The February 2019 suicide attack that took the lives of at least 40 paramilitary forces in Indian-administered Kashmir put both Pakistan and India into another escalation cycle with apprehensions of war. The occurrence coincided with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS)’s Asia tour, as he was due to visit Pakistan on the first leg of his visit that very same week. After a pause in Riyadh, India was bin Salman’s second stop on his eastward pivot tour. Following Indian aggression, there was subsequent backlash from Pakistan, and this resulted in the downing of two Indian Air Force jets. An ejected pilot was later returned to Delhi as a gesture of goodwill. During MBS’ visit to both countries, officials from Saudi Arabia neglected to comment on the Pulwama attack. The only indirect mention was by Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir in an interview to NDTV, where he said he hoped that both states would settle the matter keeping the citizens of both countries in mind. Although mediation from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came late, they eventually jumped on the mediation bandwagon due to vested interests in the subcontinent and regional power dynamics.
As India-Pakistan tensions reached a fever pitch and threatened a nuclear spillover, many countries jumped in to mediate, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) albeit somewhat later. Adel al-Jubeir paid one day visits to both India and Pakistan in the first week of March bearing “a special message from the Crown Prince” and UAE envoy Ahmed Al Banna gave “words of wisdom” to both sides over a phone call, claiming that he used the “special relationship” that the UAE maintains with both countries as leverage to mediate. During an interview, Pakistan’s Information Minister stated that crown princes from both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had been significant in diffusing tensions and motivated other countries to take similar steps. While the Saudi response might be interpreted as more proactive since the Saudi Foreign Minister specifically came to visit both countries, the UAE’s response was muted in comparison. Although the simmering of tensions cannot be attributed directly to Gulf country mediation, it nevertheless had an impact since statements on the Pulwama incident subsequently somewhat toned down.
Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE took a much more delayed and cautious approach to mediation compared to countries like Turkey, their efforts were noticeably more active. While countries such as China and the United States merely passed statements, Saudi Arabia was the only country where a high level official to help ease tensions. This was a clear reflection of the importance Saudi Arabia attributes to peace between the two countries and the significance of investments it has made in both states.
Rationale for Mediation: Economic and Strategic Compulsions
Why did Saudi Arabia and the UAE finally jump in to mediate?
The most apparent answer is that the Gulf countries have distinct economic stakes in India and Pakistan. The UAE’s relationship with both countries has traditionally been more economically oriented, while the Saudi-Pakistan relationship has conventionally been seen as an intimate affair between leadership in Riyadh and Islamabad. The Saudi-India relationship is also premised more squarely on the potential for an economic partnership, as Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner. However, for the first time in recent years, both countries have made heavy investments in the subcontinent. This includes the UAE’s 2019 pledge of a USD $6.2 billion support package to Pakistan. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has recently invested $20 billion and up to $100 billion in Pakistan and India respectively. This investment encompasses areas including minerals, agriculture, and technology.
A second reason that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi jumped in to quell tensions is oil – which India and Pakistan both desperately need to power their growing populations. By the year 2024, India, already the world’s third-largest oil consumer, will outstrip China in terms of demand for oil, and U.S. sanctions on Iran have caused India to increasingly look to the Gulf and elsewhere to satisfy its oil needs. In 2018, Saudi Arabia announced that Saudi Aramco will join hands with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in order to set up a refinery and petrochemical complex in India.
On the other hand, Pakistan spends more than USD $16 billion per year on crude oil imports, a total of 26 million tons annually. Saudi investment in an oil refinery and petrochemical complex at the Gwadar port will make it even cheaper for Pakistan to import Saudi oil, saving Pakistan an estimated USD $3 billion annually. Saudi and UAE mediation during the conflict could therefore be attributed to the importance of securing a market for its oil supply as global demand for the commodity dwindles – and South Asia is the perfect market.
The third reason is that during the February crisis Riyadh likely saw the necessity of strengthening its regional status and isolating Iran. Positive bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and India and Pakistan independently might contain the spread of Iranian influence in southern Asia by serving as a check on Delhi and Islamabad’s ties with Tehran. Thus, using Pulwama as an opportunity, Saudi Arabia made a show of its relationships with both India and Pakistan and cemented its position as a neutral arbitrator.
If Saudi Arabia and its allies like the UAE were to appear anything other than neutral during the crisis, they might lose out on the strategic and economic benefits of its partnerships with India and Pakistan. If they displease either Pakistan or India, this might create a domino effect that brings these countries closer to Iran. India has never expressed anything but neutrality regarding Saudi-Iran relations, and maintains strong economic relations with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. It is interesting to note that India is also one of the top export destinations for Iran. Concurrently, India also sponsors Iran’s Chabahar Port with a capital investment of $85.21 million. It is therefore unlikely that Delhi will restrain its ties with Tehran, even if Riyadh were to pressure it to do so.
In the case of Pakistan-Iran ties, these have been strained for quite some time now. However, the advent of the new government in Pakistan last year, Iran made very active efforts to make sure the relationship is on an upward trajectory. Prime Minister Imran Khan will be visiting Tehran on April 21 for the first time since his election. Any misstep during the Pulwama crisis could have pushed Islamabad closer towards Tehran.
A fourth reason could be the provision of mercenaries needed by Saudi Arabia to fight its battles under the cover of existing defense agreements whereby Pakistan has pledged to protect the Kingdom from outward threats. Saudi Arabia has now massively invested in Pakistan and this could be used as leverage to call for Pakistani troops in Yemen or elsewhere. In the case of an Indo-Pak war with both sides enmeshed in their own battles, such a possibility would be no longer be feasible for Riyadh. Although Pakistan refused to send its troops to the war in Yemen in 2015, Riyadh has direct economic stakes in Pakistan’s floundering economy for the first time – which might change the dynamics in the future.
In a worst-case scenario, the Pulwama crisis could have rapidly escalated into a nuclear war, something which would carry severe repercussions the world over. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been diligently trying to secure the right to develop nuclear technology despite much opposition, especially from Tehran. If Pulwama had resulted in a nuclear war, that may have been an end to Saudi ambitions, since the international community would be apprehensive of another nuclear war breaking out.
The Gulf countries who mediated in the February crisis were not acting out of magnanimity – quite the contrary, their vested interests governed all actions. For now they seem focused on maintaining peace in between India and Pakistan. However, both New Delhi and Islamabad need to be cognizant that it is in their interest to settle their bilateral issues between themselves without relying on third-party mediation. Everything comes at a price and involving more stakeholders might put the two countries in an inescapable bind.
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Image 1: MEAphotogallery via Flickr
Image 2: Aamir Qureshi via Getty