Victory for Imran Khan will mean Pakistan’s relations with Saudi and the Middle East will remain warm
With the arrival of election season in Pakistan, political Celsius looks to be running as high as the atmospheric scales. This election will start the third consecutive democratic transition of power since the departure of former military ruler President General Pervez Musharraf after the 2008 elections.
The possibility of new political players arriving at the helm of Pakistani politics presents us with questions about the state of the civil-military relationship in the country and how such a change will affect Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East in general and the Gulf states in particular.
The July 25 elections will bring about the saga of intense political wrangling and rivalry played out between the Government of Pakistan Muslims League (Nawaz) PMLN and the main opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Justice Movement.
The PTI never accepted the electoral victory of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the 2013 elections. The party campaigned against his government, first on the issue of electoral rigging and then on the Panama papers scandal, which eventually resulted in the Supreme Court dismissing him from the premiership and barring him from holding any public office for life.
With Nawaz out of electoral politics and his daughter and brother mired in judicial probes, the political stakes for Imran Khan’s PTI had been on an all-time high. With the inclusion of defecting electables from across the political spectrum, there is a possibility Imran Khan could become the country’s new prime minister.
The possible emergence of such a whole new political reality pushes us into the domain of unknowns and unpredictability, specifically when it comes to the country’s political outlook vis-à-vis the Middle East. Historically Pakistan’s relationship with Middle Eastern states followed the cold war alignment patterns, with the exception of a brief period of cordiality across the board during the premiership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.
With the start of Afghan Jihad, Pakistan’s relationship with the Arab Gulf states acquired a new dynamic and gradually developed into a strategic partnership. Since then the Pakistan Army has not only trained Gulf armies but has also been deployed in different Gulf countries. This security aspect of the relationship has resulted in Pakistan’s military having a solid reputation in the Gulf.
Moreover, Nawaz Sharif has enjoyed good relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey, while his traditional rival, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was considered closer to Iran. With the fall in the political fortunes of the PPP and the rise of the PTI as the new nemesis of Nawaz, traditional political rivalries are not relevant any more.
Since the approaching polls can result in a possible reversal of roles in the parliament, with PTI forming a government and PMLN sitting in opposition, the implications of these developments will be crucial on the state of the civil-military relationship and Pakistan’s calculus toward the Middle East.
These new fault lines in Pakistani politics were on display when, in 2015, under pressure from the PTI-led opposition, the parliament voted against sending Pakistani troops to Yemen and in favor of neutrality in the conflict.
However, as the parliamentary resolution noted and was also pronounced on different occasions afterwards, Pakistan’s commitment toward Saudi national security never changed. It is interesting to note that Pakistan did eventually send some troops to Saudi Arabia in advisory and training roles and, although there was some noise from the opposition, the tacit military will behind the move meant it was overruled.
Since the approaching polls can result in a possible reversal of roles in the parliament, with PTI forming a government and PMLN sitting in opposition, the implications of these developments will be crucial on the state of the civil-military relationship and Pakistan’s calculus toward the Middle East. It is interesting to note here that during the past five years the PMLN’s government and specifically Nawaz Sharif’s relationship with the military can be best summed up as hostile while, on the other hand, the PTI and its leader Imran Khan had a rather positive view of the state’s security establishment.
Another intriguing development has been the recent visit of Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. During the visit, Khan was accorded official protocol by Saudi authorities and on his return, he vowed that Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and China would not change, regardless of the state of Pakistani politics. Moreover, the PTI’s cadres have upped their engagement with Middle Eastern envoys in Islamabad during recent months, realizing their significance vis-à-vis Pakistani politics.
The probability of an improved civil-military relationship and the cordial relationship between Saudi Arabia and the military and the civilian leadership, both, suggest that Pakistan’s engagement with the Middle East will follow traditional patterns of friendship and brotherhood and will not witness any substantial change.
• Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89