Pakistan reconnects with its friends in the Gulf
The 11th general elections of Pakistan, held in August this year, ushered in a new force in the form of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. The months that followed offered a ray of hope to the electorate that the new government would put the country back on track, in terms of better governance and economic prosperity.
These expectations were quickly replaced by a pessimistic outlook of the future as the gravity of the situation began to dawn on those in power. With a current account deficit amounting to $18 billion, Pakistan needed a bailout package worth at least $12 billion – the main reason for the government to kickstart negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The dependence on the IMF would have severely curtailed the new prime minister’s welfare state agenda whose primary focus was to raise the standards of healthcare and education. This was the state of affairs when PM Khan began engaging with Pakistan’s allies in an attempt to explore options which could help him defuse the economic crisis.
Khan's decision to choose Saudi Arabia --- for his first foreign trip after assuming office – and his subsequent visit to the UAE allayed the concerns of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding the PM’s regional preferences, while also establishing the foundation of a new personal relationship.
The two most notable countries approached for this very purpose were the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE. It is pertinent to note that Pakistan’s bilateral ties with both the Gulf states had suffered a setback after Islamabad decided against participating in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The only reason for the channels of communication to have remained open was due to the long-standing security ties shared by the countries, even as a sense of diplomatic disconnect continued to prevail.
Unlike former premier Nawaz Sharif, Khan had no personal or political connections with the royalty in either of the two states. Thus, his request for economic aid was a test of his diplomatic and political mettle in being able to break the ice and build a new relationship from scratch.
Although the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE welcomed the smooth transfer of power in Pakistan, a lack of any prior engagement with Khan compelled them to approach the new government in a rather cautious manner. Realizing the importance of the two states, and in keeping with the advice extended by the country’s national security cadres, Khan decided to pro-actively engage with the Gulf countries to reboot the stagnant bilateral ties. His decision to choose Saudi Arabia --- for his first foreign trip after assuming office – and his subsequent visit to the UAE allayed the concerns of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding the PM’s regional preferences, while also establishing the foundation of a new personal relationship. The trip imitated for the first time a comprehensive, political and economic dialogue between the two sides on an institutional level.
Additionally, the Kingdom inviting Khan to participate in the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference, held in Riyadh recently, was a direct outcome of this new equation which had been finding its feet ever since Khan’s first visit to the country.
Not only was Khan one of the most important guests and speakers at the FII forum, he was also presented with a unique opportunity to detail his vision for Pakistan in front of the world’s commercial elite. The end result was that Khan managed to secure a $3 billion economic aid package to help with the country’s balance of payments issue, with an additional offer of imported oil worth $3 billion, on deferred payments, for the next three years. These developments took place at a time when Saudi Arabia had already agreed to invest in the construction of an oil refinery in Gwadar, the principal seaport of the prestigious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.
Things took a turn for the better following a UAE delegation’s visit to Pakistan to deliberate on measures to revive bilateral ties. The UAE’s interest in setting up a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, as well as its keenness to invest in the housing and agricultural sectors, suggests a resolve to be a strategic part of projects within Pakistan.
This support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE has given a much-needed boost to the political fortunes of the PTI government as it strengthens its footing in negotiating with the IMF, while also helping Pakistan oppose any stringent conditionalities set by the financial body.
On the other end, Pakistan’s opposition -- which was waiting in the wings to take Khan head on if he got stuck in the IMF’s economic quagmire -- has been robbed off its most effective anti-government issue, while simultaneously paving the way for a tougher stance, on the part of the premier and his administration, to weed out corruption cases related to former governments.
The most crucial factor that has contributed towards these diplomatic achievements is the unanimity of views shared by the country’s political and military leadership relating to Pakistan’s foreign policy. It appears as if a fundamental change has taken place in the civil-military relationship and the new association is characterized by a level of mutual trust and affinity that has been never seen before. This new equation has helped Pakistan’s foreign policy maneuver its way through the toughest of situations where its civil and military components seem to be actively complimenting each other in pursuit of joint policy goals.
• Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89