Restructuring Pakistan’s foreign policy modalities in the Middle East
The political developments of the past few months in Pakistan have resulted in a change of guard in the country’s power corridors. The traditional political order of Pakistani politics was restored as the “Sharifs” and “Bhutto-Zardari” clans came back to power and this time as political allies. As the new government has vowed to revisit policies enacted by Imran Khan’s government, it is high time to take stock of Pakistan’s foreign policy domain particularly with reference to the broader Middle East and to deliberate new modalities of engagement with the region.
Under Imran Khan, the broader Middle East emerged as a critical arena of Pakistan’s foreign engagement. Right after assuming the office of prime minister, Khan made his maiden trips to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Later he also visited other regional stakeholders such as Turkey and Iran. Khan’s government also developed amicable ties with Qatar and Bahrain. The Middle East and Central Asia remained the focal point of Khan’s diplomacy. Interestingly, Khan’s engagement with the broader western block remained limited to a single official tour of the United States.
Despite the overwhelming number of visits to the above mentioned six Middle Eastern nations, Pakistan’s actual foreign policy gains remained minimal. This was owing to Imran Khan’s rather idealistic and irrational Ummah-centred approach. Khan rightly raised issues like Islamophobia on international forums, but he was unable to balance this idealism with a healthy dose of realism. Moreover, Khan’s timing and attempt to shore up his image as a statesman of the broader Islamic world and to emulate the discursive populism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not have been worse.
Pakistan should have focused on strengthening its bilateral relationship with the nations of the Middle East by enhancing diplomatic and economic engagement while remaining out of the region’s geopolitics. This did not happen, and it hurt Pakistan financially.
Even if other countries attempt to politicize such debates, Pakistan in its current economic situation cannot afford to become involved in a their political competitions.
In the Ramadan of 2021, Pakistan’s premier visited Saudi Arabia and formal engagement between the leaderships on both sides restarted after more than a year. Both sides also agreed to reactivate the ‘Supreme Coordination Council.’
The recalibration of Pakistan’s foreign policy also saw the country taking an about-turn on its self-assumed role of a political mediator within the Muslim world. Finally, the country’s decision makers started to talk about geo-economics and the need to move away from geopolitics towards a more economically centered policy of statecraft. However, this new rhetoric has not really translated into the actual policy domain and Pakistan’s approach towards the Middle East still seems to be marred by political ad-hocism.
The new government under PM Sharif should understand that the broader issues of the Muslim world should be discussed and deliberated in already present institutional forums. Even if other countries attempt to politicize such debates, Pakistan in its current economic situation cannot afford to become involved in political competitions.
Pakistan needs to direct its political and diplomatic energies towards strengthening its bilateral relations with its Middle Eastern partners and to politically prioritize these partnerships in accordance with its economic needs. Only then can Pakistan re-establish a trusted and long-term partnership with its friends 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