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Indian engagement in West Asia: Challenges and opportunities for Pakistan

New Delhi skillfully handled the balancing act between three major blocs in West Asia, the Arab Gulf, Iran and Israel. Its relations with Turkey, however, are not currently the best. The economy of India and the Gulf countries has increasingly inter-wined in the recent past. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and UAE are among the largest suppliers of crude oil to India.

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Pakistan’s strong adherence to the concept of a united ”Muslim Ummah”, combined with its military, might afford Pakistan a key position in West Asian politics, specifically in the Gulf countries. Pakistan’s alliance with the United States during the Cold War was also a critical factor in lending Pakistan leverage in West Asian affairs. In the post-Cold War era, Pakistan seems to have lost its steam with regards to West Asia, except for Turkey. Conversely, India’srelation with West Asia improved significantly in the post-Cold War world and particularly after PM Narendra Modi’s ascension to power in 2014.

India underwent tremendous changes in the nineties, changes that transformed it into an economic might and reoriented the country’s foreign policy towards pragmatism rather than ideology. Rapprochement with West Asia, independent of the Pakistan dimension, is a critical aspect of Indian Foreign Policy. Though the Pakistan factor can never be completely removed from this equation, particularly in the Gulf countries, nonetheless economy remains the basis of India and West Asia relations.

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Owing to the predominance of the economic dimension

New Delhi skillfully handled the balancing act between three major blocs in West Asia, the Arab Gulf, Iran and Israel. Its relations with Turkey, however, are not currently the best. The economy of India and the Gulf countries has increasingly inter-wined in the recent past. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and UAE are among the largest suppliers of crude oil to India. The Gulf region makes up one of the biggest trading partners of India, with a total volume ofUS$121 billion. New Delhi‘s non -oil trade with UAE alone is worth $40 billion.

The economic interdependency between the Arab Gulf and India translates into a natural strength for India’sforeignpolicy, particularly concerning strategic objectives. India’s relations with Israel are exceptional, both countries are not only economic partners, but India is one of the largest buyers of Israeli arms and military equipment. With Iran, New Delhi maintained a cordial approach and, in 2016, signed the trilateral Chabahar Agreement. Furthermore, after US economic sanctions on Iran, India got a waiver to continue its activities at Chabahar port. In comparison, Pakistan’s status in the Arab Gulf has been demoted due to several reasons.

Unlike India, Pakistan’s influence in West Asia was never due to its economic might or trade but rather because of its geostrategic and military edge. Ina more blunt language, during the Cold War, Pakistan was favored because of the politics of the time combined with the country’s military power. Pakistan’s participation in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 are evidence of this dynamic. Unverified reports suggest that the Pakistani army has a sizeable presence in Saudi Arabia. Reports also suggest that Pakistan will lend its military manpower and expertise to secure the the2022 World Cup in Qatar.

This episode is a manifestation of Pakistan and the Gulf country’s dynamic of trading military resources for economic support; Pakistan safeguards the security of the Gulf countries in exchange for economic support. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has a history of bailing out Pakistan in times of dire economic needs, such as in 2018 when Riyadhloaned Islamabad US$1 billion to manage the country’s balance of payment crises. UAE offered a similar package to Pakistan. in the current geopolitical scenario, the relationship such a nature is not reliable or sustainable. As demonstrated in2019 and 2020, Pakistan experienced a nosedive in its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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What did we learn from OIC?

The cause was the Gulf countries’ unwillingness to pressurize India after the abolishment of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status. Saudi Arabia is the de-facto leader of OIC, its refusal to hold a special OIC meet on India’s action caused the Pakistani Foreign Minister to lash out at the Gulf countries under the guise of criticism on the OIC. The debacle ended up with Riyadh demanding Pakistan to repay its loan.A similar frost in relations was experienced in 2015 when Pakistan refused to join the Saudi armed intervention in Yemen. In recent years, frosting and then rapprochement have become a predictable trend of Pakistan’srelations with Gulf Countries.

