Pakistan’s policy tilt in the Middle East

Published: February 23, 2014
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The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian Affairs

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian Affairs

The recent visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to Islamabad has focused attention on Pakistan’s Middle Eastern policy and especially its tilt towards the conservative Arab kingdoms. Two interrelated developments in the last two months created the impression that, once again, Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif was moving closer to Saudi Arabia, which could entangle Pakistan in intra-Arab rivalries.

First, there were important exchange visits between the two countries in January and February 2014: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud alFaisal (January 6-7), Governor of Tabuk Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz visited Dalbandeen, Balochistan, on a private visit (January 10 onwards), Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan (January 20-22), Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on a visit to Saudi Arabia (February 4-7), and Chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz (February 7). The most significant visit was that of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz alSaud (February 15-17).

Second, Pakistan gave up its more or less non-partisan position on the strife in Syria and endorsed the Saudi demand for setting up a transitional administration with full executive powers in Syria, implying removal of President Bashar al Assad from power. This shift in Pakistan’s Syria policy has drawn more attention to the Saudi visits than anything else.

Pakistan is negotiating a deal with Qatar for purchase of gas. It already has close relations with other kingdoms such as Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. Its relations have somewhat waned with Syria and Libya that have experienced internal turmoil in the last three years. The gas pipeline project with Iran is almost dead as Pakistan cannot find funding to construct the pipeline mainly due to US opposition.

The growing activism in Saudi Arabia-Pakistan relations under Nawaz Sharif as compared to the years of the PPP rule (2008-2013) can be explained with reference to Pakistan’s dire economic needs. Pakistan expects to get financial support in the form of loans, aid, investment, more jobs for Pakistanis, and supply of oil and gas on favourable terms from conservative but rich kingdoms. Furthermore, Nawaz Sharif and his family have special reverence for the House of Saud because it saved them from the clutches of Musharraf’s military government in December 2000.

The slowly emerging tilt towards conservative monarchies represents a dilemma that Pakistan faces from time to time in its relations with Middle Eastern countries. Pakistan has traditionally attached much importance to its relations with the Muslim countries as a part of its commitment to the notion of the ‘Ummah’ or Muslim Universalism. However, Pakistan’s enthusiasm for the Ummah was dampened because of the operational political realities at the global and regional levels and the internal problems of individual Islamic states. Islamic states could not cultivate enduring global partnerships among them due mainly to their divergent historical experiences, regional and dynastic rivalries, economic disparities and non-congruent foreign policy priorities.

Pakistan’s strongly anti-India agenda, and its partnership with the United States in the Cold War context, also created problems in its relations with the Middle East. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, many Arab states expressed doubts about Pakistan’s participation in security pacts with the US. Even Saudi Arabia criticised Pakistan’s participation in US-sponsored security alliances in 1954-55.

Pakistan moved in the direction of independent foreign policy in the middle of the 1960s. This resulted in improved relations with all kinds of Middle Eastern states. Pakistan adopted a fully independent foreign policy in the early 1970s under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and developed balanced relations with most Arab states irrespective of their internal political dynamics and regional and dynastic rivalries. Pakistan developed multifaceted relations in economic and security fields with conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states as well as with so-called radical states like Syria (Under Hafiz Assad, father of Bashar al Assad) and Libya and Algeria. It extended concrete military support to Syria in the 1973 Arab-Israel war.

Political polarisation in the Middle East increased after the Iranian Revolution (1979) when Iranian leaders vowed to challenge the pro-US conservative monarchical regimes. Pakistan’s military regime of General Ziaul Haq tilted in favour of conservative monarchies as compared to radical states such as Syria, Libya and Iran. This was partly due to the conservative Islamic disposition of the Zia regime and partly because of the financial support that Pakistan obtained from Saudi Arabia and the latter’s support for building up Afghan-Islamic resistance in Pakistan for fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan

The government of Benazir Bhutto (1988-1990) attempted the balance the Middle East policy by improving relations with Libya, Syria and Iran. Under Nawaz Sharif’s first government (1990-1993), Pakistan agreed to supply 5,000 troops to Saudi Arabia against the backdrop of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It also worked with Arab kingdoms and the US for removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia provided oil to Pakistan on deferred payment for three years after Pakistan’s nuclear explosions in May 1998. Later, Musharraf and Zardari made unsuccessful bids to get a similar facility from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan faces a difficult economic situation in 2014 and it is looking towards Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states for economic support. Unofficial sources claim that the Saudis are keen to secure its military personnel (retired or serving) for active internal security duty. If such an arrangement is made, this will not be for the first time that Pakistani troops would be serving in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan had arrangements for training and active service by Pakistani military personnel with several Middle Eastern and Gulf states in the 1970s.

