Pakistan's Middle East policy has long been centred around Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The country, under new leadership, now seems to be taking baby steps towards greater independence in the region.

After announcing in his first week that he would not make any overseas trips in the first three months, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not only did the opposite but may have achieved something quite remarkable – he has gone some way in balancing Pakistan’s erstwhile lopsided Middle East relations. 

It would be an understatement to say Pakistan’s Middle East policy was anything but Saudi-centric for a large part of its history, and particularly so since the exit of General Musharraf.  It is not only a one way street towards Riyadh but is built on personal ties rather than strategic state to state relations. 

Now after Imran Khan completed his visit to Qatar – the message from Khan is that Pakistan will no longer take sides. He seems to have entrenched Saudi relations with Pakistan, but not at the cost of other states in the region.

What preceded Khan’s policy? 

WikiLeaks cables from 2007 and 2010 exposed the actual Saudi role in Pakistan – senior officials such as former Foreign Minister Adel el Jubeir were quoted as saying we are not "just observers, but participants" in Pakistani affairs. At the same time, the Saudis clearly hinted that they would prefer military rule to corrupt civilian rulers such as Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. 

Despite the exile of Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh would have preferred military rule because the perception was that civilian leaders are too non-committal and interested in venal self-interest. Nawaz troubles with his domestic court cases also put the spotlight on his relations with Qatar. This did not go down too well in Riyadh and he was put on the spot about whether he sided with Doha or Riyadh in the ongoing Gulf crisis.

Even the military leadership was not immune from taking sides. Former President General Musharraf openly wanted Pakistan to side with the Saudis and UAE in the crisis. Musharraf has always enjoyed close relations with the UAE.

General Raheel Sharif’s role as the Commander of the Saudi sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition has not gone down well in Iran and caused a minor crisis with Pakistan.

Apart from the Gulf crisis and the allegation that Pakistan was taking sides in the dispute between Iran and Pakistan – there was virtually no diplomacy with states in North Africa and any attempt by Pakistan to help or mediate in the crisis in Iraq, Syria or Yemen. When Pakistan did try to remain neutral i.e. in Yemen, it incurred the full wrath of the UAE. The perception was that Pakistan was not a trustworthy ally or its leaders were easily bought off.

Enter General Bajwa 

The current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa in assuming his command in November 2019 set about fixing Pakistan’s place in the Middle East through heavy defence diplomacy.

Bajwa first fixed Pakistan’s relationship with the UAE and took steps to assure the Emiratis of the exact circumstances surrounding the Yemen vote. The UAE also announced an era of new defence cooperation between the two countries after almost half a dozen visits by General Bajwa in his first two years.

Simultaneously at the peak of the Gulf crisis, Bajwa also assured Qatar that Pakistan would stand with all the Gulf countries without taking sides. He also committed to Qatar’s security for the football world cup.  Bajwa then became the first Army Chief to visit Iran in an official capacity in almost three decades. While strengthening ties with the Gulf, Bajwa continued to stress a strong alliance with Iran.

General Bajwa also made key visits to Egypt and Jordan making sure, it was not just the Gulf that makes up the Middle East.

Khan broadens the remit

Upon assuming office, Khan made it clear that every state to state relationship would be about strategic and not personal ties. He has since secured unprecedented investment from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and strong pledges from Qatar, Turkey and even Iraq.

The recent investments by the Saudis in Gwadar and Reqodik projects could have easily happened in the Sharif or Zardari era but the Gulf countries in general were investing in personalities and not the state. Khan seems to have put an end to that.

Mohammed bin Zayed made his first official visit to Pakistan in 12 years showing that now the UAE is ready to invest in Pakistan once again. The UAE also promised not just financial support but also recovery of Pakistani assets from ill-gotten wealth.

Khan also convinced the Qataris to lift the ban on importing rice from Pakistan, got a deal to supply 100,000 workers to Doha and further strategic ties away from just defence issues. 

The prime minister also dispatched his minister to look into economic and labour ties with Iraq – a historical first. He seems to be making it a priority to look after the welfare of Pakistani workers in the Gulf, something other leaders have neglected to do.

Overall the sense is that under Imran Khan, Middle East ties might be balanced and not taking sides – he has made it clear Pakistan shall not fight other countries’ wars whether in Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Khan has made Iran a priority and has been careful not to ignore ties with Tehran, something General Bajwa already started in 2017. 

Although it is early days into Khan’s tenure – he has gone a long way in balancing Pakistan’s Middle East policy.

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