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Pakistan’s Strategic Wilderness

by Khaled Ahmed
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File Photo. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

Policy blunders and diplomatic gaffes have emerged as the worst enemies of Islamabad’s relations with Gulf states

After Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, flew off the handle over what he thought was a national cause beyond normal diplomacy, Islamabad has been forced to go to Saudi Arabia and beg Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) for forgiveness over the lawmaker’s harsh words before Parliament in Islamabad. Per some military officials, the Army chief personally visited the Gulf kingdom to retract the blunder committed by Pakistan’s top diplomat; followed unfortunately by the confused blubber of another cabinet member thinking she was putting down Qureshi. The misadventure has only highlighted the “strategic” wilderness Pakistan finds itself in under the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Islamabad’s cause was Kashmir and Qureshi thought he would come out shining as a champion of Pakistani nationalism if he rebuked Saudi Arabia for not holding a session of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to condemn India. Far from paying heed to Pakistan’s ideological urges, its Arab friends were preparing another shock for it. What Saudi Arabia’s close ally, the United Arab Emirates, had decided to do was to challenge another of Pakistan’s pillars of foreign policy: to recognize Israel and make public from which direction Pakistan’s Arab friends felt threatened. And it was not India. Nor was it the trampling underfoot of the rights of the Kashmiri Muslims by Delhi.

The recognition of Israel by Pakistan’s Arab friends was planned and made public in January 2020 by U.S. President Trump with the help of son-in-law Jared Kushner, an American investor, real-estate developer and newspaper publisher, who is senior advisor to his father-in-law. Kushner had been talking to the parties concerned to advance Washington’s plan to cut America’s military presence in the Gulf after cutting Iran down to size. What Pakistan missed in January was the preparation of the ground for Iran’s final downsizing as a regional power. Pakistan didn’t read the signs then and looks to have missed out on how India and Pakistan’s Arab friends had been prepared for it: India had to quit its big projects in Iran—and collect the eternal gratitude of the Arabs—while the U.A.E. was to spearhead the “recognition” diplomacy that Saudi Arabia couldn’t undertake openly because of its status of a host of global Islam.

Pakistan had been sensing the gradual change among Arabs over the status of Israel in proportion to the fear they experienced from fellow-Arab and Muslim states. There was a time under General Musharraf when Pakistan thought of recognizing Israel. This happened especially after India renewed its dormant cold-war non-relationship with Israel and started buying high-tech equipment from there that it couldn’t buy directly from the United States. Pakistan was helped in its first contacts with Israel by Turkey, which already had diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the move didn’t go far after religious parties opportunistically supported by the opposition parties rejected Musharraf’s attempt. Today, Turkey pretends being outraged by the U.A.E.’s recognition of Israel, and has threatened diplomatic action against U.A.E. for doing so.

Pakistan was wrong-footed when it joined Turkey and Malaysia to hold a parallel OIC session to condemn India and show Saudi Arabia that Pakistan could be on its own. Islamabad opted to skip the Malaysian Islamic Summit, but its plans resulted in Pakistan losing standing with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Pakistan, where Turkish drama Ertugral is lovingly watched on TV and admired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, never realized that it would put off its Arab friends who have banned the same show because it reminds them of the Ottoman oppression that they had to endure in the past. Irony was highlighted by the news that Pakistan had received “a seven-month high $2.09 billion remittance in December 2019, compared to November 2019 and 20 percent higher compared to December 2018.” The remittances came mostly from Saudi Arabia and U.A.E.!

China, a most important trading partner of the Gulf States, stepped in and “saved” Iran from being isolated and crippled by U.S. sanctions that the world has to willy-nilly accept as a condition of life in the Middle East. Pakistan felt good seeing India saying goodbye to its Chabahar port project and thought its Balochistan region would now be safe after the Indian exit; but that didn’t happen as Pakistani soldiers and officers are still being killed by terrorists coming in from the Afghan province of Qandahar after crossing the Chaman border. There is even a highly unverified rumor making the rounds in Pakistani media that “Saudi Arabia has reportedly asked Pakistan not to support China against India and isolate the Chinese amid the ongoing Sino-Indian clash.”

Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami has come out condemning the U.A.E.-Israel “recognition,” forgetting that there are many states in the Islamic world who have overt or covert diplomatic relations with Israel. But it was a signal to the Imran Khan government of coming domestic difficulties while adjusting to the changing political landscape in the Middle East. Iran is engaged with Iraq and Syria—therefore opposed to Turkey—is is involved in Lebanon strengthening the de facto power of Hezbollah, and in Yemen from where it directly threatens Saudi Arabia. Turkey not only challenges Iran in Syria where its air force picks out the Shia and the Kurds; it is confronting Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Egypt in Libya where it is opposing Russia too.

Pakistan’s future was supposed to be tied to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and it faced off any number of pressures from America and India to get out of it. It was supposed to be a game-changer in the region but has not progressed at the expected pace. Part of the blame rests with Pakistan’s internal policy upheavals and a mismatch with China’s thinking—Beijing is the largest trading partner of Delhi and would like to include it in CPEC—which has yet to convince Pakistan to embrace the kind of “non-ideological“ pragmatism it has used to dominate the world economy. Another factor is the quality of the Pakistani manpower that was supposed to underpin all the CPEC projects. Far from setting down an enabling system of education, Pakistan’s ruling party is in the process of “unifying” the school system under one curriculum dominated by a “censoring” tendency, as apparent in the Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill 2020 proposed in the country’s most populous province.

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