The 'Arab turn' in Pakistan’s foreign policy
Developing strong and cordial ties with the Muslim world and promoting Islamic solidarity has remained a critical hallmark of Pakistan’s foreign policy since the country’s independence. Pakistan has been an ardent supporter of various independent movements in Muslim lands across the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Asia. Yet owing to the country’s alignment with the western camp during the Cold War, its relationship with Middle Eastern power brokers particularly Baathist Egypt and Iraq remained complicated. In Iran, the structural changes in the nature of its polity dampened the strategic nature of Pakistan’s ties with its western neighbour. Nonetheless, Pakistan managed to cultivate robust ties with Arab monarchies and in particular, Saudi Arabia. It sustained its friendly ties with the Muslim republics of southeast Asia while also making inroads into the newly independent Central Asian Muslim states.
The foreign policy momentum vis-à-vis the Islamic world that remained a highlight of Pakistan’s global approach from the 1980’s to 2000’s under successive civil and military governments gradually dissipated. Successive civilian governments that followed the departure of General Musharraf locked horns with the country’s powerful military on the foreign policy front resulting in a disastrous diplomatic diarchy with both components of the state airing different political messages to the outside world. Apart from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, a diplomatic hiatus characterized Pakistan’s engagement with most of the Islamic world.
As Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister, a better civil-military relationship led to a reactivation of the foreign policy front. Khan’s government particularly focused on renewing Pakistan’s political and strategic engagement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This approach generated dividends when both Gulf monarchies agreed to provide a financial support package to Pakistan.
Khan managed to engage with different political players across the Muslim world but this diplomatic spell remained within the very comfort zone of Pakistan’s foreign policy quarters and did not initiate new partnerships within the rest of the Muslim, and in particular, Arab world.
Khan also courted the Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan and his old friend, former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Khan managed to engage with different political players across the Muslim world but this diplomatic spell remained within the very comfort zone of Pakistan’s foreign policy quarters and did not initiate new partnerships within the rest of the Muslim, and in particular, Arab world. Thus, this new foreign policy outlook revolved around courting the Arab Gulf states and major non-Arab Muslim States.
The political wrangling going on within the broader Middle East had made it difficult for outsiders to maintain a balanced relationship with all sides and Pakistan was no exception to this trend. PM Khan’s government was undoubtedly able to break the snag of the last ten years on the foreign policy front but its foreign policy approach towards the Middle East was laden with three major flaws.
First was the government’s miscalculation relating to Pakistan’s strategic relevance vis-à-vis the Middle Eastern political spectrum. Secondly, the Khan government’s renewal of partnerships in the Middle East which resulted in Pakistan’s increasing economic dependence on Saudi Arabia and UAE. Lastly there was a lesser emphasis on initiating new partnerships with actors within the greater Middle East that also strive to exercise strategic independence.
It appears that Pakistan’s policymakers have begun to address all these major flaws and an ‘Arab turn’ has been observable in Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Pakistan has also been active to court other political players within the Middle East and North Africa. High level visits by the country’s top military brass and civilian leadership to Iraq and Egypt, two of the traditional power houses of the Middle East indicate this new course. Moreover, Pakistan has been keen to revitalize ties with Kuwait.
This new approach may not solve all of Pakistan’s foreign policy problems but it does provide it with new avenues for political, security and economic cooperation and not at the cost of its existing relationships.
– 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.