If ever there was a time when Pakistan needed a full-time foreign minister, then that time is now. Worldwide, nations make their foreign policy with glacial slowness. This is no bad thing. Adjustments to international relations tend to be nuanced and incremental, major shifts in balance or direction rare. But there are times in history when the plate-tectonics of international relations shift slightly faster than is the norm; and for the states of the subcontinent and the Gulf region that is currently the case. Pakistan lies at the centre of change and is itself a change-agent as it interacts with its neighbours and allies, and foreign policy is being reshaped and re-forged almost like at no previous time in the history of the nation.
Events on the Arabian Peninsula are having a profound influence on the nature of the relationships that we have there, most particularly with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has from the outset had a close, indeed vital, relationship with that country. The kingdom has literally bailed out Pakistan in the worst of times, pouring billions of dollars into our ailing economy. Much of the energy in the form of oil and gas that powers homes and industry has its origins in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and has been sold to Pakistan at considerable discount on occasion. All that said, nothing — in terms of foreign relations — is forever and just as there are shifts in our relationship with India so there is a shift in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The change process became evident almost a year ago when Saudi Arabia pressed Pakistan to join the battle it was having with Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen. Pakistan’s position was then as it is now, that it will not send its armed forces in any overseas mission unless mandated by the UN — which the Yemen conflict most certainly is not. That war has now evolved, and there is a split in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and Iran, which is supporting the Houthis in what is now widely perceived as a war of proxies being fought by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There have been visits by Saudi defence and foreign ministers seeking to build support for the coalition of “likeminded Islamic states” announced — to some surprise — by Saudi Arabia almost a month ago. The newly formed coalition does not include either Syria or Iran, both of which may be considered to be at the very least ‘interested parties’. There are now reports that Pakistan is willing to provide its good offices to heal the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is no small task — and at no point in its pursuance must we compromise our neutrality.
To the east, India. Foreign policy changes in that direction are no less gravid than those to the west. Both India and Pakistan have decided the time is opportune to take the heat out of their eternal conflict. That resolve is currently being tested by the response on both sides to the Pathankot attack in India, which the Indians are saying had its origins in Pakistan. India has offered ‘leads’ to support its claim and in an unusual move a joint investigation team has been set up in Pakistan to make inquiries. Both sides seem determined that they will not be knocked off-course and we strongly urge that the process continues.
As the world shifts, Pakistan must make necessary adjustments to its international relations. Both China and Iran figure prominently in our future, to say nothing of the potential to be unlocked by any rapprochement with India. Pakistan should continue its fruitful relationship with Saudi Arabia, but not at the cost of the sovereign right to determine the shape of its foreign policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2016.