India-Pakistan tensions could be a worry for Gulf countries

If the course of events leads to a seriously deteriorating situation, including conflict between India and Pakistan, the fallout for the Arab Gulf, like all other long-term stakeholders, would be significant.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Prime Minister’s House, last February. (DPA)
Hopes for de-escalation. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Prime Minister’s House, last February. (DPA)

DUBAI - Tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated dramatically since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Article 370, which had guaranteed “special status” for the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir since 1954.

India-administered Kashmir, formerly a princely state with an overwhelming Muslim majority, has been disputed by the nuclear-armed rivals since the partition of British India in 1947 along religious lines. India and Pakistan have been to war with each other over Kashmir twice before, in 1947 and 1965, but their heavily manned borders are rarely if ever peaceful, even in times of relative quiet.

Despite both India and Pakistan becoming nuclear weapons states in 1998, the scenario of a catastrophic clash between the neighbours has not dissipated. Kashmir, said to be the world’s most militarised zone, has been in lockdown since Modi’s move as a communications blackout and emergency curfew is enforced by New Delhi.

The geopolitical context to the ongoing India-Pakistan tensions is more troubling than usual.

India announced it is abandoning its “not first use” doctrine regarding nuclear weapons in a pointed warning to Pakistan and a major redirection of its military strategy.

Earlier this year, the Indian Air Force, in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian military convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, crossed into Pakistan for a dangerous “surgical strike” on what it said was a training camp for militants. Pakistan conducted counterstrikes against Indian targets before downing two fighter aircraft and capturing a pilot. Since then, India and Pakistan have effectively been on a war-footing and their militaries on high alert.

Kashmir has witnessed seething resentment for years. Despite a focus on infrastructure development by New Delhi for Kashmir, there is rising frustration to its overarching political strategy.

The past few years have seen Kashmir’s elected representatives and civil society sidelined as direct rule from New Delhi was imposed. Protests and riots by Kashmiris intensified and young Kashmiris have been left increasingly disenfranchised. Even Kashmiri politicians traditionally viewed as having a tilt towards New Delhi are under house arrest.

Ending Kashmir’s “special status,” which guaranteed the region autonomy until a final settlement is reached, was a move by the Modi government to appease its hardened right-wing support base and to show its strength after a resounding re-election. However, the move came against unanimous resistance from Kashmiri political groups as well as India’s mainstream political parties, including the Indian National Congress — the party of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s founding father.

Critics see revocation of Article 370 as a mechanism to alter the demographics of Kashmir because it would allow Indian nationals to purchase real estate in Kashmir. With elected Kashmiri representatives hitherto recognised by New Delhi removed from political discourse and debate, this is a move fraught with high risks.

India and Pakistan, which both recognise Kashmir as a bilateral dispute, have agreements in place against unilateral attempts to change the status quo of the region. If revoking Article 370 leads to more tensions and violence not only between Kashmiris and Indian forces but also between Pakistan and India as some anticipate, then it represents a regressive development for regional peace efforts.

There are regional implications to South Asia’s latest instability. Afghanistan’s budding peace process, in which India and Pakistan have been involved in a low-level proxy war, could be endangered. Regional trade and logistics will also suffer as Pakistan closes its borders to Indian goods and services, including the trade corridor for Indian goods destined for Afghanistan and Central Asia as well as overflight permission for India-bound aviation traffic.

For the Arab Gulf, an economically resurgent India is an important strategic partner for the future whereas with Pakistan there is a strong historical legacy of close ties. Both India and Pakistan are amid record-breaking, multibillion-dollar investments from the Arab Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Arab Gulf’s strategic outlook for South Asia places a premium on stability both within and between India and Pakistan. Political risks that arise because of ideologically driven politics, whether in India or Pakistan, are undesirable for the global investment community at large and could set the wider neighbourhood onto a dangerous track.

Successful dispute resolution between India and Pakistan would unlock huge trade potential trans-regionally, from which the Arab Gulf is well-placed to benefit. Short of that, if the course of events leads to a seriously deteriorating situation, including conflict between India and Pakistan, which have a combined population of more than 1.5 billion, the fallout for the Arab Gulf, like all other long-term stakeholders, would be significant.

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