A wide gulf

September 09, 2019

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

NO country can take Pakistan’s position. That was the message reportedly delivered by the Emirati and Saudi foreign ministers in a visit with our prime minister last week. Our government framed the visit as a symbolic show of unity, replete with photographs of three-way handshakes between the visiting dignitaries and our foreign minister. Why was this necessary?

Pakistan has struggled to mask its disappointment at the GCC’s muted reaction to the Kashmir crisis. Days after India’s shocking gambit, Saudi Aramco announced plans to invest $15 billion in India’s Reliance Industries. And on Aug 24, India’s prime minister received the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian award.

In the matter of India’s actions in occupied Kashmir, however, GCC countries have remained largely silent. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar refrained from issuing statements expressing either support for the Kashmiris or condemnation of Delhi’s transgressions. Meanwhile, in an interview with Gulf News, the UAE’s ambassador to India seemingly sided with India when he described the Kashmir situation as an ‘internal matter’, echoing New Delhi’s preferred position to prevent external (including UN) intervention in the dispute.

The OIC provides a convenient platform for doublespeak.

Pakistan has historically counted on the GCC’s support on the Kashmir issue and in tensions with India more broadly. But we are a far cry from the early ’90s when Pakistan and Saudi Arabia co-sponsored a Kashmir resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights. The years since have seen a major diplomatic push by India in the Gulf, shifts in regional geopolitics, and Pakistan’s declining value to the GCC as a strategic partner.

The GCC’s relative silence is a reminder that many countries over the past two decades have worked hard to de-hyphenate their South Asian foreign policy, so that relations with Pakistan and India are not perceived as a zero-sum game. The approach typically involves deepening economic and socio-cultural ties with India while keeping relations with Pakistan aloft through cooperation on specific security issues and occasional aid handouts. Indeed, recent years have seen foreign ministries increasingly handle both countries from separate desks, with the former primarily viewed through an Afghanistan or terrorism prism, and the latter considered in the broader context of global trade and Asia-Pacific relations, particularly the need to temper China’s rise.

The OIC presents our Gulf allies with a convenient platform to perform this balancing act, allowing them to engage in doublespeak with minimal challenge. For example, at the OIC, Saudi Arabia took a pro-Pakistan stance on Kashmir. It backed the OIC’s description of India’s actions as an “affront to Muslims” and is supporting (along with the UAE) Pakistan’s plan to summon a special OIC session to focus on Kashmir. Meanwhile, as part of its regional approach, the kingdom maintains that the dispute is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi summed up Pakistan’s resignation to this reality when he conceded, in response to Modi’s award, that the UAE was entitled to its ties with India, and that international relations transcended religious identity. What else can we expect? The GCC’s annual trade with India hovers at the $100bn mark (while trade with Pakistan declines); Emirati ports are the global gateway for Indian exports; highly skilled Indian labour meets the Gulf’s human capital demands in a way that Pakistani construction workers are no longer able to; and India increasingly presents itself as a champion for regional stability.

Pakistan must now leverage the opportunities that these new dynamics present. There is value in the Gulf’s princes having the ear of both Pakistan’s and India’s leaders as they can help defuse tensions, which are likely to mount over the coming years. For example, the UAE crown prince reportedly engaged both Imran Khan and Modi following India’s air strikes in Balakot and called for restraint. It’s unlikely that the Gulf states would explicitly mediate between Islamabad and New Delhi, but the availability of voices of reason who can compel the attention of nuclear-armed rivals is no bad thing.

Moreover, the GCC states’ pragmatic approach to engaging both Pakistan and India should be an inspiration to us. We can enjoy greater autonomy in pursuing a balanced Middle East policy, strengthening ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and continuing to avoid embroilment in messy regional conflicts (as we did to a large extent with Yemen in 2015, though Pakistani troops are reportedly deployed at the Saudi border with Yemen).

We should also focus on constructive, forward-looking ways to re-engage the Gulf; for example, by upskilling our expatriate labour force. Who knows, perhaps some day a pan-South Asian trade and migrant labour approach to the Gulf could improve rather than exacerbate Pakistan-India relations.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2019