalibrate their economic ecosystems to align with the future, a peaceful India and Pakistan is vital. The newfound bonhomie between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Abu Dhabi is often highlighted as odd, being on opposite theological and ideological spectrums. However, for the UAE, this alignment is of great importance and not just for access to the Indian economy, but access to a thriving and robust Indian economy is critical for its own well-being, both economically and strategically. As many have questioned how the UAE and India of today manage to circumvent their ideological divisions, the answer here is simple, that geopolitics is conducted on a realist’s playfield. As one former senior Indian diplomat told this author, the Gulf monarchs often find common ground with Modi based on his governance style, which is designed to be centralised and top-down, the buck stops with him. This method of governance is also the preferred style for most monarchic Gulf capitals. And perhaps this was visible in the case of Dubai princess Sheikh Latifa
, who tried to escape to India claiming abuse from her family, and was intercepted by Indian security forces and returned to the UAE.
Meanwhile, while India–UAE relations thrive, Abu Dhabi’s outreach to Pakistan had been dented over the past few years. In December 2020, the UAE blocked work visas for Pakistani immigrants
, a big source of foreign remittances for the Pakistani economy. Abu Dhabi cited security reasons. Prior to this decision, the UAE was quietly stalling immigrants from Pakistan unofficially, concerned over radicalisation spread in the Emirates as it publicly moved towards a more ‘inclusive’ identity
, allowing a temple, church and even synagogue to be built. Quietly, the UAE preferred to take Indian migrants into its economy who were more educated, skilled, and cases of radicalisation amongst Indian Muslims in the Gulf being hard to come by.
During this period, Pakistan also had a fractured relationship with Saudi Arabia. While the now all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) feeling more at home with his position in the Arab world, it was widely reported that his climb into pole position of House of Saud’s internal rivalries as the king-in-waiting was also guided by MbZ, with the UAE acting as a strong guide to a Saudi which under MbS is looking to emulate UAE’s economic successes. In January, reports suggested that the UAE could seek an early repayment of loans worth US $3 billion to Pakistan
announced in 2018, adding extra pressure on an already frail Pakistani economy. To highlight these fissures further, in August 2020, with Pakistan attempting to make things right with the Gulf, the country’s all powerful Army Chief, General Qamar Javad Bajwa and head of its notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, General Faiz Hameed, attempted to meet their peer, MbS, who is also head of defence for Saudi. However, MbS refused the meeting
, and placed a junior team to meet Bajwa and Hameed. Tensions between the Gulf and Pakistan have been playing out for a while, largely led by Islamabad’s push for a more vocal voice in the Islamic world on its position on Kashmir, especially after India’s abrogation of Article 370 in the state of Jammu & Kashmir
in August 2019. Earlier in that year, the invitation by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to then India’s Minister of External Affairs, the late Sushma Swaraj, to deliver a speech as a guest of honour
pinched Islamabad further on the Gulf states not heeding its interests.
For Pakistan, its traditional relations with the Gulf are critical. Not just because of common Islamic bonds, economics and so on, but because this outreach is its only available hedge with all-weather ally China. It is interesting to note that during the India–China Galwan crisis in the summer of last year
, there were next to no hawkish statements against New Delhi by the Pakistani establishment. While Islamabad knows that its relations with China are near existential for it, it has successfully hedged this towards its favour both with the Gulf states and the US under the garb of Washington’s ‘war against terror’ and the Afghan war. All said and done, the Gulf economic lifelines into Pakistan, migration and historic ideological bonds are critical for Islamabad to make sure it does not turn into a complete satellite state of Beijing.
The above-mentioned issues are some of the broad stroke arguments on why the UAE decided to offer a level of mediation between India and Pakistan, and perhaps more importantly, India decided to entertain this idea. How this diplomatic trifecta moves forward is anyone’s guess at the moment, considering that the history of outreach between India and Pakistan is paved with fallouts and failures. Whether it is going to be any different this time, with the involvement of a non-traditional mediator, only time will tell.
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