Mission possible – Pakistan’s embassies build bridges in the Arab world
Pakistan has always had an instant empathy for the Arab world – something which could be explained by its geographical proximity, a shared religious bond, increasing trade ties and a large presence of Pakistani expatriates in the Arab countries. Pakistan’s consistent support of the Palestinian cause is known to all and sundry. It played a proactive role during the decolonization phase and was at the forefront in supporting the cause for freedom in Algeria and Tunis. While two million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia, another half a million visit the country every year for religious reasons. Islamabad’s cooperation in the defense sector, with the Arab World in general and GCC countries in particular, has been impressive too. There are currently 17 Pakistan diplomatic missions in the capitals of major Arab nations.
Representatives from these missions have always played an active role in advocating Arab issues at the United Nations, prime among them being the Palestinian cause. Pakistan fully supports the two-nation solution in Palestine and when the US government decided to move its diplomatic mission to Jerusalem in May this year, Islamabad immediately co-sponsored a resolution in the General Assembly to condemn the decision, saying it was in violation of the international law. “Unilateral actions of one country were set to undo decades of work by the international community and to defy international law. Pakistan rejected the decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate its embassy,” Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, said. The resolution got 128 votes in favor and only nine against it.
And while commercial relations between Pakistan and the Arab countries have always shown great potential, external trade of some Arab countries was controlled by the public sector up until the 1980s, with a majority of the industry players operating in the same sector. At the time, the Arab nations were divided into two – those that were socialist and others who had chosen to follow market economy’s principles.
I was posted in the Pakistani missions in Cairo and Damascus in the mid-70s and can vouch for a fact that the trade ties between Pakistan and these two groups were limited due to various export regimes. However, gradually-introduced economic reforms made these more viable, with bilateral trade between Pakistan and Egypt alone amounting to $200 million today.
Additionally, the Arabian Gulf nations have shared commercial ties with the South Asian sub-continent since a very long time, too. Trade ties with Pakistan, therefore, always held a lot of promise because just like in Pakistan, the private sector in these countries dominated external trade as well.
It is notable to observe that the development and resultant prosperity witnessed in the past 50 years in these countries has been a major contributing factor in increasing the purchasing power of the common man. The downside of progress, however, has been the energy issue faced by Pakistan over the years due to its increased economic activities.
Close geographic proximity between Pakistan and the GCC has also facilitated trade, making it easier and more profitable. Moreover, a concentrated effort on part of the Pakistan embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in pursuing commercial objectives in a vigorous manner, has also helped elevate the status of these two countries in becoming Pakistan’s top trading partners.
On the defense front, Pakistan’s diplomatic missions in many Arab capitals continue to play an active role in bolstering co-operation. Pakistan was subjected to external aggression in 1971 and Kuwait was occupied in 1990. Defense readiness and constant vigilance are essential requirements for safeguarding the freedom and national sovereignty of any country. Pakistan, in that sense, has a sizeable and experienced army, boasting one of the finest defense training institutions in the world.
It is imperative to note that Pakistan and its Arab neighbors share a joint responsibility in combatting all forms of terrorism; particularly in safeguarding commercial lanes near the Strait of Hormuz, Gulfs of Oman and Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
The threat of terrorism in these areas is a new phenomenon which demands naval co-operation and the defense departments in the Pakistan missions have worked hard to rise to the occasion and bolster cooperation. Pakistan’s distinguished participation, through all three defense forces, in Saudi Arabia early this year was a realization of those very capabilities.
All Pakistani missions in GCC countries have well-trained Community Welfare Wings whose primary function is to identify skilled and non-skilled Pakistani workers and ensure their welfare. These departments help expatriate Pakistanis with their court cases and, in case of accidental deaths, process a case for compensation with the help of local authorities. Many Pakistani schools in Arab countries are managed by the embassies, too, and are often used to host community cultural programs, food festivals and sports activities.
When the Gwadar port becomes fully functional and the multi-billion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor project is operational, it is expected that China’s trade with the Middle East and Africa, via Pakistan, will increase manifold; while Pakistan’s own commercial activities with countries from the Arabian Gulf will get a further boost. The role of Pakistani embassies in these countries will gain even more significance then.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed