Pakistan and the Middle East in 2021
The year 2021 has been a harbinger of political change within the broader Middle East and it would not be wrong to say that the post-Arab Spring political order is in its last throes. During this year, the main regional protagonists followed an approach of engagement and reconciliation rather than conflict and contestation. There have been systemic incentives as well for this different political approach partially owing to the arrival of the Biden administration in the White House and its desire to extricate itself from the affairs of the Middle East. The dilution of the American security umbrella furthered this regionwide drive towards rapprochement.
The first signs of a new era were apparent as Saudi Arabia took the initiative and restored its relations with Qatar as a result of the Al-Ula Summit. Since then, the political temperature has been constantly on the mend and replicating the trend set by the Al-Ula accord, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have also moved towards a reconciliation. These developments have considerably reduced the political tensions between two important regional groupings.
From a Pakistan perspective, these developments are more than welcome as the country has maintained strong political, strategic and defence ties with all regional blocks. Pakistan walked a delicate balancing line and sometimes, Pakistan’s policymakers found themselves in impossible situations owing to their own misreading of middle eastern power politics. Therefore, even with these positive changes within the middle eastern political spectrum, Pakistan’s ruling clique needs to upgrade its understanding of middle eastern politics but also needs to have an objective debate regarding Pakistan’s political, economic and strategic interests in the region.
It is imperative for the Pakistani leadership to read the political tea leaves correctly this time and to maintain its political, strategic and security relevance for the Arab world.
The second key development that has undoubtedly increased Pakistan’s relevance vis-à-vis its middle eastern partners has been the political upheaval in Afghanistan resulting in the takeover of that country by the Taliban. Historically, within the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and UAE maintained diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime in the 1990’s but in the aftermath of 9/11 and fall of the Taliban regime, they developed relations with the new Afghan government. On the other hand, Qatar probably is the only Gulf actor that has maintained independent ties with the Taliban movement by virtue of it hosting the Taliban political office in Doha.
As all middle eastern states want to retain political stakes within Afghanistan, they have engaged with the Taliban government in one or another manner. However, other than Qatar, none of these regional players have a trusted line of communication with the Taliban or any considerable leverage within the movement-- even Qatar has found it hard to influence the new Taliban government by solely relying on its linkages with the Taliban office holders in Doha. This invariably means that Islamabad can function as another possible and reliable route of engagement and negotiations with the Taliban. In particular, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have maintained strong strategic linkages with Pakistan and historically have worked in unison on Afghanistan, whether it was cooperation during the Afghan war or during the first Taliban regime.
Pakistan also remains a direct neighbor of Afghanistan, providing the country with multiple tiers of leverage and influence. The recently held emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Islamabad and the participation of top diplomats from more than a dozen Muslim countries further confirms Pakistan’s enhanced relevance in terms of Afghanistan. Another highlight of this summit has been the increased cooperation and coordination between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which suggests an increased alignment between the two sides on the Afghanistan file.
With regional tensions in the Middle East easing off and new political alignments taking shape, it is imperative for the Pakistani leadership to read the political tea leaves correctly this time and to maintain its political, strategic and security relevance for the Arab Gulf world particularly with regards to Afghanistan.
– 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.