What are the prospects of Gulf mediated reconciliation between India and Pakistan?
The security environment and infrastructure of South Asia has been shaped by the rivalry and conflict between Pakistan and India since their independence in 1947. This relationship of enmity has not only impacted the internal politics of both states but has also driven their respective foreign relations and alignment patterns particularly during the cold war years. This bilateral contestation eventually led to the nuclearization of South Asia, further deteriorating strategic stability of the conflict prone region. This atmosphere of omnipresent hostility between the two neighbors has pushed various global and regional stakeholders to mediate between the two nations in a bid to broker peace. However, these attempts have failed to make any headway till now.
From a Pakistani perspective, the resolution of the Kashmir issue remains vital for the complete normalization of ties with India, while for India, addressing the issue of alleged Pakistan sponsored terrorism inside India has become the focal point of any bilateral engagement.
With the ascent of right wing hyper-nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the increase in the power disparity between the two states owing to India’s exponential economic growth, India feels emboldened vis-à-vis Pakistan. This has led to a complete securitization of its approach toward Pakistan while cutting out attempts to politically engage its western neighbor. This was evident in February 2019 as India launched airstrikes inside Pakistan on the pretext of targeting alleged terror hideouts and afterwards its unilateral revocation of the special status of Kashmir in August 2019.
The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE, have an interest in peace and stability within South Asia and fostering inter-regional trade and connectivity.
For nearly a year, both states remained in a state of virtual cold war and skirmishes between the two militaries across the Line of Control (LOC) dividing the Pakistani and Indian-administered Kashmir became a routine occurrence. This new status quo was upended by a mediation attempt from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that initiated back door engagement between both sides and reduced political temperatures. This renewed engagement was also made possible owing to the rise in Indo-China tensions after deadly clashes between the Chinese and Indian military in the disputed Galwan River Valley. The possibility of hot borders with both China and Pakistan was something Indian policymakers wanted to avoid.
On the Pakistani side, a year long anti-India campaign on the diplomatic and political fronts didn’t yield any substantial gains. With the Indian government under pressure owing to the ongoing military standoff with Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh, the spectre of renewed engagement with India through the courtesy of a trustworthy mediator was politically expedient for Pakistani power brokers particularly Pakistan’s military leadership. Ultimately, this renewed Indo-Pak interaction fell short of a decisive political breakthrough. This was primarily owing to the Indian refusal to reverse the revocation of Kashmir’s special status. Since Pakistan got nothing in return, such a rapprochement would have been politically costly for the Khan-led government compelling him to back out. This meant that the post-August 2019 status quo continued, however the tense political environment dissipated and both militaries reached a cease-fire agreement over the LOC.
Pakistan under PM Shehbaz Sharif has again expressed hopes to restart dialogue with India and requested the President of UAE, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed to facilitate this process. Sharif has also admitted that Pakistan has learnt its lesson and that the toxic relationship between the two countries has only brought suffering to the people. It is interesting that Sharif, whose government’s approval ratings are already low owing to the sharp rise in inflation and rupee devaluation, and who is facing a strong challenge from a politically resurgent Imran Khan, would make such an offer.
The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE, do have an interest in peace and stability within South Asia and fostering inter-regional trade and connectivity. In this regard, the latest request by the Pakistani premier makes sense. Saudi and UAE leaderships have cordial ties with the current Indian premier and their strategic partnership with India has also touched new heights, thereby Gulf leaders can facilitate such a re-engagement. However, both states do not possess any significant political or economic leverage over India to force politically meaningful concessions on Kashmir and are unlikely to go to such an extent.
Similarly, in the case of Pakistan where Gulf stakeholders do hold this critical leverage over the country’s decision makers, any attempt to normalize ties with India will be coupled with enormous political costs, particularly for the country’s civilian rulers. Thereby, despite the current conciliatory rhetoric from PM Sharif, any politician within Pakistan is unlikely to become part of such a reconciliation with India where the current status quo over Kashmir remains unaltered.
It appears that the current statement by PM Sharif is on one hand an attempt to project himself as a peacemaker while on the other hand an acknowledgement that for Pakistan, Gulf leadership remains a most reliable partner and trusted mediator.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89