There is nothing wrong in building warmer relations with some Middle Eastern states but Pakistan must not be seen as partisan in intra-Arab conflicts. It should stay away from dynastic and regional rivalries in the Middle East.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Amir
    Feb 23, 2014 - 10:26PM

    Money rules!

    Recommend

  • Nadir
    Feb 23, 2014 - 10:53PM

    It seems we will never learn from history. Following our Saudi overlords and easily swayed by their check book will just help us regress further. The oppressive and regressive Saudi regime is far from something to support. The fact that Islam’s holiest sites are located in Saudi Arabia has allowed them to blackmail the rest of the Muslim world to spread there xenophobic hatred and sectarianism. If we replace Saudi Arabia with USA in the passage above, this comments section would be filled with outrage and anti-US rhetoric about selling our sovereignty for a few dollars. Apparently all is well when we sell out to the Saudi’s, Qatari’s or Emirati’s.

    Recommend

  • Anjaan
    Feb 23, 2014 - 11:12PM

    @ Amir,
    You are right … Dollar rules even better … !!

    Recommend

  • mahmood
    Feb 23, 2014 - 11:29PM

    Two things will guarantee that our foreign policy will remain firmly tilted toward Saudi Arabia: (1) Our desperate need for money in any form: foreign remittances, direct aid, deferred payment for oil, etc. (2) Sharif family’s personal debt to House of Saud for their evacuation services of December 2000. As a result, relations with Iran will deteriorate. Pak Army personnel will carry out the repression agenda in Bahrain and within Saudi thereby firming their reputation as mercenaries for hire.

    Recommend

  • Gandakilafah
    Feb 24, 2014 - 12:28AM

    Frightening scenario.Pakistan sells Chinese nukes to Saudi Arabia.Pakistan must be stopped.

    Recommend

  • RD Sultan
    Feb 24, 2014 - 1:26AM

    Pakistan is being played like a fiddle by the Arabs.

    Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 24, 2014 - 1:29AM

    Rizvi sahib,
    Is it not true that pakistan got more help from these oil rich kingdom than our iran brothers
    who allways play shia cards every where…

    Recommend

  • Asad
    Feb 24, 2014 - 2:01AM

    As mentioned at the end that there is no harm in warm relations with some middle eastern countries but Pakistan should not indulge in the their rivalries…….Importantly should work hard to make better relations with Iran as it is our neighbor and has helped Pakistan at many instances…It is was the country which allowed Pakistani war planes to land there so as to avoid Indian attack….It was Shah of Iran who had pressurized Afghanistan from time to time not to harm Pakistan and it did work at many instances….Therefore Pakistan should strike a balance when dealing with Saudis and Iranis….

    Recommend

  • unbelievablea
    Feb 24, 2014 - 2:25AM

    Ask yourselves how Shia are treated in Pakistan and then ask yourselves whether you are really neutral when it comes to the Iran/Saudi dispute. Syria is just a proxy war between Sunni/Shia and you know which side of that battle your on.

    Recommend

  • F
    Feb 24, 2014 - 2:43AM

    “It should stay away from dynastic and regional rivalries in the Middle East.”

    That takes care of most, if not all, of the Middle East.

    Recommend

  • Tanveer Khan
    Feb 24, 2014 - 5:35AM

    Couple of addtional points: Syria gave refuge to the terrorists from Al Zulfiqr after they hijacked a PIA aircraft……remember? Furthermore, there is always the need to balance our “hostile friends,” the Iranians.

    Recommend

  • Sid Tagi
    Feb 24, 2014 - 7:12AM

    @Ali Tanoli

    Is Hammas a Shia organization? Iran supports them also. I think Saudis have played the Wahabi card in a much more destructive way in the entire Muslim World.

