The Waning Role of Religion in the Middle East’s Tacit Acceptance of India’s Recent Position on Kashmir

PM Modi with King Salman

The noticeably muted response of the Muslim majority Middle East states on India’s recent removal of special autonomous status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, after it revoked the Article 370 of the constitution must be seen in light of changing dynamics of priorities in the foreign policy calculations of the Middle East states. The Middle East has always supported Pakistan during conflicts against India. Against such a background the new development is indeed a decisive shift in their overall foreign policy orientation. So what prompted this change? Apart from India’s deepening ties with the Middle East states, an important factor which played a huge part was regional politics and changing foreign policy orientation. 

Historically, geopolitical and foreign policy considerations in the Middle East have been influenced by the ideational element of Muslim sentiments. Even as the common picture of turmoil ridden region can be attributed to poor leadership, one of the major factors behind the poor leadership has been religion. Too much focus on religion has often veritably hindered the entry of realism on different aspects of foreign relations. However, recent trends suggest a changing picture. Discernibly there is backsliding of religion as a dominant factor in the foreign policies of the GCC countries in which religion is being increasingly superseded by strategic and security interests in shaping regional affairs.   

The fact is traditional consideration of sentiments associated with Muslim Ummah and the aligned notion of brotherhood and solidarity are conspicuously losing grip over the foreign policy calculus of the Middle East. Under the emerging pragmatic framework, the Middle East states are more preoccupied with their bourgeoning national interests and scramble for regional dominance in the competitive regional landscape. In this regard, analysing the recent events which have caught the international attention involving Muslim sentiments might reveal more. 

Cold Response to the Rohingyas and the Uighurs

The recent Rohingyas crisis which sparked world attention had a strong religious and ethnic angle. However, the Middle East’s cold response was far below the expectations from the international community especially the Muslim world. They not only showed disregard in dealing with the problem constructively but countries like Saudi Arabia also deported scores of the Rohingyas in its territory. John Packer, director of Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the University of Ottawa, said that Saudi Arabia’s decision to deport the Rohingya was something new. This attests the fact that there is a change in the way Saudi Arabia looked at the Muslim world. 

Similar was the response from the Islamic world to the human rights violations of the Uighur Muslims by China. The Middle East remained quiet and explicitly sided with China. Further, some of the members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) signed a petition defending China‘s treatment of Uighur Muslims. According to Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese-Middle East relations expert at the University of Technology Sydney ‘Many states in the Middle East are becoming more economically dependent on China’ and ‘China’s geoeconomic strategy has resulted in political influence.’ 

Touch of Pragmatism in Middle East-Israel Ties

Moreover, the Middle East states have deftly managed to move away from an idealist foreign policy, which concerns the notion of Muslim brotherhood, in their approach towards Israel. There are many reasons for this change. Broadly, deepening ethnic and sectarian conflicts in the region, problems unleashed by the ‘Arab Spring’, disenchantment with Palestine Authority, competing strategic interests and imperial ambitions are to name a few. 

Early trends towards a pragmatic foreign policy have already begun to appear. The gulf countries are aware of the promising economic, technological and security benefits of upgrading the ties with Israel. Countries like Oman and Jordan making public statements in favour of normalisation of ties with Israel also points to the waning religious elements in the Middle East foreign policy.

More importantly, a new regional configuration is seemingly underway in which Iran and Saudi rivalry has come to the forefront of the geopolitics of the region. In fact, Iran’s rise to dominance in the Middle East has further entrenched Saudi-Iran tensions. This development has fostered to see eye to eye not only between some of the important players in the region such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries but also with their long-standing adversary Israel. The improving relations between Arab Gulf countries and Israel must also be seen in light of this converging interest in containing Iran. 

Overall, the above trends suggest the crucial role of the emerging dynamics of geopolitics and shifting foreign policy considerations in the Middle East in rendering support for India’s recent stance on Kashmir. 

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India • GODL-India

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.