The year that was and the year that will be for Pakistan’s changing foreign policy
It would not be wrong to say that Pakistan, this year, has seen phenomenal changes both at the home front and externally. As the year edges to a close, the time is ripe to evaluate how the year has been in terms of the country’s foreign policy and the major drivers that have shaped Pakistan’s external outlook.
The removal of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in July last year brought down the established political order. The ensuing political developments further contributed toward the disorderly political structure.
The climate of political uncertainty finally ended with the elections in July of this year which propelled Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s chairperson, Imran Khan, into power. This new establishment is characterized by a unique modus vivendi between the civilian government, the military, and the country’s powerful judiciary where the three stakeholders are working in line without indulging in any subversive activities toward each another. The current state of affairs has resulted in bold political initiatives being adopted by the government on the foreign policy front with the full backing and coordination of Pakistan’s military establishment.
If there’s an arena where this policy shift has been most marked, it is in Pakistan’s relationship with the political players in the Middle East. During the past five years, Pakistan has remained at an arm’s length from the conflicts engulfing the Middle East.
Its policy of non-engagement, however, has not come without a price. Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in Yemen had a negative impact on its ties with the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The mutual distrust between the civilian government and state institutions in the wake of the political agitation of 2014 had created an environment in which foreign policy decisions were taken without any prior deliberation or without input from national security elites.
This resulted in the government’s failure to diffuse the crisis in an amicable manner. It did little to not impact its ties with the Gulf allies by embarking on a proactive diplomatic engagement with them that could have explained Pakistan’s domestic security challenges and the practical limitations that had led it to take the decision.
The current state of affairs has resulted in bold political initiatives being adopted by the government on the foreign policy front with the full backing and coordination of Pakistan’s military establishment.
As the new government took charge, it faced a severe economic crisis fueled by a spiraling current account deficit that warranted an influx of $12 billion to resolve its balance of payments issue. This economic crisis further compelled the new government to re-engage with its friends in the Gulf, which was not only driven by economic woes but also by a realization that if Pakistan needed to carve out a unique political role for itself in the region, it had to strengthen its relationship with the polities in the Gulf first.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been empowered to institutionally develop foreign policy goals by actively coordinating with the security establishment. This is starkly different from the practice that had been the norm in the past five years when, for one, there was no full-time foreign minister, and two, the diplomatic engagement with the Gulf and the Middle East had been largely personalized.
It must also be kept in mind that the new government was profoundly welcomed by royals in not just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also by Iran. Understandably so, Pakistan opted for a more robust relationship with the Kingdom and the UAE as compared to Iran which was reeling with the effects of the re-imposition of US sanctions but had also been a key destination for Indian investment vis-à-vis the Chahbahar Port, thereby complicating the regional balance of power.
Building upon all of these domestic and regional factors, Pakistan’s realignment with the two key Gulf states finally saw the light of day. This time, however, the alignment is strategic. In the case of Saudi – keeping the financial aid provided by Riyadh aside — a key strategic marker will be the Kingdom’s investment in Pakistan which it hopes to do so by building an oil refinery and inking a Free Trade Agreement.
Similarly, Pakistan has also been successful in achieving a comprehensive rapprochement with the UAE by acquiring a financial package, in addition to a promise to procure Emirati investments. On the other hand, Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now active players in the Afghan peace process.
Pakistan facilitated a meeting between the US and Taliban negotiators in Abu Dhabi which was attended by Saudi and Emirati officials, thereby essentially opening up a new avenue for talks that had taken place in Qatar earlier.
This combination of smart diplomacy and vigorous engagement is gradually slicing out a political role for Pakistan — even as it reduces its regional and international isolation — thus ending the year on a good note. – Umer 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.