Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges typically focus on its relations with its neighbors – particularly India and Afghanistan – and with greater powers such as the United States and China. However, at the same time, Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East are undergoing major transformations with significant implications for its security and economy. The way in which Pakistan responds to the deepening regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the recognition of Israel, cold war politics of Middle Eastern states, bloc formations within the Greater Middle East, the resurgence of Turkey, the wider fundamental transformation of the geopolitics of the Muslim world, the possible disengagement of the US from the region, the probability of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and India’s look ‘West Policy’ will all have a major impact on the stability and orientation of Pakistan’s Middle East policy.
From a security perspective, Pakistan’s Middle East policy has largely focused on limiting the domestic fallout of sectarian tensions stemming from the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. Pakistan in the 1990s became the frontline in a proxy sectarian war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Owing to this history, Pakistan remains wary of being drawn into power struggles along sectarian lines as they are currently playing out in the Middle East. The political and economic resurgence of Iran following the implementation of the nuclear deal in 2016, and Iran’s willingness to engage in proxy warfare in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen over the past few years, have made Islamabad particularly wary of such an outcome.
Pakistan’s Middle East policy in recent years can thus be perceived as a balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran: it maintains an ideological affinity, a deep military and economic relationship, and strong leadership ties with the Kingdom while also forging economic and counterterrorism links with Iran. However, over time this balancing act for Pakistan has become more precarious.
Pakistan’s navigation of Middle Eastern politics has been quite difficult; this due to the four different diplomatic roles- balancer, mediator, facilitator, and spectator that Pakistan aspires to play. These approaches have been used alternatively and in combination. Furthermore, Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment has shown remarkable skill as the country has avoided picking sides in Middle Eastern conflicts for the most part; this is excluding the Palestinian crisis caused by Israel. Pakistan has demonstrated its ability to adapt its strategies and shift its dependencies; this is in contrast to India where there has been little evidence and opportunities for flexibility in Pakistan’s approach through the years.
Pakistan’s policies in the Middle East serve two principal goals; the first being their search for allies in the struggle over Kashmir and their hopes to find counterweights for India’s hegemony. But Pakistan’s ability to enlist help against India has been disappointing. The second goal is the country’s aiming at gaining commitments of financial assistance for its economy. It is noted that this goal has been met with better returns than the last one. These returns come in the form of timely loans, loan extensions, loan forgiveness, and most importantly, remittances.
The success of Pakistan’s approach in the Middle East has depended on the country’s attraction to the other Muslim nations; this is since Pakistan offers the region skilled and unskilled workers, and available large gendarmerie, and investment opportunities for the gulf countries. Despite its assets, Pakistan is limited in its use of its diplomatic tools due to a lack of leverage that accrues from great wealth or natural resources. Although these can be somewhat compensated for by its geo-strategic location and its large market potential, Pakistan acquires leverage provided by its alliances with outside powers.
Pakistan’s diplomatic activities in the Middle East are predominately focused on the Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia. Although appraisal suggests that of all four at work, as a balancer, in the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran, Pakistan being most engaged and subject of most interest. Even while Pakistan has always prioritized its diplomatic and military relationship with Saudi Arabia, it has been careful not to upset the military balance between the two countries. No small part of its ability to succeed as a balancer has been that neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have demanded an exclusivity with Pakistan.
Six years ago when Saudi Arabia requested Pakistan to join the military alliance designed in effect to check Iran, it caused an incredible amount of angst in Pakistan; and asking the country to provide troops for the Saudis for the Yemeni adventure, Pakistan would find itself in trouble with Iran. After refusing the Saudis, Pakistan tried conciliating with them by assuming the facilitating role of strengthening its contribution of the kingdom’s defenses explained usually as protecting the kingdom’s territorial integrity.
Middle Eastern politics has taken quite a shift in this second decade of the 21st century and coupled with the Arab spring protest that we have seen a major transformation in the state ideology and structures in multiple states of the Middle East. So, it’s not only a specific thing we have seen Turkey becoming more and more strategically invested within the broader middle east especially Lebanon but also in the Persian gulf specifically during the Qatar blockade by its neighbors.
However, Pakistan cannot afford any destabilization due to several fault lines. Therefore, a holistic approach and inclusive policies out of zero-sum prism will guarantee Pakistan’s national security. The Middle East region is witnessing a major transformation as geo-political and geo-economic forces collide and give new and emerging shape to an evolving order. That Pakistan must focus along with being a facilitator to the geo-economic trends of the region so that Pakistan formulates its foreign policy based on its National Interest.
Pakistan must concentrate upon its internal, economic, and human security as Pakistan is losing space on trade and investments given that the unskilled labor force returns to the homeland. A focused effort must be initiated towards the traditional defense sector arrangement with Middle East countries on defense exchange and training programs in light of the vital role of emerging technologies.
The BRI and agriculture base of Pakistan must be equally concentrated upon to tap the enormous food export base of Pakistan to the GCC countries. The agriculture sector base for export-driven policies must accompany Pakistan government subsidies. This must include the very rich and important mineral base deposits found in Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign and national economic policy needs a revisit to accompany domestic stability to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
The CPEC is a most important geo-economic project to make use of Pakistan’s relations with the wider Middle East countries as the advantageous and natural geography of Pakistan serves to be a pivot and cross-road of East and West. Pakistan’s traditional neutrality policy must be accompanied by innovative approaches to foreign policy formulations corresponding to a domestic order of self-reliance to meet the challenges of a Middle East region under constant flux
The crisis in the Middle East can cause sectarianism in Pakistan, as the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Pakistan cannot be ignored. Behind this sectarianism, the Saudi-Iranian proxy war can’t be neglected as the Tehran-Riyadh tensions present difficult policy options for government Pakistan. Instability in the Saudi-Iran relations in the Middle East further fuels the sectarian division in Pakistan. If Pakistan had joined the war against Yemen, there was a good possibility that this could have fanned sectarianism in the region.
Geo-political realities of recent the Middle East regional instability dictate that Pakistan continuously walks a tight rope in attempts to strike a balance in its relations with the two opposing camps in the region. Removing interprovincial disharmony and strengthening Pakistan’s state institutions must remain a priority agenda for bringing lasting stability in the country- again within the context of external powers interfering in the conduct of a balanced Pakistan foreign policy.