Saudis and Emiratis visit Pakistan to atone for sins

UAE Foreign minister  Sheikh bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (L) and Saudi Minister of State Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir (R) met Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (C), Islamabad, Sept 4, 2019

The unscheduled joint visit by the foreign minister of the UAE and the junior foreign minister of Saudi Arabia — Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir — to Pakistan on September 4 was truly an extraordinary event. 

The two top Arab diplomats had meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, COAS Gen. Qamar Bajwa and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. 

The Pakistani readout underscored that the “main focus was on the situation arising from India’s illegal and unilateral actions in Indian occupied Jammu & Kashmir .” The GHQ said the visiting ministers pledged “full support” to the COAS on Kashmir. 

The Saudi readout avoided any direct reference to Kashmir and said the meeting between Imran Khan and Al-Jubeir “reviewed the distinguished historical relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as well as the latest regional developments of common interest and the security situation in the region.”  There was no Saudi readout on the meeting with Gen. Bajwa. 

The Pakistani reports conspicuously avoided any hyperbole. Curiously, they highlighted that the mission to Islamabad last Tuesday followed Pakistan’s demarche that the two Gulf countries should take a “clear and unambiguous” position on Kashmir dispute and voice“strong support”. 

India, of course, has been in a triumphalist mood over the recent gesture by the UAE to honour PM Modi with its highest national award. The Emirati gesture was probably prompted by Delhi’s helping hand to restore the daughter of the ruler of Dubai who tried to make her escape in a high-profile event last year. But it created bad vibes that UAE is mocking at Pakistan. The Emiratis probably expected that Delhi would reschedule the award ceremony (which was proposed several months before the crisis erupted in J&K), but no such deferment was sought. 

The visiting Arab ministers disclosed to the Pakistani hosts that their mission was at the specific instructions of their crown princes. Clearly, the two Sheikhs have gone the extra league to mollify Islamabad. 

Qureshi claimed after his meeting with the two ministers that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported Pakistan’s plan to summon a special session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss the Kashmir situation. 

When it comes to OIC, Saudis call the shots. A Saudi move to convene a special session regarding Kashmir will not meet with resistance from the other 56 member countries. In fact, the two other key players in the Muslim Middle East — Turkey and Iran — have been critical of India. 

Ankara has gone to the extent of demanding that the UN “should play a more active role in resolving the issue within the framework of the resolutions it adopted earlier” and that Kashmir issue should be resolved “on the basis of international law and through dialogue between the relevant parties”. Turkey has urged India “to refrain from unilateral steps which may increase tension.” 

Again, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has expressed his “utmost concern about the condition of Muslims” in Kashmir while urging the Indian government to “adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir, and to refrain from oppressing and bullying the Muslim people of this region.” Khamenei viewed the Kashmir situation as “an open wound” that was deliberately created by Britain “on purpose to make the conflict in Kashmir drag on.” 

Clearly, Delhi should anticipate a Pakistani campaign similar to the one mounted in the early nineties under the OIC banner with the human rights situation as the leitmotif, with the objective to pressure India in the UN forum. 

A quarter-century ago, the violence in J&K was almost entirely attributable to Pakistani cross-border terrorism, whereas today, the alchemy has changed and the mainstream perception is that there are conditions in the valley approximating to an “Intifada”. There is even talk by well-informed western journalists that Israel is providing “expertise” to the Indian security establishment. 

The prognosis of a flashpoint approaching cannot be dismissed. Now, so long as Pakistan does not revert to past methods of direct intervention, India faces a dilemma. The Indian narrative is that this is all an “internal matter” but there are hardly any takers for this. 

Clearly, the big powers are reticent. But then, they value their friendly relations with India and the reticence is not to be construed as support. India will have an uphill task to characterise the Kashmir situation as an issue of terrorism. Delhi should come up with a credible narrative. But that is easier said than done, given the explosive ground realities. 

The bottom line is that the Saudis and Emiratis are eager to flaunt their support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. A slowing down of the tempo of their dealings with the Modi government can be expected. The optics are bad and it cannot be business as usual. 

Meanwhile, the Saudis and Emiratis are also nervously watching that the US-Iran standoff may give way soon to direct negotiations. Again, Washington’s move to establish contacts with the Houthis in Yemen has stunned Riyadh. As it is, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have poor relations with Turkey, Iran and Qatar. On the other hand, Pakistan, which has been a provider of security for Saudi Arabia traditionally, has good relations with these regional states in the norther tier of the Muslim Middle East. 

There is some evidence that the Saudis feel irritated that the UAE has led them up the garden path. Significantly, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi suo moto issued an intriguing statement on September 4 — just as the two ministers landed in Islamabad — vowing fealty to Saudi Arabia. 

In his words, “The UAE and Saudi Arabia are in one-trench partnership in the face of the challenges surrounding us and the goal that unites us is the security of Saudi Arabia and UAE and the stability of the region, we share our destiny and future.”

Evidently, there is a deeper churning not visible to outsiders and how far the Saudi-Emirati act of atonement vis-a-vis Islamabad forms a vector, time only will tell.