Qureshi’s fillip in the Middle East

To many it seemed that the direction Pakistan had embarked on was shorn of pragmatism

Ghulam Dastgir May 11, 2021
The writer is a Pakistani Ambassador and has served in Ethiopia, Kuwait and the UAE

One thing about the weather in the Middle-Eastern Gulf is that it remains fairly devoid of tumult. The bright sunny skies remain unflinchingly the same for the most part. But the people of the desert are aware of sudden darkening of the skies, bringing with it a downpour so heavy that it washes away all traces of yesterday’s footprints. The clouds had gathered for Pakistan and Gulf relations in 2019-2020, and at the centre of it all was Pakistan’s foreign minister leading a rumbling caravan of foreign policy through the mists of uncertainty. And by all accounts, the desert is unforgiving of the wanderers.

For the first time in over seven decades of Pakistan’s existence, the country’s foreign policy was wound around the spindle of “responsible neutrality”. Shah Mahmood Qureshi was at the helm of affairs when it came to executing this precarious balancing act between old allies of the Arab world and other Muslim polarities in the shape of Iran and Turkey, as well as Qatar following the GCC crisis. This was unprecedented. Maintaining a balance for a country like Pakistan should not even be considered possible, let alone plausible. The various internal and external political dynamics of the country render it incapable of executing the ambitious paradigm shift in its foreign policy.

Although the strain had been accumulating for some months now, in August 2019, the first signs of the fissures in Pakistan’s relations with the Arab world, especially with Saudi Arabia, began to show. Like the ties between these countries, the wisdom behind the balancing act also began unraveling at the seams. India had abrogated Article 370 and had overturned the status quo of Jammu & Kashmir. Where once voices of Arab brethren rose in unison with that of Pakistan, only muted whispers vocalised subdued calls of restraint on both sides.

To many it seemed that the direction Pakistan had embarked on was shorn of pragmatism. Unperturbed, Qureshi rolled up his sleeves and set to work. Academics and policy pundits all agreed it was a mistake. Pakistan needed to realign more closely with the GCC bloc and needed to do it fast. The leadership had other ideas. Across-the-board realignment would take place but none at the cost of the other. And thus commenced a walk across the tightrope. As a short-term adjustment, instead of relying on historic support of the Arab states, the Foreign Office activated with a fervour that was rarely seen before. Pakistan’s outrage over India’s violation of UN Resolutions on Jammu & Kashmir reverberated in all international forums.

In the world of optics, perception is a reality far divorced from actuality. And manufactured reality is what sells. By the end of the first quarter of 2021 certain media houses in India and the Gulf began hawking a perception that sold well. The narrative they peddled was that Pakistan-Gulf ties had disintegrated, whereas Pakistan-Iran-Turkey bloc was coalescing as a result. This manufactured reality disregarded that due to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, diplomatic engagements had precipitously diminished worldwide. Secondly, because of the historically close ties between Pakistan and the Gulf, cordiality between them was always taken for granted by both sides. But this logic was obfuscated in the clamour raised by the peddlers of misdirection.

The year 2020 was to be the year of reconciliation as far as Pakistan’s FM was concerned. Basic diplomatic wisdom, however, dictated that it would take years to mend broken fences, and more to restore Pakistan-Gulf relations to the pre-complication state. In the backdrop of the pandemic, which brought the whole world to a standstill, there were strong undercurrents beneath the surface of a seemingly placid lake of diplomacy. Qureshi maintained a very low signature. Discretion was crucial. Meetings took place behind closed doors, telephone calls held on secured lines, diplomatic activity reaching a feverish pitch.

Despite the skepticism perpetuated by naysayers since 2019, and defying traditional wisdom, Qureshi made progress. The 47th OIC-CFM session was the first overt announcement of the breakthrough. The OIC unanimously adopted the resolution on Kashmir, condemning India’s unilateral abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomous status. Pakistan had tabled a resolution on Islamophobia, as an extension of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policy, and that was also unanimously passed. And nothing gets done in the OIC without Saudi Arabia’s blessing. The tide had begun to turn. Across the border, derision and sneers gave way to confusion. How did this happen? Or more importantly, when did this happen?

In December, 2020, Qureshi went on an official visit to UAE. There, he held high-level meetings with the UAE leadership. The frost from bilateral relations had clearly evaporated. Media announcements from both sides gave positive signals, and apparently collaboration on important issues was agreed upon by both countries. The carefully tailored narrative by opposing quarters began unraveling. Pakistan had not only sidestepped the schemes put in place but had completely outmaneuvered the instigators. In January 2021, the GCC announced renormalisation of ties with Qatar. The end of estrangement between the Gulf countries was welcomed both regionally and internationally. Kuwait had played a major role in bringing this impasse to an end, and the Kuwaiti foreign minister in his official visit to Pakistan in March 2021 also shared the credit with Pakistan. He acknowledged Pakistan’s role in defusing the crisis and assisting in bringing the GCC back together.

Qureshi embarked on another visit to the UAE in April 2021 to meet his counterpart, highlighting the very close diplomatic relations which had begun to bloom between both countries after a markedly dry spell. This was his second visit to the UAE in four months and the growing closeness of the two countries is still shrouded in mystery. One thing is for certain, however; Pakistan’s stratagem had worked flawlessly. Immediately following this visit, PM Khan received a letter from the Saudi Crown Prince, inviting him to visit Saudi Arabia. This sudden activation of the Middle East was not purely circumstantial. Pakistan consistently stuck by its policy on Yemen, and strongly condemned every major attack by the Houthi rebels on the Saudi kingdom. Similarly, Pakistan’s carefully crafted support to the Saudi leadership on the US intelligence report testified to Pakistan’s solidarity with one of its closest ally.

The flurry of activity in the Middle East is not just restricted to GCC states. Qureshi also visited Egypt in February 2021, on an official engagement. The Egyptian foreign minister is slated to arrive on a visit to Pakistan sometime soon. The Iraqi defence minister arrived in Pakistan in February this year, and Qureshi is rumoured to visit Iraq to meet his counterpart in the coming months. The Palestinian foreign minister is also expected to visit Pakistan this year. The leadership at the Foreign Ministry has been very busy untangling the Middle East riddle. It seems like they finally cracked it inside half a year.

The thing about desert clouds is that no matter how overcast it gets, and how unforgiving the downpour is, once they’re spent, the sun shines unperturbed. No traces of the storm mar the clear blue expanse. In his visit to Saudi Arabia, PM Khan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have signed multiple agreements and MoUs between the two governments. Since climate change is close to the hearts of both leaders, one potential MoU is on green initiative and forestation. Down the lane, when saplings sprout out of the scorching sand, and blossoms bloom at the bases of dunes, one must remember the efforts of the meticulous gardener. Qureshi, it seems, has quite the green thumb.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2021.

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