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This year has been one of the most consequential and tragic in recent memory—and a quarter of it still remains. While it may be remembered above all as the year of the coronavirus pandemic, it has also featured a number of other big-bang global events with rippling and far-reaching implications. One was the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Another, just a few weeks later, was a historic agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban.

And now comes an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel that normalizes the former’s ties with the latter. The UAE becomes just the third Arab state, following Jordan and Egypt, to have official relations with Israel. Some experts believe the deal, which was concluded on August 13, could inspire other states to normalize ties with Israel, though that doesn’t seem to be in the cards—at least not in the immediate term. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, for example, have both said in recent days that they don’t plan to make a move anytime soon.

The UAE-Israel deal doesn’t entail any direct and immediate impacts on South Asia, but it does have some notable implications for the foreign policies of Pakistan and India.

Prime Minister Imran Khan quickly quashed such speculation, reasserting Pakistan’s longstanding position that it won’t normalize ties until there is a two-state solution to which the Palestinians agree.

First, Pakistan—which has never had formal ties to Israel—may face some uncomfortable questions. Soon after the inking of the deal, some commentators on social media wondered whether Pakistan could follow the UAE’s lead. Prime Minister Imran Khan quickly quashed such speculation, reasserting Pakistan’s longstanding position that it won’t normalize ties until there is a two-state solution to which the Palestinians agree.

The prospect of Islamabad normalizing relations with Israel is remote. In a nation where hardline Islamist views are ideologically and politically influential, Pakistan would incur tremendous risks if it did so. However, several senior Pakistani leaders of various political persuasions—including Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, and Shah Mahmood Qureshi—have called for better ties with Israel over the last few decades. Back in 2005, in Turkey, Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers met publicly for the first time. There has been some covert cooperation in previous decades, and in 2018 press reports surfaced that an Israeli jet landed in a Pakistani airport (such reports were denied by Islamabad).

The Pakistan-Israel relationship is complex and sensitive, and Islamabad likely prefers that questions about it stay out of the public sphere. And yet the UAE-Israel deal could invite the very questions that Pakistan would much rather avoid.

Second, the new agreement throws more fuel on the fire of a raging Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry that casts a deep shadow across Pakistan. An apparent U.S. objective for the accord was to push back against Tehran by getting a Saudi-aligned state to push closer to Iran’s bitter enemy. Pakistan, and especially the current government, has long sought to position itself as a neutral in this complex rivalry—traditionally a tall order, given its deep relationship with Riyadh. However, Qureshi, the current foreign minister, triggered a spat with Riyadh several weeks ago when he criticized the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—a Saudi-led group—for not doing more to bring attention to the Kashmir issue. A new agreement between Iran and China, arguably Pakistan’s closest ally, also suggests Islamabad may edge a bit closer to Tehran.

However, all this said, Pakistan is keen to maintain its strong relations with Riyadh (a visit to Riyadh by Pakistan’s Army Chief resulted in declarations from both the Saudi and Pakistani sides insisting that the partnership remains warm), and to continue to position itself as neutral in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. And yet, the UAE-Iran deal, by driving Riyadh and Tehran further apart, could give the Saudis and Iranians greater incentives to pressure Pakistan to help them pursue their respective regional interests.

Generally speaking, the UAE-Israel deal has fewer deleterious implications for India than it does for Pakistan.

Generally speaking, the UAE-Israel deal has fewer deleterious implications for India than it does for Pakistan. New Delhi has a friendly and growing relationship with Israel, and it tends not to get dragged into the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry because—unlike Pakistan—it doesn’t have very deep or very poor relations with either country.

However, with New Delhi trying to scale up its relations with countries across the Middle East, the rivalry between the region’s two most consequential players other than Israel will be difficult to avoid. Additionally, the UAE-Israel deal risks undermining India’s already-floundering relationship with Iran—a key commercial, and especially energy, partner for New Delhi until U.S. sanctions in recent years took their toll and began to hamper India’s ability to do business with Iran.

The UAE-Israel deal will deliver another blow to U.S.-Iran relations. It ensures (especially if the Trump administration returns for a second term) the continuation of harsh U.S. sanctions on Iran that in recent years have compelled India—a close and growing partner of Washington’s—to scale down its energy imports from Tehran, formerly one of New Delhi’s top foreign suppliers. Compounding all this is the new Iran-China agreement, which may compel Tehran to invite Beijing (instead of New Delhi) to develop the Chabahar port in southern Iran—originally part of a wider envisioned transport corridor project involving India, Iran, and Afghanistan. There has already been some doubt about India’s future role in the Chabahar project, with some reports in July indicating that Tehran had decided that India would not be involved in a Chabahar rail project—though both the Iranian and Indian governments later insisted India is still onboard. 

The UAE-Israel agreement may be a purely bilateral deal, but it has highly multilateral implications—including for two rival South Asian states with important interests in the Middle East.

Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more