This weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit the United Arab Emirates and have the Gulf state’s highest honors bestowed on him. The Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian honor named for its founder, is in “recognition of the distinguished leadership of Prime Minister Modi for giving a big boost to bilateral relations between the two countries,” boasted the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
The award, ostensibly a celebration of ever closer bilateral times, comes as India faces global criticism for its inflammatory decision to revoke the disputed territory of Kashmir’s special autonomous status, sending more than 80,000 troops to augment their already half-million-strong presence, and imposing an unprecedented clampdown which has left Kashmiris unable to communicate with the outside world.
Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstream political leaders remain under house arrest and, according to reports, more than 4,000 other Kashmiris have been detained – a number so large that they had to be relocated elsewhere in India.
Since coming to power in 2014, Modi has steadily been improving relations with the Arab Gulf states. This will be his third visit to the UAE. He will also visit Bahrain, becoming the first Indian prime minister to do so.
Saudi Arabia has also been heavily investing in India as a way of offsetting its dependence on oil revenues. And in similar fashion to the UAE, Saudi Arabia has previously awarded the Prime Minister Modi accolades.
And it is for this reason we are unlikely to see any of the Gulf states express much concern for the fate of Kashmiris.
The UAE, which has US$60 billion of annual trade with India, has already cheered Modi’s crackdown in J&K, claiming it will “improve social justice and security” for what had been India’s sole Muslim-majority state. Last year, the UAE took the unprecedented step of inviting India’s then-foreign minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, to a ministerial meeting among Muslim states – a move that triggered fury from Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed rival and neighbor. Pakistan duly downgraded its attendance in protest, with its foreign minister staying back in Islamabad to seethe.
Bahrain is also looking to boost its billion-dollar trade with India by rolling out the red carpet for Modi this week. The Bahraini authorities, who are highly experienced at crushing protests, have already taken legal action against Pakistani and Kashmiri demonstrators who took to the streets of Manama this month in solidarity with the Kashmiri people.
Diminishing OIC voice
Courting favor with India nevertheless remains a balancing act for the Gulf states, which also face pressure to conform with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Given this balancing act, Gulf states were happy to pay lip service and join a tepid OIC statement by Muslim-majority countries calling for the protection of religious rights in Kashmir. The statement comes after weeks of silence by the world’s self-described collective voice of the Muslim world.
Kashmir was once a totemic issue for the OIC, of which the Gulf states are key members. Second only to Palestine, Kashmir often featured prominently in joint statements issued by the collection of Muslim-majority states as part of its conflict resolution goals, even referring to J&K as territory “occupied by India.”
It was the same at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where Ramadan prayers ritually included mentions of the Kashmiri people. But with several Gulf states in an ever-tightening embrace with Modi, human rights have been discarded in favor of economic opportunities.
This is an indicator of the fracturing of the OIC, which had long struggled to speak with a unified voice. The varying relations with India among its Muslim member states mean bilateral foreign policy positions trump any veneer of collective action by the Muslim body.
India’s growing support
The rapprochement between India and the Arab Gulf region also marks a shift in the traditional diplomatic lines and relations between South Asian and Middle Eastern states.
No doubt, Modi’s visit to the UAE will be seen by Pakistan as a slap in the face as it urgently lobbies for diplomatic support on Kashmir.
Pakistan is now feverishly casting around for allies to rally in its aim of “internationalizing” developments in Kashmir. Through China, it managed to secure a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council – the first to discuss Kashmir in more than four decades – but there was no breakthrough.
China, which is also a party to territorial disputes with India, has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Prime Minister Imran Khan has also made calls to Malaysia and Turkey. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia issued a soft statement citing UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was more vocal.
But there is likely to be silence from most of the Muslim world. India has not only escaped international condemnation for its actions, it is even shoring up support from Muslim allies. The plight of Kashmiris will not only be silenced by India’s clampdown but also the apathy of those who long claimed to speak for them.