Nicknamed “Little Sparta” by American generals like former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the United Arab Emirates is widely acknowledged as a small country that punches far above its weight in military terms. But the tiny Gulf state also has outsize ambitions as a peace broker.
Its de factor ruler, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, was the prime mover in last year’s Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states. Going further back, Emirati diplomats played a key role alongside their Saudi counterparts in mediating the 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The UAE’s latest peacemaking project is arguably its most audacious ever. As Bloomberg reported last week, the Emiratis brokered the negotiations between India and Pakistan that led to an unexpected February 25 announcement that the South Asian rivals would respect their 2003 cease-fire agreement, despite heightened tensions between them.
The announcement was followed by a quick visit to India by the UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.
The UAE is hoping to facilitate an exchange of ambassadors between New Delhi and Islamabad and restoration of trade links between the two countries. More ambitious still, it is aiming to secure a viable understanding on Kashmir, which has been the flashpoint for several wars since their 1947 partition upon independence from British rule.
The two nuclear-armed neighbours are locked in what may be the world’s most dangerous faceoff. The latest round of tensions began two years ago when 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack, claimed by a Pakistan-based terrorist group, in Kashmir. India retaliated by launching air strikes inside Pakistan. Since then, the leaders of the two countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Imran Khan, have blown hot and cold, with little progress toward peace — until last month’s announcement.
In many ways, the Emiratis are uniquely qualified to mediate between the two countries. It has strong trade and commercial ties to both, and is home to millions of Indian and Pakistani expatriate workers. And since the conflict is rooted in mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, the UAE’s credentials are strengthened by its aggressive promotion, at home and abroad, of a separation of politics and religion.
Kashmir has been a consistent rallying cry for terrorist groups and radical Islamist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban, which the UAE considers its most dangerous opponents. Helping to defuse the conflict would allow the Emiratis to strike a significant blow against violent extremists.
The South Asian initiative also plays into the UAE’s pursuit of other important foreign-policy objectives. It helps to deepen the partnership with Washington by paralleling American efforts to resolve the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, where India and Pakistan have competing economic and security interests. At the same time. amity between its allies is doubly desirable for the UAE as American appetite to act in the Middle East appears to be waning.
In recent years, the UAE has shifted its attention away from military projection to diplomacy, investment and other forms of soft power. Most of the regional conflicts through which it has sought to advance its interests militarily, either directly or through proxies, are resolved or stale-mated, or have otherwise passed the point of diminishing returns.
The UAE has greatly reduced its footprint in Yemen and drawn down its forces in the Horn of Africa. It is looking to scale back in Libya, where it provided both air cover and material support for the rebel forces of Khalifa Haftar; the Emiratis are now backing a political solution to the civil war.
The UAE has also sought to reduce tensions with Iran and is leading Arab efforts to reengage with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, having concluded that the war there has effectively ended and that the only way to advance Emirati interests is through political, diplomatic and commercial means.
The UAE is hoping that India and Pakistan will take a similarly enlightened view of their conflict. If they do, some of the credit will redound to the Emiratis. And if not, “Little Sparta” will be credited for at least trying to make peace.