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Gulf States as Mediators in the India-Pakistan Conflict

Gulf States as Mediators in the India-Pakistan Conflict

Dr. Muhammad Akram Zaheer

In recent years, Pakistan has made concerted efforts to strengthen its ties with Iran although hindered by American sanctions on Iran and concerns regarding cross-border militancy. The prospect of being drawn into Saudi-Iranian proxy conflicts has further complicated Pakistan’s diplomatic stance, notably demonstrated by its 2015 parliamentary decision against joining the Saudi-led coalition aimed at combating the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and reinstating Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

This neutrality in Yemen’s conflict was a difficult choice for Pakistan, given its historically strong relationship with Saudi Arabia which has provided crucial diplomatic and financial support, particularly during times of international isolation following Pakistan’s nuclearization in response to India’s tests in 1998.Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts to foster alliances with Muslim-majority countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Malaysia have strained Pakistan’s ties with traditional Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These tensions have inadvertently allowed India to enhance its trade and security relations with the Gulf States.

While India’s engagement with the Gulf historically revolved around energy imports and labor exports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to deepen bilateral ties, both economically and strategically, with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.Pakistan, recognizing the shifting dynamics, has attempted to mitigate strains with its traditional Gulf partners. For instance, former Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif assumed leadership of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, comprising 42 nations, in 2017.

However, Prime Minister Khan’s decision to forgo participation in the alternative Muslim Summit in Malaysia in 2019, seen as a challenge to Saudi leadership, failed to fully assuage tensions. Meanwhile, India’s growing clout in the region was underscored by the UAE’s decision to confer its highest civil honor on Prime Minister Modi, even amidst controversy over India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslim refugees.Despite Pakistan’s pleas, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have refrained from openly opposing India’s actions, including the revocation of Kashmir’s special status in 2019. However, the fluidity of bilateral relations in the region suggests that these dynamics are subject to change.

The interplay between major Middle Eastern powers and South Asian states, particularly India and Pakistan, is increasingly influenced by broader strategic considerations amidst the emerging great power competition between China and the United States. As such, the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and South Asia remains in flux, with implications for regional stability and global power dynamics.

The intensifying rivalry between China and the United States in the Middle East and South Asia has significantly heightened regional insecurities while simultaneously presenting unforeseen opportunities for reconciliation. As China seeks to challenge American dominance in the Middle East, India, too, endeavors to expand its influence to counterbalance China’s growing presence in the region. India’s collaboration with Iran, exemplified by its investment in the Chabahar seaport, has emerged as a direct challenge to China’s investment in Gwadar via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Conversely, China’s substantial investment plans in Iran signal its ambition to deepen ties in the region, further solidifying its status as Iran’s largest trade partner and facilitating Iran’s integration into influential regional blocs.

Despite Pakistan’s aspirations to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China achieved a significant breakthrough by brokering the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two Middle Eastern rivals. Amid escalating regional tensions triggered by conflicts such as the Gaza war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE demonstrate a willingness to de-escalate tensions with Iran rather than exploit them for strategic advantage. Recent efforts to repair ties between Iran and Pakistan, following tensions sparked by missile exchanges, reflect a renewed commitment to enhancing bilateral relations and fostering security cooperation.

While the US appears open to increased Saudi and UAE investments in Pakistan, it is concerned about Islamabad’s growing reliance on Beijing. With the US bolstering military cooperation with India to counter China, its neutrality in potential Indo-Pakistani crises is increasingly questioned. Consequently, the US may encourage regional actors with influence over both India and Pakistan to establish crisis management mechanisms to prevent cross-border escalation. Secret talks facilitated by the UAE between Indian and Pakistani intelligence officials, along with Saudi statements advocating dialogue on the Kashmir dispute, suggest a regional push for conflict resolution.

While Indian media views such statements as endorsing its stance against third-party involvement in Kashmir, Pakistan interprets them as a show of solidarity against India’s reluctance to engage in Kashmir talks. Despite diplomatic overtures, challenges persist, including India’s upcoming elections and the delicate security situation in Kashmir. Despite the potential benefits of reconciliation for India and Pakistan, the current political climate may not favor immediate rapprochement. India’s domestic politics and security concerns, coupled with ongoing tensions in Kashmir, present obstacles to meaningful dialogue. However, incremental confidence-building measures and continued international encouragement, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the US, could pave the way for constructive engagement between India and Pakistan, reducing Pakistan’s dependence on China and fostering regional stability and cooperationof the Middle East and South Asia.

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