Smarting under India’s rising stocks in a region that has traditionally stood by it in past crises, Pakistan has launched an aggressive diplomatic campaign to enlist the unequivocal support of Gulf nations on Kashmir and recover its status as their most coveted South Asian partner. Much of Pakistan’s dismay stemmed from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s decision on August 24 to separately confer their highest civilian awards on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a leader Imran Khan had been trying to present as the chief tormentor of Kashmiris.
To make matters worse, US President Donald Trump, who the past few weeks had been dangling the ‘mediation between India and Pakistan’ carrot before Imran as a spur to restart the stalled dialogue, agreed with Modi that the two neighbours should resolve the Kashmir issue bilaterally. Modi and Trump met at the G7 Summit at Biarritz, France, where the PM was present as a special invitee of French President Emmanuelle Macron, indicating a growing closeness between the two sides as well as India’s growing global clout.
After their August 26 meeting, in which Modi informed Trump why there was no scope for an outside presence in India-Pakistan affairs, the two leaders held a joint press conference—marked by mutual bonhomie—and told newsmen that South Asian countries should use bilateral talks to resolve outstanding issues.
For Pakistan, Biarritz came as a major diplomatic setback, as Islamabad had been banking on Trump to force ‘third party mediation’ on India. Soon after the dispiriting development, Imran decided to take his countrymen into confidence—in a nationwide televised address he vowed to remain a tireless ambassador for the Kashmir cause despite the challenges before Pakistan.
Earlier last week, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of UAE, presented the “Order of Zayed” on Modi, an award reserved for leaders of very close, important countries. And within hours of Modi’s arrival in Bahrain (the maiden Indian prime ministerial visit), he was awarded the King Hamad Order of the Renaissance by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain. Apart from UAE and Bahrain, a number of other Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Afghanistan and Maldives have also similarly honoured Modi.
The decision to present Modi with the Order of Zayed, sources say, was taken in April, when the UAE leadership was convinced of his victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Yet, like life itself, timing plays a crucial role in diplomacy. The conferral of the honours by UAE and Bahrain on Modi at this juncture shows that for many Gulf leaders, the issue of Kashmir is just not big enough to spoil their relations with India.
However, Imran tried to put up a brave front in the face of these setbacks. “I will tell the world about this, I have shared this with heads of states I have been in contact with. I will raise this issue in my speech at the UN General Assembly,” he assured Pakistanis.
Keen observers of the Gulf have indeed detected a change in the attitude towards Kashmir among key players. “From 2001 onwards, key Gulf countries had made it clear that Kashmir was not a big issue for them. It is a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan that should be resolved by them through peaceful negotiations,” says Talmiz Ahmed, former Indian ambassador to both Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Though Imran acknowledged this reality, he attributed the lack of action by these ‘Muslim countries’ to “selfish reasons”. “If some Muslim countries are not raising this issue because of their economic interests, they will eventually come on our side. They will have to, with time,” he said optimistically. Continuing his aggressive drive, Imran also called up Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman and apprised him of the situation in Kashmir in the wake of India’s decision to scrap the state’s special status.
Yet, despite Imran’s relentless campaign—much of which is meant as optics for common Pakistanis—there is a creeping realisation among the Pakistani establishment that the situation in the Gulf and their attitude towards the India-Pakistan dispute have changed significantly.
A few key developments in the past decade or so have brought about this change in the Gulf’s attitude towards India. Over eight million Indians live and work in the Gulf, with three million each in Saudi Arabia and UAE. While 9/11 and the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 both played a key role in a reassessment in the Gulf towards Pakistan and terrorism, India’s growing economic heft, both as an investment destination and as key Gulf investor, has elevated its status there. The Gulf Cooperation Council is India’s largest trade partner, with a volume of over $104 billion. Interestingly, in a departure from the past, it is not all concentrated in the oil sector—indicative of the multifarious economic bonds of today. However, the Gulf—which hosts five million of its citizens—is crucial for Pakistan too. The region happens to be its key investment and trade partner as well.
India and the Gulf countries have now moved away from a buyer-seller relationship, even though nearly 50 per cent of India’s energy needs are met by them. But unlike India’s sole dependence on West Asia for petroleum in the past, increased competition in the oil and gas sector from the US and Australia has meant that countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE are interested in holding India in a tight economic embrace. The two-way investment in the energy and infrastructure sector between India and the Gulf has created a relationship that is more sustainable and long-term.
According to Ahmed. “This does not mean that the Gulf is rejecting Pakistan in favour of India.” He points out that the changed scenario shows that they have been able to realise the importance of both the South Asian neighbours for different reasons—India as a huge market as well as a source for investment, while Pakistan continues to be important for its military and in the field of security.
“While they make it clear that Kashmir is no longer an issue for them to get rattled about, they would like both India and Pakistan to normalise bilateral ties,” adds Ahmed.
But, with the immense pressure that goads him to take a hardline position and castigate every Indian move in J&K, will Imran Khan be able to create the right atmosphere that will convince India to start thinking about engaging with Pakistan in a meaningful manner?
The coming weeks certainly will not allow any such rapprochement, as both the Indian and Pakistani premiers head for New York for the UN General Assembly, where they will try to convince world leaders with their side of the story on Kashmir. Beyond that lies the great unknown.
Maybe the dust will settle down and the two hostile neighbours will find the required space and reasons to resume talks and move forward. In the throes of the current acrimony, that seems to be the tallest of asks.