Pakistan must rethink its Middle East policy
Within the policy making corridors of Pakistan, it is usually maintained that the country is situated in a difficult neighborhood. There is certainly an element of truth in this since Pakistan’s neighbors on the east and west have invariably contributed to instability in the region and in Pakistan. Yet, the foreign policy choices made by Pakistani governments and decision makers have often been guided by a decrepit worldview that has long passed its shelf life but still remains in vogue. These tropes have been most pronounced in Pakistan’s engagement with the Middle East and have resultantly complicated the country’s ties with its partners in the region.
Pakistan has enjoyed longstanding ties with Muslim countries in the Middle East, but often this focus on the historical trajectory of relationship undermines the abolity to read current political trends and the emerging balance of power equation within the region. Pakistan’s decision makers have exhibited a lack of contextual awareness in their dealings with the region. This can be best explained by the discourse of neutrality that has been celebrated within Pakistan’s foreign policy circles vis-à-vis the Saudi-Iran situation and now with regards to the Saudi-Turkish relations. As the Saudi embassy was ransacked in Tehran in early 2016, Pakistan’s then premier, Nawaz Sharif, embarked on a trip of both Saudi Arabia and Iran in a bid to defuse tensions, though eventually the whole exercise never resulted into anything concrete. Prime Minister Imran Khan who usually took pride in denouncing almost every action of the Sharif-led government had no qualms in emulating this exercise in political absurdity.
The whole neutrality project showcased Pakistan as a major regional actor with some strong leverage both with Iran and Saudi Arabia. As soon as Khan landed in Iran, however, he was given a reality check when the Iranian supreme leader told Pakistan to take steps to improve the security situation along its border with Iran. It clearly meant that at least the Iranian side did not consider Pakistan as a neutral arbitrator and had issues of its own with its eastern neighbor.
The foreign policy choices made by Pakistani governments and decision makers have often been guided by a decrepit worldview that has long passed its shelf life but still remains in vogue. These tropes have been most pronounced in Pakistan’s engagement with the Middle East and have resultantly complicated the country’s ties with its partners in the region.
Recently, a new discursive trend has surfaced within Pakistan that focuses on shifting strategic alignments within the region and creation of new geopolitical blocks that stretch from east and central Asia to south Asia and into the Middle East. On one hand, there is mantra of a new political group emerging within the Muslim world. The block comprises Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Qatar. This debate started as the leaderships of Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia met on the sidelines of the 2019 United Nations General Assembly Summit in New York and agreed to join hands against the scourge of Islamophobia. It was decided that a summit of ‘like minded’ nations would be held in the Malaysian capital.
This new political alignment got a quick reality check when Pakistan backed out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit. Furthermore, political instability within Malaysia and the fall of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s government upended chances of formation of a rival political front against the OIC.
The second much touted geopolitical block revolves around China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, with some analysts bringing in Russia into the mix as well, just like some people prefer their pizza with pineapple. This geopolitical block will ostensibly be a bulwark against the US presence in the Middle East. Yet, these calculations make some fundamental errors when it comes to the Chinese engagement in the Middle East. The Chinese interaction with different Middle Eastern stakeholders remains essentially commercial and it has not taken up the role of a security enabler within the region. The Chinese are actively partnering with Israel even to the chagrin of the United States, concluding a strategic framework with Iran and helping Saudi Arabia in the development of its nuclear program. Clearly, China does not have a zero-sum political view of the region and is not hedging its bets with one particular block of nations.
Pakistan’s approach toward the Middle East needs to move beyond historical narratives and imaginative political alignments. It can begin by creating the office of a special envoy for the Middle East on the pattern of Afghanistan who can engage with stakeholders in the region on a regular basis and formulate a more robust foreign policy outlook that protects Pakistan’s interests in the 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. Twitter: @UmarKarim89