Pakistan’s ties with Gulf states: A rapprochement with the UAE in the offing
During the last ten years Pakistan has under-performed in various policy avenues and, if one was to talk about achieving foreign policy objectives, the situation has not been much different.
One of the primary reasons for such a predicament had been the nature of Pakistan’s civil-military relationship, which was plagued by mutual distrust with two different foreign policies being pursued. Things were hardly better when it came to Pakistan’s engagement with the Gulf countries. During the five years of the Pakistan People Party’s (PPP) government, there was a perception within Gulf circles of it being pro-Iran and that strained the relationship, becoming evident in the WikiLeaks revelations. The close ties between the Gulf countries and the Pakistani security establishment saved the relationship from total breakdown. In the next five years under the Nawaz Sharif government, though initially there were promising signs, the good will ended once Pakistan decided against joining the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
This formed the backdrop of the new government’s interaction with Pakistan’s allies in the Gulf. During the first three months of its tenure, Imran Khan’s administration has adopted a strategy of continuous engagement with the polities in the Gulf, leading to a visible rapprochement between the two sides. The Pakistani premier has twice visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The response - in terms of financial support and commitments towards investing in the country - suggests a willingness to move forward and the start of a closer relationship.
A key diplomatic success for the new government has been resetting Pakistan’s relationship with the UAE. Bilateral ties had nosedived in the last five years. The critical factor in this downward trajectory was Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, which the UAE retains a major role in. There was a scathing reaction from Emirati government circles and media outlets to the decision. Both sides got into a war of words when the Emirati Deputy Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, criticized Pakistan’s refusal and implied the country’s political position was more in line with Iran and Turkey.
During Khan’s first trip to Abu Dhabi, the presence of the Emirati crown prince at the airport to personally receive him meant a thaw in ties was at hand.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan rejected the criticism, deeming it an insult and a violation of diplomatic norms. This prompted a revision of Emirati policy towards Pakistan and it started warming to India. The Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed was chief guest at last year’s Republic Day military parade in India. The presence of a large Indian expatriate community in the Gulf, and India’s rise as a new economic power on the world stage, also contributed in compelling the decision makers in Abu Dhabi to change their alignment patterns within South Asia.
The breakdown in ties could also be attributed to the intra-Gulf feud between the UAE and Qatar at one end, with tensions between Turkey and the UAE on the other. The former Pakistani government developed exceptional ties with Turkish President Reccep Teyyip Erdogan and the Qatari royal family.
In the wake of the Panama Papers investigation into Sharif, Emirati authorities fully cooperated with the investigative commission formed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and provided it with the former premier’s work permit that ultimately resulted in his disqualification. The whole incident was enough to highlight the foundering of Pakistan-Emirati relations.
During Khan’s first trip to Abu Dhabi, the presence of the Emirati crown prince at the airport to personally receive him meant a thaw in ties was at hand. This was followed by the visit of a high ranking Emirati business delegation to explore ventures for bilateral trade and investment. This meant the Emiratis were also willing to support Pakistan financially in its dire economic situation. Particularly revealing were the words of Pakistan’s information minister, who suggested the two sides had been working together for some time to chalk out details of an economic package.
This was the backdrop of Khan’s second visit to Abu Dhabi that ultimately resulted in both sides entering a long-term strategic economic partnership. A new chapter has begun in the Pakistan-Emirates relationship, and the progression in bilateral ties will further help Pakistan in restoring the regional balance of power that lately had started to favour India.
- 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 tension, the Syria conflict, the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89