Gulf concerns over India-Pakistan conflict run deep
DUBAI - When two Indian MiG-21 aircraft were shot down and a pilot captured by Pakistan in February, two nuclear-armed neighbours found themselves on the brink of war. The United States, China and the United Kingdom swiftly became involved and both sides were urged to exercise restraint.
Countries of the Arabian Gulf, which have deep historical ties to both the Indian and Pakistani sides and plans for even more ambitious ones ahead, also wasted little time in trying to avert the crisis from escalating.
Efforts at the highest levels by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with direct interventions from the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, lent crucial and timely support to international efforts led by the United States to ease the tensions.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have high stakes in the future of India and Pakistan and the general regional stability in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan are considered indispensable strategic partners to the two Arab nations for future growth and prosperity.
In February, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz signed off on more than $20 billion in investments in Pakistan and Saudi investments in India have been double that in the past four years and are expected to accelerate.
Riyadh’s vision sees India as a regional energy hub in addition to being one of the world’s major manufacturing economies.
In January, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan made his first visit to Pakistan in 11 years and the United Arab Emirates extended a large financial assistance package and planned major new investments.
Pakistan’s $65 billion economic corridor with China is a game changer for regional trade flows that creates opportunities for a rapidly growing and ambitious Arab Gulf.
On the other hand, India is the Emirates’ largest trading partner and both sides view each other’s future economic prosperity as closely linked.
In 2017, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed made history as chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade and the two sides have plans to cooperate in areas ranging from food security to space exploration.
However, the rivalry between India and Pakistan is intense and not easily moderated. Pakistan’s quick release of the captured Indian pilot together with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s calls for talks on Kashmir and other issues in the way of improved ties were widely welcomed.
They also released pressure on the Indian government, which was reportedly mulling possible missile strikes against further escalatory actions.
After the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama, in Indian-held Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches sought to stir nationalist sentiment and blame Pakistan.
The Pulwama attack had killed more than 40 paramilitary personnel but came after years of widespread popular unrest and an increasingly bleak outlook for New Delhi in Kashmir.
Kashmir forms the core dispute between India and Pakistan, having taken them to war in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Both India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947 and the dispute over Kashmir has existed since.
The Pulwama attacker, Adil Dar, was born and raised in Kashmir and, reports said, had been arrested and released half a dozen times by Indian authorities in the past two years. He is said to have been associated with the blacklisted Jaish-e-Mohammed group in Pakistan.
Modi authorised an Indian air strike inside Pakistan on February 26 as a response to the Pulwama attack, aiming to demonstrate decisive leadership but instead triggered a dangerous standoff.
Modi was criticised by Indian opposition parties for recklessness and attempting to exploit the crisis for electoral purposes.
Modi has seen his popularity slump following corruption allegations related to the French Rafale fighter jet deal as well as economic mismanagement and doing little to rein in right-wing Hindu fanatics stoking religious tensions.
The costs of a serious confrontation between India and Pakistan or risks of an all-out conflict are huge for the Arab Gulf — environmentally, politically, economically and socially. The regional fallout and blowback on security, too, could be uncontainable.
Averting such scenarios and encouraging dialogue and peace talks, especially over Kashmir, have been a long-standing interest for the Arab Gulf, although India has traditionally resisted third-party mediation or involvement in its disputes with Pakistan.
However, Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir in March continued efforts from the Arab Gulf to de-escalate tensions, visiting Pakistan with a “special message” for Khan and Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Jubeir also travelled to India, his first visit there, meeting with Modi and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Balancing ties between India and Pakistan has been described as walking a tightrope but ignoring the Kashmir dispute or the risks of a nuclear exchange could imperil the future vision of all parties to the wider region’s prosperity. In that context, the Arab Gulf’s interest agenda is crystal clear.