Besides economic aid, Pakistan previously received diplomatic support from its Gulf partners, including on matters relating to India. However, the growing economic relations between the Gulf countries and New Delhi have made the blunt diplomatic support lent to Pakistan in foregone days is almost impossible. Gulf countries are now engaged in a balancing act between Pakistan and India, rarely offering even slight criticism of Indian actions. Though Pakistan is still a partner of the Gulf countries, it no longer enjoys the same leverage or influence it did thirty years ago. Furthermore, the Pakistani diaspora settled in the Gulf countries makes significant contributions to Pakistan’s economy.

Saudi Arabia and UAE are quite aware of Pakistan’s economic fears, and the significance of the Pakistani diaspora settled in their respective countries. According to Turkish President Erdogan, Pakistani PM Imran Khan backed out of the Kuala Lampur Summit in December 2019 because the Saudis threatened to “send Pakistanis back and reemploy Bangladeshis instead”. Though both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan denied President Erdogan’s charge, the fact remains that difficult economic conditions give Gulf countries leverage over Pakistan and greater control to manage the military advantages that Islamabad offers. All in all, Gulf countries under Saudi leadership enjoy an upper hand in their equation with Pakistan.

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While relations with India are based entirely on two-way economic benefits

Suffice it to say, Saudi Arabia could even strategically use its ties with India to keep Pakistan in line. With Israel, Pakistan has no bilateral relations, though reports suggest some covert intelligence sharing. In Iran’s case, Pakistan walks on a tightrope. The rivalry and the proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran are no secret. Owing to its close relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan never fully realized the full extent of its ties with Iran. Though Pak Iran bilateral relations usually swing between cordial to cold. India exploits Pakistan’s predicament, as its Chabahar Agreement with Iran is evidence of containing Islamabad despite being Iran’s neighbor.

Though it can be argued in Pakistan’s defense that geopolitical restrictions caused by the Saudi factor and the USA’speriodic economic sanctions on Tehran over the course of thirty years prevented Pakistan from reaping the maximum dividends from bilateral ties with Iran. India does not have the same geostrategic burden as Pakistan, i.e. being Iran’s neighbor and Saudi Arabia’s core partner and somewhat of a hired gun. New Delhi can engage with both regional actors free of geopolitical constraints. India very successfully detangled its relations with key actors in West Asia, including Iran, Gulf countries and Israel. Turkey is the only anomaly, as Ankara, over the years, strongly supported Pakistan’s narrative against India.

The reasons behind Turkey’sposition on India could be based on the fact that economic dynamics between the two countries are heavily in favor of India. Furthermore, the reorientation of Turkish foreign policy under President Erdogan favors Turkey’s role as a leader of the Muslim world and hence naturally pursues a more critical position over movements of self-determination in Muslim populations. These factors, combined with Turkey’s historic relations with Pakistan, make it easier for Ankara to adopt a more antagonistic attitude towards India in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia and UAE.

In international politics, national interests reign supreme

In opposing India on Kashmir if it starts to hurt Turkey’s national interests, doubtlessly it will change its positions-a-vis India. In West Asia, Pakistan’s story is of being stuck in the old age politics of the Cold War, where geostrategy and geopolitics dictated relations. India effectively used economic relations as the core instrument of foreign policy with West Asia and prevailed over Pakistan. The changed tune of Gulf countriesregardingPakistan in recent years demonstrates that economic interdependency triumphs over the military advantage.

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The economic disadvantage of the weaker party can easily be weaponized. Geostrategic and military power is useless without economic power to back them. A relation based entirely on military and geostrategic dimensions cannot sustain itself. Pakistan needs to recognize the importance of economic and multidimensional relations with West Asian countries, including Gulf countries, Iran and Turkey. Bilateral relations based on geostrategic positioning and military will prove to be short-term and unstable.

 

 

The write is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy

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