Pakistan’s political thinkers need a better education in Middle East affairs
Conducting foreign relations depends as much on the whims of decision-makers and their ideological and political considerations, as it does on the kind of knowledge diplomats and leaders possess. Once nations are equipped with a better understanding of their counterparts on the global and regional scale, they are posited to better promote their objectives while keeping their compromises to a minimum.
This makes research and knowledge production in the sphere of international affairs and bilateral relations a vital component of any state’s diplomatic machinery. The tool-kit for this purpose entails a mixture of research institutions and academic scholarship.
The lack of opportunities and incentives within the academic fold to study the region invariably results in a dearth of indigenous knowledge and academics that are experts on Middle East affairs.
Pakistan does have a group of these institutions, referred to in the diplomatic world as ‘think-tanks.’ But the work force for these organizations is produced by academic institutions which, despite having strong faculties of political science and international relations, almost solely focus on Pakistan’s immediate neighbors and the great world powers. There has been an abject negligence, particularly when it comes to carrying out research and scholarship work, on the Middle East and the broader Islamic world.
The Middle East has remained critical for Pakistan and the country has long-standing political, economic and security ties with various states in the region. From flying Syrian fighter jets in the 1973 war to stationing troops within Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has always been present on the political sphere of this invariably important region. Yet, studying Middle Eastern politics has never been a priority among the country’s intelligentsia or in Pakistan’s leading academic institutions. The study sphere of international relations within Pakistan is dominated by the United States, China, India and Afghanistan. All other countries and regions remain only of secondary significance for policy-makers and academia.
Only one Pakistani university has a dedicated study center for the Middle East. The lack of opportunities and incentives within the academic fold to study the region invariably results in a dearth of indigenous knowledge and academics that are experts on Middle Eastern affairs.
Beyond institutional obstacles, the research conducted within Pakistan on the Middle East is plagued by two major problems. The first issue remains the lack of trained students of Middle Eastern politics and international relations. This is a direct consequence of the absence of a specialist establishment geared to produce graduates on the politics of that region. Eventually, this results in a think-tank work force with little idea of the complicated world of the Arab world's politics and current debates.
The second problem concerns the epistemology of the research. This fundamental flaw lies in looking at the Middle East from a Pakistani point of reference. Such an orientation blinds the researcher to explore and understand the principle variables at play within Middle East politics and blurs a researcher’s ability to comprehend the rivalries, insecurities and ideological divides dotting the geopolitical fault-lines within the region.
The impact of these two problems within the field of Middle Eastern studies in Pakistan has been heightened due to the absence of any specialized policy-making institute concerning the region. Policy making circles rely mainly on the feedback of their diplomatic teams on-ground and their assertions are never weighed against or challenged by scholarship produced independently. This also means that concerned policy quarters are receiving information in the form of diplomatic cables and reports that often address the more immediate issues at hand, and may not have the desired amount of context required in real scholarly work.
This has meant a failure at the end of Pakistani policy makers and intellectuals to fully grasp the nature of political and social change within the region. They also have a very limited understanding of the re-configuration of political and ideological conflicts and the very expectations which different countries in the region have toward Pakistan. All these fundamental problems have had a bearing upon Pakistan’s engagement and outlook vis-à-vis the Middle East. Personal relationships developed between Pakistan’s power circles and ruling houses of various Middle Eastern nations complicated the policy outlook further. These shortcomings could have been avoided if foreign policy had been drafted at the institutional level with the help of insightful and objective academic scholarship and not solely through a process of personalization of foreign relations.
Pakistan needs to increase academic research output on the Middle East and to understand the region from its very own lens. This can only be achieved by the introduction of degree level programs on the Middle East at the university level, and the formation of independent policy institutes catering only to that region.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.