    Recommend

  • Mirza
    Feb 24, 2014 - 8:32AM

    @Nadir: I agree with all your points. It is a shame that we are suffering at the hands of Saudi surrogates and Salafi madrasas that Gen Zia started. Pakistan has been hijacked rather sold to Salafi/Whabi terrorists for a few riyals. We are now a source of Polio, Dengue, and other WMD in the world. Most high value terrorists have some relationship with Pakistan more often than not. Our hatred toward modernity and progress make us a natural partner of the old monarchs who don’t have even a constitution let alone human rights. We have to hate Iran as it is our neighbor and holds elections regularly with power transfer, therefore it is a threat to kingdoms and sheikhdoms.
    Regards,
    MRecommend

  • Nikki
    Feb 24, 2014 - 10:32AM

    In relationship ( at state level) preferences matter.Pakistan always preffered what suited to its political and startegic interetsts.Convergence and divergence interest also considered.No state in the world have relations with other state without any interest.The term of interest has been exapnded after the end of the Cold War.
    I think this time Pakistan is playing with rational approach.In deed neighbors are not happy.

    Recommend

  • Feroz
    Feb 24, 2014 - 11:19AM

    To evenly balance relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not be easy. Selling itself to the highest bidder has worked for Pakistan and this policy is unlikely to change. No doubt a show will be made of balancing relations but no one is likely to be taken in by cosmetic displays of affection. If peoples welfare was ever a priority Pakistan would have given up the policy of taking sides decades ago. Whether Saudi Arabia will be short changed on the delivery end is to be seen. Whichever way things pan out, Pakistan due to its short sighted policies is most likely to come out a loser.

    Recommend

  • Wafu
    Feb 24, 2014 - 1:26PM

    I was expecting warm relations with Saudi Arabia at the cast of freezing relations with Iran.Now,what is more important is that Pakistan tilt towards Saudi Arabia is whether in national interest or kind of payoff by Sharif family for the role played by autocratic,monarchical Saud family in post 19999 coup by Musharf.Askhari Sahb mentioned that the gas pipeline project with Iran is almost dead as Pakistan cannot find funding to construct the pipeline mainly due to US opposition.Is it so simple that Pakistan can not find funds to build gas pipeline in its land,this is not as simple.Iran even offered pakistan funds to complete its part of pipeline.And more ever it was considered as lifeline for Pakistan’s energy crisis.Sauds role as a major power in middle east is vehemently disastrous and self centered.It is horrorful that Saudi Arabia was the major force behind the Al-Sisi coup in Egypt against elected government of Morsi.Keeping in view the transitional relations of Iran and western powers,Pakistan should establish its relations on the basis of regional and global realities and not simply on the basis of knot between two families. Pakistan is not graveyard of Saudis.Recommend

  • Feb 24, 2014 - 1:50PM

    Beggars not the choosers, so follow saudi directions & feel the differenceRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 24, 2014 - 3:21PM

    Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif was moving closer to Saudi Arabia? Pleaseible for Saudi Arabia Dr Rizvi, do us a favour and do not create a new premise. Pakistan provides a nuclear shield and is directly responsible for the defense of Saudi Arabia. Unless you think that the house of Saud is the asylum sanctuary for your leaders?.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • qbc
    Feb 24, 2014 - 4:02PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    Thanks for the comedy it was good.Pakistan has never been good to iran it has allways been on saudis amercia side. Firstly pak helped make the taliban secondly iranian diplomats and nationals have been killed in pak.Next groups go from our country into iran kill and kidnapp iranians and then come back to pakistan.

    The list is endless also pakistanis went to bahrain and crushed peacefull protests also pakistanis have gone syria.

