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UAE projects power in India-Pakistan reconciliation talks

Though playing a quiet role in negotiations, Abu Dhabi's influence in South Asia appears to be growing
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (AFP)
By Suddaf Chaudry in Islamabad

After years of growing friction, India and Pakistan in recent weeks have moved towards somewhat of a detente, with a surprising interlocutor reportedly encouraging the two to bury the hatchet: the United Arab Emirates.

Emirati involvement in South Asia is nothing new, yet Abu Dhabi appears to be taking a more significant diplomatic role, which analysts say is a chance for the wealthy Gulf country to further project power.

Last month saw India and Pakistan issue in a rare joint statement agreeing to respect a 2003 ceasefire along the heavily militarised border in the disputed territory of Kashmir. 

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Five days later, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed made a trip to New Delhi to ensure the agreement moved forward.

An anonymous diplomat from the UAE told Bloomberg that the Emiratis played a central role in the countries reaffirming the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Yet the level of influence Abu Dhabi has remains disputed, with India, Pakistan, and the UAE refusing to acknowledge the peace talks publicly.

MEE repeatedly requested comment from India, Pakistan and the UAE, but they all declined.

An Indian government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: "There is no discussion here in the political circles about this deal, as much of a deal it is."

Michael Kugelman, who serves as the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, said he was not surprised that both sides had refused to acknowledge potential talks. 

"Each side has different reasons for wanting to stay quiet," Kugelman told Middle East Eye. 

"India doesn't like external mediation in its disputes with Pakistan, so it wouldn't be keen to acknowledge it. And Pakistan has depicted the border ceasefire as part of a simple, bilateral negotiation with India to reduce violence on the border. 

"The fact that the UAE was helping facilitate talks months before the ceasefire was announced would simply go against that narrative."

UAE playing a 'quiet role'

The level of involvement and influence the UAE has in the warming relations between India and Pakistan is up for question.

AS Dulat, a former chief at India's foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, believes the UAE most likely had a "quiet role" in the talks. 

"I wouldn't know if the UAE had a role or not. But if it did, then it must be a quiet role as nobody wants to talk about it," Dulat told MEE. 

Abu Dhabi has reportedly played mediator previously. In 2019, it was said the Emiratis helped broker the release of an Indian pilot captured by Pakistan.

Meanwhile the UAE continues to build ties with India, via joint military exercises and information exchange. 

This month, Islamabad convinced the UAE to roll over on a billion-dollar loan for another year - sparking speculation that the Emiratis leveraged their influence to pressure Pakistan to enter talks with India. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan dropped calls for India to reverse its decision to revoke autonomy from Indian-administered Kashmir (AFP)

Kugelman believes Pakistan's loan with the UAE is only a small part of the story and questions the Gulf country's intentions in initiating talks, despite Abu Dhabi having good relations with both countries. 

"The UAE is keen to project its influence, so this is a natural fit for Abu Dhabi. That said, we shouldn't overstate the UAE's role, which is not akin to Qatar and the Taliban," stresses Kugelman, referencing the role played by Doha in facilitating a peace agreement between the Taliban and Washington in February 2020.  

"The UAE facilitated talks and encouraged the two sides to keep talking, but the UAE is not in a position to take things further. The core issues at play - Kashmir for Pakistan and terrorism for India - are too complex and entrenched for a third party to get involved with, and India rejects any third-party intervention in the Kashmir dispute."

A government official from the UAE, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Emirates had also become "increasingly" concerned by Pakistan's "manipulation" of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). 

'The UAE facilitated talks and encouraged the two sides to keep talking, but the UAE is not in a position to take things further. The core issues at play are too complex'

- Michael Kugelman, analyst

Last November, Islamabad claimed a victory in the OIC after it convinced the body to support a resolution condemning India's decision to rescind Kashmir's semi-autonomous status. 

"We need members to stay on course and not facilitate separate dialogues on issues such as Kashmir, which dilutes the agenda set out by the OIC," the Emirati official said. 

The last time the two nuclear nations came close to sitting at the same table was under Pakistan's former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. 

His push for dialogue came in the hope of striving for better coordination with India. But unlike Musharraf, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has to contend with India's hawkish nationalist leader Narendra Modi.

Until recently, Khan's primary condition for re-engagement with Modi was the reversal of his decision to revoke article 370, which withdrew Indian-administered Kashmir's autonomy. 

The Pakistani premier has since dropped this demand, with many asking why.

"Is Pakistan only trying to carve some breathing room for itself to assert its claims some time down the road, or has its core preferences on longstanding issues like Kashmir changed?" asks Afyandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

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"It is too early to say, but there are some indicators that Pakistan's military leadership do not want to let go of Kashmir and are feeling the cost of it." 

Dulat echoes Mir's apprehensions and asks what led to Pakistan's readiness to engage in bilateral talks with India.

"Khan will have to see what Prime Minister Modi decides if he feels this is the right move, nobody will obstruct it from India," says Dulat. 

"There will be cynics who will ask why Pakistan is suddenly cosying up to India, but you have to remember this is a repeat of what General Musharraf went through. However, Musharraf was commander in chief, and he was not answerable to anyone," he adds.

"I view Imran Khan to be in a weaker position than former President General Musharraf, as this current window of opportunity is much smaller and has to be grabbed by both sides by both hands."

Despite previous apprehensions, the tide seems to be changing with the head of Pakistan's military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, saying it was time to "bury the past and move forward" and resume peace talks. 

"I sense that both countries are starting to work towards some major announcement. The leaks we see in the Indian press from the Indian government - offering positive appraisals of Pakistan's army chief - appear to be a shaping operation to set the stage for sustained engagement," says Mir.  

"But we have been here before in some ways, so we should have moderate expectations of what might come out of this. Nevertheless, it is a significant moment for South Asia."

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