Necessity or Choice: Understanding Pakistan’s Middle East Entanglement
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman riding in a carriage in Islamabad. (Photo: AFP)
By Pervaiz Ali Mahesar

Necessity or Choice: Understanding Pakistan’s Middle East Entanglement

Feb. 26, 2019  |     |  0 comments


The Middle East has, in one way or the other, remained almost perpetually in the eye of a storm. It does not have much respite from its decades-old traditional intra-regional animosities. Pakistan’s role in the Middle East geopolitical chessboard has been largely about reconciliation, mediation, providing training and manpower. Current situations in the Middle East, for instance the Syrian crisis, the mysterious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Iran-Saudi showdown and sanctions on Iran appear to be pushing factors for realignments in the region.


Since Pakistan is key to this changing regional dynamics, this paper argues that Pakistan’s Middle East entanglement has been driven by its three-pronged necessities rather than choices. In this brief analysis, I explain what are those key ingredients from which Pakistan cannot simply disentangle itself.


Ideological Symbiosis


Before Pakistan was carved out, Muslims of the Indian subcontinent had an ideological sympathy with their fellow Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. Post-independence, Pakistan was then confronted with internal and external problems, for instance the deeply interwoven security concerns of Kashmir and Palestine.


Around that time, the world was divided into two camps: pro-Western and pro-Soviet. The idea of a Muslim bloc was at its rudimentary stage, with the observation that if such idea was capitalized upon, it was to serve its own interests in the tug of war between the two camps. However, this idea was more appealing for Pakistan than for the Middle East. In light of this, Pakistan inked security pacts with US, and it did not bode well with a few countries in the Middle East. In spite of these differences with the Arab countries, religious and cultural affinities still weighed heavily in Pakistan’s overall interactions with the Arab world.


Pakistan attached a great importance to Saudi Arabia in its foreign policy. In the 1960s, Saudi King Faisal tried to bring Pakistan into its ambit, when he was struggling to strengthen his idea of Muslim leadership from the side of the Gulf states. The conflicting and competitive nature of Saudi-Iran relations dragged Pakistan into playing a role in their proxy war. It was widely feared that the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia would complicate the peace, stability and prosperity of Pakistan. In context to this, the Shia population in Pakistan is around 20 percent of its total population, whereas Sunnis are in the majority. Hence, the active role of Pakistan in diffusing tension appeared to rein in instability on its domestic front.


A survey on sectarian killings in Pakistan by the South Asian Terrorism Portal showed that, from 1989 to 2018, almost 3072 incidents were reported in which 5602 people have been killed. Since the 1990s, Pakistan has been pushed and pulled in this unending sectarian proxy war. There were instances which showed how Pakistan was necessitated by factors and forces rather than its own wishful thinking and choices in its Middle East engagement. For example, in the Yemen-Saudi showdown in 1969, and in the Iran-Iraq war in 1991, Pakistani forces bravely defended the Saudi Kingdom. However, Tehran and Riyadh were said to have offered logistic and financial support to their respective groups in order to serve their regional and global agendas.


Having religious and cultural links with the Middle East, Pakistan was inevitably drawn into these regional developments. In connection to this, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (the 9th Prime Minister, 1973-1977) attempted to bring Muslims onto a single platform, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit was held in Pakistan in 1974. Further, after successful nuclear tests in 1998, Pakistan was welcomed and also believed to have uphold the dignity and pride of the Muslim world.


Economic Interaction


The current Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policy and vision have been gravitating towards the Arabs of the Gulf. These countries, having an eye on the growing investment of China in Pakistan, are showing their keen interest in mutual trade and investment in Pakistan. Hence, Pakistan is now locating itself at the cusp of Arabian pull and Chinese push. After being sucked into debts, Pakistan is looking at its Muslim friends for help. For instance, Saudi Arabia recently announced an aid package of USD 6 billion, and the UAE also gave a similar package to Pakistan, without strings attached. However, it had also invited a criticism from the Saudi Kingdom in its neutrality over the Middle East conflicts.


It is being observed that in order to align with US-Saudi policies, the latter is struggling to bring Pakistan into its gambit. In 2015, Pakistan joined the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), led by its former Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif. The move was perceived to be a counter force to Iran. Similarly, investments in minerals and energy projects by Saudi Arabia near to the Iranian border and its exploration and storage complex at Gawadar port which was expected to be established with a multi-billion-dollar oil refinery, reflected how Pakistan is deeply entangled in the Middle East geopolitical cauldron.


The Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East are contributing to their national exchequer. Statistics showed that around 2.5 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia. In the UAE, Pakistanis account for 1.2 million, whereas 0.7 million live in other countries like Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. These numbers comprise 50 percent of Pakistanis who work abroad. Remittance contributed by the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East varies for each country. From Saudi Arabia, Pakistanis’ contributions to their national exchequer amounts to 29 percent; from the UAE, 22 percent; from the Gulf countries, 12 percent.



Given the traditional and predominant role of Pakistan in the Middle East, India’s footholds — economically and strategically — and its relations with the Saudi Kingdom and the UAE, cannot simply be neglected. Hence, the growing role of India in the Middle East region also necessitates Pakistan’s engagement with the Arab states.



As for Pakistan’s economic relations with Iran, it has agreed to a 2,775-km gas pipeline from Tehran which could provide a boost to its economy. Interestingly, Iran has also shown interest in joining the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, such a vision for economic investment and exchanges looks to be a delusion if there is lack of trust in the Iran-Saudi relations. Hence, such an evolving scenario in the region demands Pakistan to play a pragmatic and proactive role.


Geopolitical Chessboard


The Saudi-Iran proxy war in Yemen, the relative failure to reach any solid conclusion on the Iran nuclear deal and the growing role of the Islamic State have put Pakistan in an uncomfortable situation. It is also affected by geopolitical dissonance being manufactured and manipulated by extra regional forces.


Indian strategic narratives thrive on the fact that its allies in the Middle East, with whom it has trade and economic ties, could act as counterweight to Pakistan. Efforts are underway to malign, isolate and categorize Pakistan as a terrorist state. A researcher at Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies said that in the current critical situation in the Middle East, the role of Pakistan would remain to be “a pacifier, not an instigator”.


New Delhi is increasing its foothold in the Gulf states. It has oil and energy interests in this region. Its increasing dependence on Middle East oil reflects its strategic tendencies. The figures between 1990 and 2012 showed that Indian demand for oil imports grew by 42 percent and 71 percent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Saudi Kingdom has transformed their ties into buyer-seller. This buyer-seller status of their relations portrays their strengthening linkages within this region. It is to be noted here that India is also investing in Chabahar of Iran, Saudi’s rival in the region.


India also shows its deep concern for the Indian Ocean. In this regard, its cooperation with the Middle East states denotes their overall security centric approach with regard to protecting their sea lanes. The Middle East is interlinked geographically, culturally, religiously and economically with the South Asian region. India, in order to seek safety and security along its strategic choke points, has been having serious considerations over its maritime doctrine since 2009. Nevertheless, instability, growing multipolarity such as Russia and China, coupled with reducing US influence in the region, appear to be grave concerns in the strategic circles of India.


China too has deep trade and economic interests in the Middle East. It aims to provide safety and security to its trade routes in East Asia, Africa and Europe too. Its relations with Arab states are considered as more defensive in nature. Its ties with Saudi Arabia (friend of America) and Iran (American foe) are not aimed to contain US hegemony or influence in the region, but to extend its trade, energy, oil and economic investments. Resultantly, the Chinese engagement with the Middle East is signaling to Indian strategic thinking. Keeping in view the growing contacts of China and Pakistan with the Middle East, India, in order to avert being trapped by the Chinese allies, has started to boost up its influence in the region. The visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar point towards India’s overall security dynamic in the region. For instance, the Indian diaspora in UAE is more than 3.5 million, which contributes USD 13.6 billion (2016) to the country. UAE has remained the second largest trading destination for India.


India and Saudi Arabia also collaborate in terms of defense and trade. For instance, during Modi’s recent visit, both countries established a “Strategic Security Dialogue”, which includes regular naval, special forces, military and aviation training. However, given the traditional and predominant role of Pakistan in the Middle East, India’s footholds — economically and strategically — and its relations with the Saudi Kingdom and the UAE, cannot simply be neglected. Hence, the growing role of India in the Middle East region also necessitates Pakistan’s engagement with the Arab states.


To sum up, Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia inevitably underscores Pakistan’s active engagement and role in the Middle East region. He signed various agreements which primarily focused on counter terrorism, trade and investment, oil and energy, and infrastructure development. The main aim of his visit was to prop up Pakistan’s fledgling economy and re-balance the Iran-Saudi showdown. It was noted that Pakistan’s response to the Iran-Saudi rivalry and disputes within the Gulf Cooperation Council states will determine the peace and stability in the region in the near future.


Similarly, the visit of the Chinese President to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt at this critical juncture also demonstrated that they wanted stable, reliable and peaceful partners with whom they could establish trade links, such as in the shape of the Belt and Road Initiative. It showed that China intended to engage with Arab countries not for defense pacts, neither did it want to be drawn into proxy wars. The onset of events in the region and Pakistan-China growing embrace would be a game-changer for the Middle East.




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