How Will the Changing Geopolitical Dynamics in the Middle East Impact South Asia?

UAE-Israel peace agreement negotiation
Credit: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem / CC BY

On Aug. 13, 2020 United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to a peace agreement, also known as the Abraham Accord. Through this accord, both countries will establish full diplomatic relations. The UAE is the third country from the Arab World to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Egypt and Jordan gave formal recognition to Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively. Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), UAE is the first country to have established diplomatic relations with Israel.

Three days after the agreement between the two countries, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz on Aug. 16 made a formal declaration about military cooperation with the UAE amidst rising tensions with Iran. The UAE has also established telephone links with Israel for the first time by unblocking direct dialling to Israel’s +972 country code and more recently on Aug. 30, the first direct commercial flight from Israel to the UAE took flight.

Iran Factor

Israel in return has agreed to halt the annexation of West Bank and Jordan Valley. But the most important message arising out of this accord is — changing geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East. This accord is seen as a potential “regional buffer to counter Iran’s growing power and influence” and the deepening divide between the Sunni bloc and Iran.

As mentioned earlier, Israel has been gradually expanding its informal diplomatic network in the GCC to an extent that there is “little attempt made to disguise these contacts.” This includes the Israeli PM’s rare visit to Oman in 2018. During Netanyahu’s visit, the prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East were discussed. It is interesting to note that Oman was amongst the first GCC member states to welcome this agreement. The  spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry of Oman expressed the Sultanate’s support for “the UAE’s decision regarding relations with Israel within the framework of the historic joint declaration between it and the United States and Israel.”

Other countries which could follow UAE’s path

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen has recently said that Oman and Bahrain could follow UAE and normalise ties with Israel. Both countries hailed the accord but neither has yet commented on the possibility of their own accords. Any possible accord with Oman will play out interestingly, given the fact that Oman maintains reasonable relations with both the USA and Iran and has not taken any side in the U.S.-Iran rivalry. Bahrain is a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia but they also hosted a senior Israeli official at a security conference in 2019. Then there are countries like Kuwait, which have gone on record to say that “it will be the last country to normalise relation.” 

The developments in the Middle East are being closely watched not just in the region or in Washington but other regions which are impacted by geopolitical and economic developments. 

South Asia

If one were to look at South Asia, both India and Pakistan have been closely watching the developments. India’s ties have strengthened not just with Israel but also the GCC in recent years. The bilateral relationship is no longer linked to oil imports and remittances, though they are an important component. New Delhi has sought to strengthen defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and other GCC countries. It has also sought investments in infrastructure, and deals have been signed for strategic oil reserves with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

The recent agreement between Israel and UAE means New Delhi will not need to walk a tightrope between GCC and Israel. New Delhi welcomed the normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE.

India cannot afford to ignore Iran either, since the Chabahar Port  provides it access to Afghanistan and Central Asia (recently, Iran has expressed its frustration with New Delhi with regard to slow progress and delays in funding for the Chabahar Project). Iran’s importance for New Delhi is reiterated by the point that on his return from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting of Defence Ministers, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a stop over in Iran on September 5, 2020. In a tweet, Singh stated: “Had a very fruitful meeting with Iranian defence minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami in Tehran. We discussed regional security issues including Afghanistan and the issues of bilateral cooperation.”

Three days later, Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar made a stop over in Iran enroute to the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting in Russia. Both sides are supposed to have discussed issues pertaining to bilateral economic relations, and regional security.

Pakistan on its part has traditionally shared close links with GCC but in recent years there have been strains ever since relations between the GCC countries, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and India have strengthened. Ties between Riyadh and Islamabad hit rock bottom when the Saudi Arabia-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation  was criticised by Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi for not taking a firm stance on Kashmir. Pakistan’s Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa went on a damage control mission to Saudi Arabia but his request for a meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman was turned down.

Interestingly, there are some commentators in Pakistan who are batting for a more pragmatic stance vis-à-vis Israel and recommending that Islamabad seriously consider granting diplomatic recognition to Israel. During General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure backchannel discussions supported by Turkey, were held. Again in 2019 the Former President pitched for establishing relations with Israel.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan stated there was no way that Pakistan could grant diplomatic recognition to Israel. Said Khan: “If we recognise Israel and ignore tyranny faced by the Palestinians, we will have to give up Kashmir as well, and this we cannot do.”

The Abraham Accord is likely to be followed by other countries within the GCC block, granting diplomatic recognition to Israel. This is likely to further transform the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East. The accord will have strong reverberations for other parts of the world including South Asia. It also reiterates the point that no country can afford to be excessively rigid and stuck in the past.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. One of his areas of interest is the India-Pakistan-China triangle.

Mahitha Lingala is a Hyderabad (India) based Freelance Policy Analyst.