India-Pakistan: What UAE’s Mediator Role Means For Diplomatic Ties

Few countries enjoy the warmth today that the UAE and Saudi Arabia enjoy with both India & Pakistan.

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Opinion
6 min read
Image of Pakistani flag (L), Indian flag (R), and UAE’s flag (centre) used for representational purposes.
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Two years since the Balakot air strikes and high-voltage tensions that ensued, India and Pakistan are dialling down the political rhetoric and hate speech against each other, through a spate of positive gestures.

“As a neighbouring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan. For this, an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility, is imperative,” wrote PM Modi in a letter to his counterpart Imran Khan on Pakistan’s National Day, cited by government sources as a routine courtesy.

India’s President Kovind too sent a similar message to his counterpart Arif Alvi. An eight-member Pakistani delegation travelled to Delhi for the Indus Treaty talks last week with the Indian side after a gap of more than two years.

Narendra Modi also took to Twitter to wish Imran Khan a speedy recovery after the latter tested positive for COVID-19.

Why Third-Party Involvement is Key to India-Pakistan Détente

All this comes days after an out-of-the-blue revival of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two sides, allowing for guns to fall silent for the past fortnight across the Line of Control (LoC). “The DGMOs (Director General of Military Operations) were driven primarily by the desire to stop the loss of lives at the LoC,” said a source.

The ceasefire has given fragile peace between the nuclear neighbours a renewed temporary chance. But it is too early to say if the spring thaw — being cited by most strategic observers as a ‘tactical move’ for some breathing space — will remain sustainable.

However, what is now abundantly clear is that the two countries have not shied away from a nudge and push by friendly and powerful countries — especially the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Highly-placed sources on both sides have confirmed to this journalist that a third party role is key to the current peace détente.

But like on all things India and Pakistan, there are different narratives on the degree of involvement. A Pakistani source confirmed that ‘mutual friendly countries may be involved’. An Indian source explained that the ‘UAE is not necessarily an interlocutor but could have played the role of a facilitator allowing representatives from both countries a venue to meet’.

From the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to the two Foreign Ministers Dr S Jaishankar and SM Qureshi, a spate of high-level visits have taken place in the past few months to the Emirates, even amid a pandemic. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan concluded a Delhi visit in end February 2021.

Potential UAE & Saudi Role in India-Pakistan Ties

But sources hint that the possible Indo-Pak back channel talks have not been held between top office bearers or leaders in UAE but at the level of intelligence and security officials. “There is no centralised bilateral back channel dialogue at this point,” said a Pakistani source, refuting that the current back channel peace effort is related to one that was reportedly attempted in the spring of 2018.

“I haven’t seen confirmation but I do know there is a third country. Whichever country it is, it has to be trusted by both Delhi and Islamabad. And few countries on the planet enjoy the warmth today that the UAE and Saudi Arabia enjoy with the two capitals. Only these have the quantum and breadth of Pakistani and Indian nationals as part of their national story to the extent that they do,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, columnist and former advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Islamabad, speaking from New York.

Why Pakistan Wants Some Strategic Respite

India and the UAE have intensified ties, particularly under PM Modi, on a variety of aspects including cooperation on storage of oil and sovereign funds to security issues.

New Delhi has even drawn criticism from international rights groups for forcibly nabbing and returning the daughter of a UAE sheikh who was fleeing to India, in what is seen as a possible quid pro quo for the extradition of the arms bribery accused Christian Michel.

Asfandyar Mir, a post-doctoral fellow at CISAC, Stanford University, at a recent webinar organised by dialogue forum Tabadlab, argued that Pakistan has been strategically constrained for the last 6-7 years and has been wanting some strategic respite from either the US or on its eastern border.

“I am interested in finding out who the third party is. I don’t think it is the US. I also don’t think it is China. My sense is it is most probably a middle-eastern country. One reason for that is the gulf states have not been happy with the choice they have had to make between India and Pakistan on key forums like OIC (Organisation Of Islamic Countries). My sense is that the push is coming from there,” he said.

Looking Out For China-Pakistan ‘Collusion’

Meanwhile, the new Biden administration in the United States — keen to conclude peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and seek an exit for American troops from war-torn Afghanistan — has also remained in close touch with India and Pakistan to downgrade bilateral hostility.

The renewed Indian commitment to the ceasefire agreement came amid a slow disengagement process between its army and the Chinese army (PLA) after months of tense standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) including a bloody confrontation at Galwan in eastern Ladakh. Only recently, Indian Army Chief Naravane had spoken of a ‘two-front situation’ including a two-front conflict-escalation possibility with China and Pakistan.

“We must not lose sight from where the collusion between China and Pakistan can take place. We need to hold it,” Gen Naravane told media persons on Army Day, a day after his maiden visit to Siachen as the new chief.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been financially squeezed with an FATF (Financial Action Task Force) grey listing worsening its high debt situation, even as the Imran Khan government continues to face the wrath of a united opposition.

Pakistani Army Chief General Bajwa, at the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue (ISD), hit the right notes to indicate a desired shift from geo-politics or geo-strategy to ‘geo-economics’. Laced with buzzwords like ‘connectivity’, ‘regional integration’, ‘human security’, ‘trade and transit corridors’, the chief who is currently on an extension, tried hard-selling Pakistan’s image to the world, and geo-strategic importance that could help “unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia.”

How India-Pakistan Ties Took a Further Hit Post-Abrogation of Art 370 In J&K

Asked about the reported India-Pakistan back channel peace process and possible third party role, Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar, on his recent India visit, said: “We fully welcome any political measure to reduce tension and resolve conflict.”

The already-severed relations between the two neighbours — following the Uri terror strikes in 2016, when India led a boycott of the SAARC summit to be hosted by Islamabad — took a further hit in the wake of the abrogation of statehood and the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by New Delhi in August 2019.

Diplomatic ties were downgraded leaving respective missions without High Commissioners. But both sides are watching recent developments with ‘limited optimism’, and no high expectations of any next major steps in bilateral ties.

Be it the reinstatement of high commissioners or a friendly cricket match — these are mere speculations with little chances of actualising in a hurry given the current political domestic currents on both sides.

Indian sources point to a lack of appetite on the global stage for Pakistan, harping on the Kashmir agenda to internationalise the issue as a key reason for the shift in attitude. This, while Pakistani sources repeatedly stressed that there is no question of putting Kashmir on the back-burner for any future dialogue with India, and ‘Kashmir and Kashmiri voices’ will remain central to the geo-economic paradigm.

India-Pakistan’s Upcoming Joint Counter-Terror Exercises

On the multilateral front, while SAARC remains by and large in a limbo, barring a virtual summit on COVID cooperation, in a first, Indian troops are expected to be part of joint counter-terror exercises to be held in Pakistan later this year under the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-Regional Anti-Terror Structure (SCO-RATS) Secretariat.

Both Foreign Ministers Jaishankar and Qureshi will attend the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on 30 March, but neither side has so far requested any formal talks.

At this point, sources say that even a pull aside is unlikely. “We are just not there yet,” said an official.

(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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