Pakistan’s marketing failure: Defense exports to the Middle East


Pakistan’s marketing failure: Defense exports to the Middle East

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Pakistan has maintained robust political and strategic ties with countries in the wider Middle Eastern region. As it has traditionally remained a reliable ally of these states, this partnership has transcended beyond political and cultural engagement and manifested itself in the defense domain.

In the case of the Gulf, one facet of defense ties with Pakistan included the deployment of Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq war while Pakistani personnel also served in the Armed Forces of other Arab Gulf States. These Pakistanis were instrumental in the development of the Armed Forces of these states, particularly the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Thus, Pakistan remained a critical component of Arab Gulf security and retained its relevance at least in terms of providing professionally trained and reliable military manpower. However, because it lacked a developed defense industrial complex, it failed to transform these partner states into bigger markets for defense exports. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s security statecraft never moved beyond providing trained soldiers for the defense needs of its allies, and thereby gradually became redundant in that department.  

Pakistan never moved beyond providing trained soldiers for the defense needs of its allies, and thereby gradually became redundant in that department.  

Umar Karim

Statistics regarding Pakistan’s defense exports don’t present a complete picture as at times some of the defense deals are secretive and not featured in official documentation. However, it can be argued that Pakistan’s export of defensive equipment to the wider Middle East remains in infancy. In 2016, it was disclosed that orders worth $81 million were procured by the Pakistan Ordinance Factory and Saudi Arabia remains the largest importer of arms and ammunition from Pakistan. In 2019, it was reported that Pakistan was exporting arms worth $210 million. These figures still don’t give us the real picture in terms of Pakistan’s arms exports to the Middle East, and in particular the Arab Gulf States, which remains a huge market for such sales. It seems likely that Pakistan is selling low key and basic defence equipment comprising small and medium conventional weaponry to the Gulf and has not bagged any big-ticket deals. 

A decade ago, this was understandable as the country itself remained heavily dependent upon arms imports and indigenous defense industries had not reached a level of maturation where they could develop complex weapon systems and platforms. However, in the last decade a critical breakthrough has been the successful development and production of the JF-17 fighter jet by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in cooperation with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. Pakistan has also exported this platform to Nigeria and Myanmar while Argentina, Azerbaijan and Iraq have shown interest in the Block III version of the jet that has been equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

Pakistani decision makers that maintain personal ties with leaders in the Gulf and pride themselves in bringing critical financial support, could have directed some of their efforts to market these locally manufactured defense platforms to those countries as well. This would not only have generated much needed revenue while enhancing the research and development capacity of the defense industry, but would have initiated a new strategic facet in Pakistan’s relationship with the Gulf. It would have given Pakistan more relevance in the increasingly changing geopolitical atmosphere of the region.

Recently a new body, the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) has been created with the aim of speeding up investments and collaborations from Arab Gulf States in several avenues including defense production. 

Had Pakistan’s decision makers always made this cause a key objective of their diplomacy with Gulf partners, the creation of new regulatory entities would not have been needed. 

The problem here is structural and unless Pakistan’s power holders change their current model of statecraft, the country will become more and more irrelevant for important partners 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

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