Pakistan’s foreign policy predicament

Saudi financial assistance must have played a part in Pakistan’s decision of not attending the KL summit

Kamran Yousaf December 23, 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE

The special court verdict which gave the death sentence to former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf and its fallout has naturally dominated the political discourse in the country for many days. But in the middle of this raging debate, one story that went under the radar was the decision of Pakistan to stay away from the Kuala Lumpur Summit. The gathering of key Muslim countries in the Malaysian capital was meant for discussing the current problems faced by the Muslim world and suggesting a way forward. In attendance were the host, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Qatari Emir. Prime Minister Imran Khan was supposed to join the summit but had to cancel his trip at the last moment. In fact, Pakistan stayed away from the summit altogether. What prompted Pakistan to take a U-turn on the Kuala Lumpur summit were the reservations expressed by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies over PM Imran’s participation. Saudi Arabia prevailed over Pakistan since it considered the gathering as an effort by certain Muslim countries to create a new Islamic bloc. PM Imran had already accepted the invitation from his Malaysian counterpart. But just days before the summit kicked off, the UAE Foreign Minister paid an unannounced visit to Islamabad and conveyed the Gulf countries’ including Saudi Arabia’s concerns over Pakistan’s participation. That visit prompted Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to dash to Saudi Arabia from Turkey, where he went to attend the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan. Qureshi tried to assuage the Saudi concerns but without much success. In a last-ditch effort, PM Imran travelled to Riyadh, his fourth visit to Saudi Arabia since May. Imran assured the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, that Pakistan’s presence in the summit would not undermine Saudi interests. However, Saudi Arabia was not convinced, leaving Pakistan with no other option but to skip the summit. The Foreign Office’s official explanation was that Pakistan’s decision was based on maintaining neutrality among the Muslim countries. Turkish President Erdogan, however, had another story to tell. He claimed that Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw financial assistance from Pakistan and also expel Pakistani workers if it attended the summit. Riyadh was quick to reject the statement, saying Saudi Arabia neither threatened nor stopped Pakistan from attending the summit. But the truth lies somewhere in between. The fact remains that Saudi financial assistance coupled with other leverages must have played a part in Pakistan’s decision of not attending the summit.

The decision was not just a setback for Pakistan but also undermined the personal credibility of PM Imran, who was very vocal about raising issues faced by the Muslim world along with the likes of his heroes, Mahathir and Erdogan. In September, Imran, Mahathir and Erdogan met on the sidelines of the UNGA session in New York and announced a raft of measures including the launch of an English language news channel to counter Western propaganda about Islam.

Why this somersault is a huge foreign policy debacle is because the PM or those advising him on foreign policy should have known the political dynamics of the Muslim world. Pakistan being seen close to Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and Qatar was bound to raise eyebrows in the Arab world. What was more embarrassing was that Pakistan could not convince its Arab allies that turning down an invitation to the Kuala Lumpur Summit would put the country in a bad light. But the reality is that when Pakistan depends so heavily on Saudi Arabia for financial and strategic reasons, it is always a daunting task to maintain independence in making decisions on foreign policy issues and this is something we must ponder upon.


Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2019.

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