Peace in South Asia and the Middle East

Can China play a role?

The rapidity with which the newly appointed Pakistani Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, embarked on his inaugural official visit to Saudi Arabia underscored the significance of the relationship between the two nations. However, what truly captured global attention was the outcome of this visit, marked by a joint declaration that not only reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to invest $5 billion in Pakistan but also urged for the resolution of longstanding disputes between Pakistan and India, notably the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

This diplomatic move by Saudi Arabia aligns with a broader trend of Gulf nations actively engaging in efforts to facilitate peace between India and Pakistan. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, had previously brokered a crucial ceasefire between the two South Asian neighbors in 2021, effectively diffusing escalating tensions and averting potentially catastrophic cross-border conflicts that had flared up since 2019.The motivations driving Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step into the role of mediators in the India-Pakistan conflict are multifaceted and rooted in both regional geopolitics and historical dynamics.

Understanding the complexities behind their intervention necessitates a nuanced appreciation of the evolving landscape in both the Middle East and South Asia. Firstly, the Gulf states have strategic interests in fostering stability in South Asia, given its proximity to the energy-rich region they inhabit. Instability or conflict in the Indian subcontinent could have ripple effects on global energy markets, which the Gulf economies heavily rely on.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to position themselves as key players in regional diplomacy, enhancing their geopolitical stature and influence on the world stage. Furthermore, both countries have historical ties with Pakistan, shaped by shared religious affiliations and long-standing economic partnerships. However, they also maintain significant relations with India, the world’s largest democracy and a crucial trading partner. By advocating for peace between Islamabad and New Delhi, Saudi Arabia and the UAE aim to navigate a delicate balancing act, maintaining cordial relations with both countries while promoting regional stability.

Moreover, the Gulf States’ involvement in mediating the India-Pakistan conflict reflects a broader trend of increased diplomatic activism in the region. As traditional power dynamics undergo shifts and new geopolitical fault lines emerge, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to assert themselves as key arbiters of peace and stability, not only within the Middle East but also in neighbouring regions.

The ties between the Middle East and South Asia have a rich and complex history, spanning centuries of commercial, religious, and cultural interactions. These connections have endured through various historical epochs, but recent times have seen significant developments, particularly since the establishment of modern Middle Eastern states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the partition of India and Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia emerged as a crucial supporter of Pakistan shortly after its inception in 1947. Despite being resource-constrained, Pakistan, with its substantial Sunni-majority Muslim population, found a reliable ally in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, has provided Pakistan with essential financial assistance in the form of loans, grants, and concessional oil. Pakistan reciprocates by sending a significant portion of its workforce, numbering 12.4 million overseas workers, predominantly to these Gulf states.

These workers, constituting over 77 percent of nearly 830,000 who ventured abroad for employment in 2022, contribute substantially to Pakistan’s economy through remittances. The relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia extends beyond economics to encompass strategic and security dimensions. Pakistan played a pivotal role in training “holy warriors” alongside Saudi Arabia and the USA to combat the USSR’s presence in Afghanistan following its occupation in 1979. Furthermore, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Pakistan stationed tens of thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. Military collaboration, including training and arms exports, has been a consistent feature of Pakistan’s engagement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

However, incremental confidence-building measures and continued international encouragement, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the USA, could pave the way for constructive engagement between India and Pakistan, reducing Pakistan’s dependence on China and fostering regional stability and cooperation.

Additionally, Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, supported the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, perceiving it as a buffer against India. This stance contrasted with India’s and Iran’s backing of the multi-ethnic Northern Alliance, reflecting broader regional power dynamics. Despite its close ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pakistan also seeks to maintain relations with Iran, mindful of its significant Shi’a minority.

Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan’s independence, and both nations enjoyed closer security cooperation during the reign of the shah, particularly through their involvement in the Baghdad Pact. However, the 1979 Iranian revolution altered the geopolitical landscape, fracturing alliances and forcing Pakistan to navigate a divided Middle East marked by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan found itself embroiled in a sectarian proxy war, exacerbated by the rise of Sunni militant groups nurtured by Saudi and American support for the Afghan jihad. Consequently, sectarian tensions have become entrenched within Pakistan, posing challenges to its internal stability.

In recent years, Pakistan has made concerted efforts to strengthen its ties with Iran, albeit hindered by US 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 honour 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 USA in the Middle East and South Asia has significantly heightened regional insecurities while simultaneously presenting unforeseen opportunities for reconciliation. As China seeks to challenge US dominance in the Middle East, India, too, endeavours 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 USA appears open to increased Saudi and UAE investments in Pakistan, it is concerned about Islamabad’s growing reliance on Beijing. With the USA bolstering military cooperation with India to counter China, its neutrality in potential Indo-Pakistani crises is increasingly questioned. Consequently, the USA 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 USA, could pave the way for constructive engagement between India and Pakistan, reducing Pakistan’s dependence on China and fostering regional stability and cooperation.

Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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