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September 6, 2019

Pakistan-UAE relations — from another lens


September 6, 2019

We must resist to take the bait— efforts are being made to create a wedge between Pakistan and the UAE by both naïvetés and vested interests following Kashmir crisis and the UAE conferring award on PM Modi. After almost a decade of diplomatic efforts, Pakistan achieved a reset in relations with the UAE—a small but influential Arab country in GCC and the region. The reset was after Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s relentless lobbying and the charisma and assurances of Prime Minister Imran Khan that Islamabad succeeded to end the ill-will generated during the last decade.

Also read: UAE had told Pakistan IHK not Muslim Ummah issue

Foreign policy is never based on emotions nor it is the function of the interest of any other country. Equally it is not a zero sum game. The visit of UAE’s foreign minister along with his Saudi counterpart to Islamabad was aimed at (among other messaging) narrowing the divergence on Kashmir and the UAE’s India policy.

The UAE has clear stance: it supports India over Kashmir; (like Pakistan) it backs China on Xinjiang and Hong Kong but (unlike Islamabad), it has joined ranks with Israel over the Palestinian issue. The UAE being a Muslim state never supported causes on the basis of human rights and belief.

It’s national imperatives stem from other compulsions: first economic—the UAE economy is based on expatriate labour and investment (i.e. Indian investment in real estate and other business and it's cheap labour contributing to the Emarati economy in a big way; in medium terms, the UAE like Saudi Arabia will be switching to non-carbon economy thus it is securing markets, investments in capital and other sophisticated technologies to sustain the UAE as major successful GCC country; in short term, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are eyeing on India’s oil demand which is trying to replace Iran after the US sanctions.

Second, in geo-political context, the UAE never deemed Kashmir as a major human rights issue nor its direct stakes are threatened warranting enough intervention to upset Delhi; Kashmir is not in its backyard like Yemen; then Pakistan was within its rights when it did not support the UAE and the KSA on Yemen issue sending a message that a country can have a relation with another country yet maintaining divergence on one of its important foreign policy pillars, Yemen in this instance.

Again Islamabad has balanced its ties with GCC and also maintains close relations with Iran: Tehran understands Islamabad’s need to have strategic relations with the KSA and good relations with the UAE; like India being a threat to Pakistan’s very existence claiming its 33 percent borders, the UAE also treats Iran as an existential threat according to its threat perception. It’s friendly relations with Israel also stems from its threat perception based around the idea of a hostile neighbourhood dominated by Iran.

Emirati oil supply security and its importing and exporting Dubai port are facing prospects of stiff competition from potential and actual ports (i.e. Gwadar and Bandar Abbas respectively) making it all the more important to get close to Israel, (yet Pakistan understands Iran-UAE rivalry and its underlying reasons).

Third, strategically speaking, CPEC and Gwadar makes the UAE nervous as it might be a new maritime logistical hub. But it may not necessarily transit to any convergence with India on CPEC’s subversion. In other words, the UAE will never cross Islamabad’s red line on CPEC— since China being a stakeholder, the UAE cannot upset sensitivity of Beijing and also, for the UAE, it is going to be a huge potential energy mark.

The UAE is not an atomic power like Pakistan and in order to secure itself, it needs allies like India and Israel; it has to project power behind UAE borders to address its geographical choke points and potential snarling by Tehran, hence it cannot afford another hostile or unfriendly relations with major rising powers after Tehran, so setting its thought process out for smooth diplomatic relations with India.

But make no mistake: the UAE equally wants to keep friendly relations with Pakistan; for Islamabad is a rising geo-political power and is pivoting to Euro-Asia—a new multipolar geo-political alignment with its own standardisation parallel to the US-led order.

Pakistan is strategic hinge for Russia to access Indian Ocean and gateway to BRI linking Middle East with Euro-Asia hungry markets. The UAE cannot access Euro-Asia through Iran and is left with Gwadar as only option like the KSA.

Then Islamabad being a nuclear power, it is a reliable security guarantor par excellence in the unpredictable post-Trump US—a fall back option for the UAE. Islamabad’s policy makers need not to be alarmed at burgeoning relations between the UAE and India; realise the strategic, economic and political compulsions of the Emirates; needs to keep close ties with the UAE regardless of latter’s foreign policy choices; and must remember, diplomatic positions evolve from initial terse reactions. So the best policy remains robust engagement at every geo-political earthquake and undercurrent with friendly country like the UAE.

The writer is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and ex-adviser to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Centre for Geo-Politics & Balochistan.