Pakistan’s Middle East foreign policy needs a strategic boost
In the last year since the formation of the Imran Khan-led government in Pakistan, the country has managed to prop itself up on the world map in a very positive way.
This has been achieved as a result of a consensus between different power centers within the country on the need to work together for attaining foreign policy goals. Subsequently, it resulted in a campaign of hyper diplomacy involving not only the diplomatic corps but boosted by the personal initiatives of Prime Minister Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The dividends of this new foreign policy outlook have been prominent on the political and economic fronts, but the outlook still lacks a strategic reconnect, one that extends beyond the mere normalization of bilateral relations specifically in the Middle East.
Khan’s new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf government faced huge challenges when it entered the corridors of power, from a mounting balance of payments crisis to a certain degree of diplomatic isolation. As the country’s relationship with the US deteriorated, fears arose that Pakistan stood in danger of being blacklisted by Paris-based terror financing watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force.
Khan’s personal interaction has been instrumental in breaking the ice with the UAE and shaping a new relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Regionally, bilateral engagement with some of Pakistan’s traditional allies particularly those in the Middle East had declined over the years due to neglect. This resulted in Pakistan’s arch-rival India filling the void and establishing its footprint within the Arabian Gulf countries.
Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict no doubt impacted its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A watershed moment arrived when Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed attended Indian’s Republic Day Parade as the guest of honor.
The former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government had maintained a cordial relationship with Qatar and Turkey, the other political grouping within the Middle East, and yet it failed to accrue any significant economic incentives from these ties. The personal ties between former Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif and Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan did result in some Turkish investment within the country, but no significant progress was made on a Free Trade Agreement between the two sides. On the other hand, Pakistan signed an LNG deal with Qatar in a bid to relieve the country’s energy problems in 2016, a contract that has been marred by allegations of corruption and kickbacks.
Bilateral ties with Kuwait and Oman also remained largely lackluster in recent years. In the case of Kuwait, Pakistani citizens remained on a visa blacklist since 2011 and the previous two governments had failed to take any significant steps to reverse this. Ties with Iran have remained uneasy at best, owing to a bilateral trust deficit and to the arrest of an Indian intelligence operative from the Pakistan-Iran border.
This lack of strategic vision in the last ten years has cost Pakistan a great deal. A coherent approach to engage with the region while understanding its political fault lines remained amiss in all power circles responsible for foreign policymaking. And even though Pakistan didn’t get itself involved in any of the Middle East’s political or armed conflicts, it failed to develop any significant political relevance, let alone goodwill, with its partners in the region.
But when Khan’s new government came to power, it was forced to take up emergency measures to improve the country’s economic and political situation, and reconnected with its traditional allies in the Middle East. The perception of a new political player on the Pakistani political fold and the relative ambiguity about Khan’s policy orientations helped to craft a fresh start, and the country’s security institutions pooled their diplomatic capital within the Arabian Gulf states to assist the government.
Khan has remained at the center of this foreign policy approach and has personally tried to connect with all regional actors. This time, the difference is that Khan is not only representing his government as well as himself but also the Pakistani state and its institutions — something that remained elusive in previous engagements by former leaders. Khan’s personal interaction has been instrumental in breaking the ice with the UAE and shaping a new relationship with Saudi Arabia. Engagement with Qatar, Turkey, and Iran also remains positive.
But for all the achievements this government has unlocked over the past one year, one fundamental challenge remains unaddressed. The government has yet to develop a comprehensive foreign policy approach toward the Middle East. A lot can be heard in the silence that came with the Middle East’s recent, muted stance regarding the Indian revocation of Kashmir’s special status, and it suggests that Pakistan needs to still strategically orient its ties with the region and regain the political space it lost with its traditional allies over the neglect of the last many years.