Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East under a realist Sharif government

Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East under a realist Sharif government

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The political crisis gripping Pakistan for the past month finally ended with the removal of Imran Khan as the country’s Prime Minister and the subsequent election of Shehbaz Sharif, the joint candidate of the country’s opposition parties. The political change in Pakistan is likely to have foreign policy implications. The former Prime Minister in his foreign policy discourse was often focusing more on issues with a relevance to the broader Muslim world while less upon topics more related to Pakistan. This lack of political realism in the former government’s foreign policy outlook and emphasis upon ideas and morals did complicate Pakistan’s relationship with its several close partners.

In case of the Middle East, Imran Khan’s government was initially welcomed by all regional stakeholders. In the first few months of his premiership PM Khan’s foreign engagement was focused on the Arabian Gulf States and he made his first visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During these visits, PM Khan was successful in developing a working relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, which led to Pakistan receiving a financial support package of $6 billion-- critical in helping to stabilize the country’s embattled economy. This was followed up the Crown Prince’s state visit to Pakistan where investment projects worth $20 billion were announced. The bilateral relationship with the UAE was also restored as the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed visited Pakistan after a hiatus of more than 10 years. Khan also managed to develop a cordial relationship with the leaderships of Turkey, Iran and Qatar.

Khan’s attempts to project himself as a statesman of the whole Muslim Ummah did raise his personal stature considerably in the wider Muslim world and brought home symbolic capital, but failed to translate this image of himself into broader monetary gains for the country and its people.

Umar Karim

Despite this positive start, Khan’s government was unable to carry on with these diplomatic openings and to realistically structure its foreign policy outlook.

Khan’s attempts to project himself as a statesman of the whole Muslim Ummah did raise his personal stature considerably in the wider Muslim world and brought home symbolic capital, but failed to translate this image of himself into broader monetary gains for the country and its people.

This is the backdrop in which the government of PM Shehbaz Sharif has assumed office. Shahbaz being part of the Sharif political dynasty is no alien to foreign policy politicking and was always a key member of his brother Nawaz Sharif’s core team during his premiership. For now, all Middle Eastern governments have sent congratulatory messages to the younger Sharif for becoming Prime Minister, suggesting a broader goodwill for the new government in the entire region. Yet, the long-term relationship will be ultimately based on the foreign policy discourse coming out of Islamabad as the Sharifs in the past have also been projecting discourses of neutrality and mediation vis-à-vis the Middle East.

Still there are some visible differences between Khan and the younger Sharif. Unlike Khan, it is apparent that Shehbaz Sharif will not be dangling into an Ummah-centric rhetoric and one that projects his own personal stature as an indispensable Muslim statesman to champion causes like Islamophobia. Having the reputation of an administrator and known for quicker execution of mega-projects, Sharif’s personal temperament and political style is very different from Khan’s. The new PM is more likely to channel his efforts in developing a close relationship with leaderships in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and to get a new bail-out package. The new prime minister held his first meetings with the Saudi and Emirati ambassadors in Pakistan, suggesting clearly the priorities of the new government.

Shehbaz Sharif understands that the shelf life of his government depends upon its performance on the economic front, which in turn will be related to the financial support Pakistan receives from its partners in the Gulf. Pakistan is yet again back to the beginning.

- 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

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