By HASAN ALHASAN
The unfolding situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where India’s Hindu nationalist government has abruptly ended the state’s autonomous status, puts the Arab Gulf states’ balancing act in South Asia to the test. By raising tensions with Pakistan and increasing the likelihood of a local insurgency breaking out, India has created a zero-sum situation for the Gulf states. While Pakistan is likely to interpret neutrality as an implicitly pro-Indian position, India would probably react vociferously against any foreign pressure on what it considers to be an internal Indian affair.
The fate of Jammu and Kashmir currently hangs in the balance. The federal government has revoked the state’s autonomous status under Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, turning it instead into two union territories controlled by the central government. In anticipation of large-scale violence, the central government has arrested the state’s elected officials and deployed tens of thousands of paramilitary troops. Phone and Internet services have also been suspended, in effect isolating Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of the world.
Historically, Pakistan could count on near-unanimous support among the Arab and Muslim-majority states for its position on Kashmir. Since its creation during the Cold War in 1969, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has served as a platform for pro-Western Pakistan to rally Arab and Muslim support against Soviet-aligned India on Kashmir. Even after the Cold War ended, the Arab Gulf states continued to condemn India’s heavy-handed response to growing insurgency and to advocate for Kashmir’s right to self-determination. In 1994, for instance, Saudi Arabia co-sponsored a Pakistani resolution on Kashmir at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, illustrating the extent of the Gulf states’ support for Pakistan.
However, as they improved their bilateral relations with India from the early 2000s onward, the position of the Gulf states on Kashmir began to change. To appease the two sides, Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab Gulf nation, has adopted a dual policy on Kashmir. At the OIC, Saudi Arabia takes a pro-Pakistani position, echoing the majority sentiment in the organization. In its regional approach to South Asia, however, Saudi Arabia considers the Kashmir conflict to be an Indo-Pakistani issue that the two sides must resolve through dialogue, which is how India sees it too.
Saudi Arabia’s dual policy was on full display during Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan and India in February, as military tensions flared between the two sides across the Line of Control (LOC). In joint statements with Pakistan and India, Saudi Arabia called for comprehensive dialogue between the two, including over Kashmir, a message received with jubilation by the Indian press. Riyadh also dispatched emissaries to act as a back channel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia joined the other members of the OIC’s Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir in condemning India’s heavy-handed security practices while praising Pakistan for its restraint.
It can be argued that Saudi Arabia’s dual policy on Kashmir is tenable as long as tensions in the Indian-administered valley remain under control. However, as the Indian government risks exacerbating an already volatile situation, the prospect of a large-scale insurgency resulting in scores of civilian deaths stands to place Saudi Arabia in a difficult position over relations with India. Conversely, failure to oppose India’s decisions over Jammu and Kashmir, even if there is no insurgency, is likely to be interpreted by Pakistan as a sign of acquiescence to India.
In the meantime, Pakistan and India have both embarked on a frenzied diplomatic effort to reach out to the Gulf states. At an emergency meeting in Jeddah of the OIC Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi tweeted a request to the OIC “to show solidarity through action with the people of IoK [Indian-occupied Kashmir].” The leaders and foreign ministers of the two sides have raced to contact their counterparts in Gulf capitals to try to nudge them one way or the other.
While Saudi Arabia has refrained from taking a position on the unfolding situation in Kashmir, the United Arab Emirates has not held back at all. The UAE’s ambassador to New Delhi, Dr Ahmed Al Banna, described India’s decision as an “internal matter” that would “improve social justice and security and confidence of the people in the local governance and will encourage further stability and peace.” Not only does this express support for India, it also reflects the stellar state of Indo-Emirati relations, which in 2018 were elevated to strategic-partnership level.
Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia can ill afford to take a one-sided view in favor of India – not while Pakistani troops are involved in Saudi border operations against the Houthis in Yemen. Moreover, the Saudi crown prince has developed a warm personal relationship with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who attended the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh in October last year. in February, the crown prince announced investments of up to US$20 billion in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia also regards Pakistan as a gateway to building closer relations with China by participating in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), among other things.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia will be reluctant to alienate India, a major market for Saudi oil and a growing economic partner. In New Delhi, Mohammad bin Salman announced investments of up to $100 billion, spanning areas such as oil refining, food and technology.
The unfolding situation in Kashmir therefore presents the Gulf states with a difficult choice. The UAE appears to have gone for India over Pakistan. Other Gulf nations are weighing their options. But Saudi Arabia’s position is starkly different and much more delicate. As the home of Islam’s holiest sites, its position over the Kashmir conflict could have grave consequences in a hotly contested race for the leadership of the Muslim world.