    The saudi are allied to amercia and isreal they are killing muslims around the world including here in pakistan.Recommend

  • Akash
    Feb 24, 2014 - 5:15PM

    When our own house is not in order and facing severe difficulties why we are interfering in Middle East? First of all we should set set our house in order, devise a concrete policy to eradicate terrorism and militancy, to strengthen our economy and to uplift our socio-economic status, otherwise we would never be among the respected nations and every one want to use us for their own interest. Recommend

  • usman786
    Feb 24, 2014 - 5:20PM

    Was it Saudi who have asked to kill other Muslim/Pakistanis? No, so stop blaming them. USA and Saudi have close ties and are on same page except on Syria. Pakistan must send it troops to KSA. Our law and order will not improve even if we double army and police. Atleast we will get remittances and improve lives of fellow countrymen.
    Who was that stupid who sold nuclear tech to Iran – our neighbour?
    Unless we try to integrate these taliabn in our society we would be getting killers for just Rs 8000. So get leader who can take decision, be it wrong or good. only Time can decide its fate.Recommend

  • Feb 25, 2014 - 2:56AM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    KSA offers more help in what? Spreading extremist ideology? Helping Pak be a jihadist militant factory? Buying willing mercenary servants?

    Iran playing Shia cards everywhere? If we were to roll with this unfounded nonsensical bigoted sectarian analogy, Iran would still hold a poor hand, as opposed to the global leading and active Saudi Arabian Sunni cards, in the form of Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni extremism, trumping all others in Pak and worldwide.

    Recommend

  • Mirza
    Feb 25, 2014 - 11:28AM

    We should help Saudi Kingdom for their struggle to fight against a dictator in Syria. There cannot be a bigger hypocrisy than this! The kingdom wants to implement its own brand of Sharia with the help of its surrogates in Syria just like in Pakistan. They would do anything to achieve their goal. A democratic Iran is the biggest threat to Saudi royal family.Recommend

  • Aakash Sindhi
    Feb 25, 2014 - 11:47AM

    @usman786:
    Who told you that they were not Saudis who are behind the Shia killings all around the world.
    I think you were told by yourself just like Saudi sponsored Mullahs say that their Shria is perfect because they are saying!!!!
    You might try to act like ignorant but it is a fact that Madersas in Pakistan are funded by Saudi, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait are in forefront.
    Q. was law and order situation before the mushroom growth of madersas in zia era was better or it is better today? Your Anwser Usman?????
    Q. Enlist one benifit that these madersas have produced on our society?
    Terrorism, Sectarian killings, Minority killings and now those who are feeding themselves on Riyals have announced that they will kill Ismaili people in Northern areas following the footprints of their fathers in Saudi Arabia.

    Recommend

  • shzi
    Feb 25, 2014 - 11:48AM

    @usman786:
    Who told you that they were not Saudis who are behind the Shia killings all around the world.
    I think you were told by yourself just like Saudi sponsored Mullahs say that their Shria is perfect because they are saying!!!!
    You might try to act like ignorant but it is a fact that Madersas in Pakistan are funded by Saudi, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait are in forefront.
    Q. was law and order situation before the mushroom growth of madersas in zia era was better or it is better today? Your Anwser Usman?????
    Q. Enlist one benifit that these madersas have produced on our society?
    Terrorism, Sectarian killings, Minority killings and now those who are feeding themselves on Riyals have announced that they will kill Ismaili people in Northern areas following the footprints of their fathers in Saudi Arabia.

    Recommend

  • B
    Feb 25, 2014 - 1:55PM

    In India we have such businesses where we throw money upon the dancing girls to dance to our tune. We call them “Dance bars”.Recommend

  • SAC
    Feb 26, 2014 - 10:38PM

    @Usman
    People and mentality like you have made this country reach its present shape. n even shameful is that we don’t want to learn from our mistakes!

    I completely agree with @Nadir
    “If we replace Saudi Arabia with USA in the passage above, this comments section would be filled with outrage and anti-US rhetoric about selling our sovereignty for a few dollars”

    May Allah guide us to the righteous!

    Recommend

  • Tahir
    Feb 27, 2014 - 9:35PM

    It’s deja vu, then Zia, now Nawaz Sharif! What an irony it would be if those at the helm of affairs commit somewhat same mistake committed earlier in our history. Saudis are best kept at bay. Claiming to be the flagbearers of Islam are in fact the biggest divding force. The fate of Pakistani workers in KSA is well known to us. If anyone has a doubt, try to get Iqama and experience the “Royal” treatment! The centuries-old notion of Arab and Ajam is ingrained in Saudi minds. May Allah be our guide and benefactor (Ameen).

    Recommend

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