Opportunities and challenges for Pakistan in a changing Middle East
The strategic and security environment of the broader Middle East has undergone significant shifts in the recent past. These changes have implications for Pakistan’s relationship with regional stakeholders.
During the last decade, regional geopolitics in the broader Middle East had been shaped by the political environment and fault lines created by the Arab Spring. However, this phase of political contestation ended with the Al-Ula reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and afterwards, the normalization of the relationship between Turkey and the Gulf States put to bed the Arab Spring inspired political poles in regional politics. This has been followed by the rather historic political breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
From a Pakistani perspective, these new regional trends need to be welcomed. This is not simply because Pakistan has always stressed upon the vitality of regional de-escalation and the need for dialogue between regional stakeholders, but also because Pakistan owing to its geographical and political proximity, was impacted by middle eastern politics.
Pakistan has found it difficult to maintain a strong working relationship with Iran which also happens to be Pakistan’s western neighbour. Moreover, the conflation of geo-economic points of interest between the two sides has been overshadowed by the bilateral divergence on geopolitics and an insecure borderland. The sectarian variable and the involvement of Pakistani recruits in Iran’s regional wars haven’t helped the situation either. This has meant that even as the decision makers on both sides have time and again tried to constructively engage with each other and to develop regimes of trust, a reset in the bilateral relationship was always hindered. A good example has been the Iran Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project that has now been stalled for more than a decade.
Political normalization in the region now allows Pakistan to focus on developing strong bilateral ties with all stakeholders without worrying about regional divisions.
Pakistan’s political neutrality was a difficult position to maintain in the wake of a politically charged regional atmosphere. Political normalization in the region now allows Pakistan to focus on developing strong bilateral ties with all stakeholders without worrying about regional divisions.
The other key development has been the entry of new players in regional geopolitics and the emergence of new inter-regional political formations. China’s entry into the geopolitics of the region as a mediator is a most positive development for Pakistan. Since, Chinese and Pakistani interests in the region overlap, a greater Chinese role in the Middle East and in particular the Persian Gulf, will inadvertently also put Pakistan into a frontline geopolitical position. It’s a development that will be received with anxiousness in New Delhi, which has come to rely heavily upon energy supplies from the Gulf.
Yet, the greater integration of India in the Arabian Gulf security infrastructure is a point of concern for Pakistan which has been losing its stature as a security contributor vis-a-vis the Arab Gulf States. India’s burgeoning strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman on the top of its already significant economic linkages with these states makes it difficult for Pakistani policymakers to retain their strategic relevance outside of the Chinese bracket.
For now, Pakistan’s authorities are content by the Indian failure to convince its middle eastern partners to attend a rather inconsequential G20 tourism meet in Indian-administered Kashmir. However, they have yet to fully appreciate how India’s political stature in the broader Middle East is rapidly ascending and how it is increasingly seen as a member of the great power club and as a part of the new regional security architecture. Since Pakistani politicians and decision makers are marred in their internal political conflicts, it appears they have become completely ambivalent to these very real challenges to Pakistan’s strategic interests in the Middle East.
- 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