The United Arab Emirates, historically close to all South Asian countries, is the latest among many traditional friends trying to make Pakistan aware of the futility of its zero sum competition with India. UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on January 26 and a contingent of UAE soldiers led this year’s parade. From the UAE’s perspective, the gesture acknowledged economic, political and security realities. With $60 billion in bilateral trade in 2015, the UAE is India’s third largest trading partner, after the United States and China. It is also the 10th largest foreign investor in India with over $8 billion in investments. Indian companies have invested around $55 billion in the UAE and annual remittances from the 2.6 million-strong Indian diaspora amount to $8 billion.
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Pakistan’s ruling elite, especially its all-powerful military, tends to see other nations as close to India or as friends of Pakistan. The Pakistani narrative often ignores economics and sees international relations in binary terms, emphasising religion and ideology. Some Pakistani commentators have already started taking potshots at “fellow Muslims” embracing “Hindu India” at the expense of Pakistan. Ironically, UAE is not the first Gulf Arab Muslim country affirming friendship with India as chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade. Former Saudi King Abdullah was the chief guest at the 2006 parade and proudly declared India his “second home.”
For its part, the UAE has maintained close ties with both India and Pakistan historically even while providing critical support to Pakistan at crucial times. The largest Indian and Pakistani diaspora in the Gulf are in the UAE and they send much valued remittances to both countries. The communities often also get along quite well, benefiting from their shared cultures. Pakistan’s effort to build an iron curtain with India breaks down in the UAE as it does elsewhere around the world. Given the geographic proximity and easy access to both countries, Indians and Pakistanis often interact in Dubai, in addition to breaking trade and travel barriers.
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Since becoming independent in 1971, the UAE has shown tremendous sensitivity to Pakistani concerns in the security realm even while expanding trade and economic ties with India. During the 1970s, Pakistan concluded a military protocol with the UAE and other Gulf countries, which enabled Pakistani officers to train and serve in the armed forces and police of these countries. The UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, made it his country’s policy to assist Pakistan’s economy by hiring Pakistani labour in addition to giving direct aid. Between 1971 and 2015, the UAE was the destination country for 32.9 per cent of Pakistani migrant workers. As of 2016, according to World Bank data, the 1.2 million strong Pakistani diaspora in the UAE sends remittances worth $4.36 billion annually to Pakistan.
Moreover, the UAE has periodically offered balance-of-payments support in addition to investment in specific projects to help Pakistan get through times of economic difficulty, such as the years immediately after Pakistan’s loss of Bangladesh and at other interludes of political turmoil. Bilateral aid, which started with the setting up of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD) in 1974, over the years has made the UAE the second largest Arab donor to Pakistan while Pakistan has been the largest ADFD aid recipient in Asia. Still, the UAE’s affection for Pakistan’s people cannot alter two harsh facts that make India more important for most countries than Pakistan. First, the difference of size between the two South Asian neighbours. Compared to $60 billion in bilateral trade between the UAE and India, its volume of trade with Pakistan stood at only $7 billion in 2015. Although the UAE is the fourth major foreign investor in Pakistan, the cumulative value of those investments stands at $20 billion, much less than the UAE’s investment relationship with India.
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The second, more significant, reality that is undermining Pakistan’s ability to remain the UAE’s first friend in South Asia is its policy of tolerance for jihadi terrorism. The UAE has taken the lead in confronting the violent Islamist narrative espoused by various jihadi groups while Pakistan remains hesitant to give up support for violent groups that it sees as instruments of regional influence. The January 11 attack by Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban belonging to the Haqqani Network at the governor’s house in Kandahar resulted in the death of five UAE diplomatic staff and the wounding of its ambassador to Kabul, Juma Mohammed Abdullah Al Kaabi. Such incidents demonstrate how the UAE and Pakistan might be moving in opposite directions. Pakistan’s national narrative paints India as a permanent enemy and Pakistanis tend to expect their friends, whether in the greater Muslim world or the West, to view India through Pakistan’s eyes. As the UAE crown prince stands alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the dais and UAE troops march alongside India’s soldiers in Delhi on India’s Republic Day, Pakistan must review its narrative and policies. If all of Pakistan’s friends are befriending India, perhaps it is time to give up the mantra of “permanent enemy” and come to terms with new regional and global realities.