Imran Khan: The changing face of Pakistan's Gulf relations

Imran Khan: The changing face of Pakistan's Gulf relations
Comment: Pakistan's new prime minister Imran Khan hopes to avoid taking sides in the divisive politics of the Gulf region, but that's no easy task, writes Fazzur Rahman.
5 min read
10 Aug, 2018
Khan hopes to maintain good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia [Anadolu]
Despite the blame game of poll-rigging and perceived electoral manipulation in Imran Khan's favour, former cricket-star-turned-politician and chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is all set to take the oath as Prime Minister of Pakistan next week.

Although the party of PM-designate Imran Khan failed to achieve the magic figure of 137, negotiations are already underway with smaller parties and independent members of the National Assembly to acquire the required majority.

During an election campaign that was marred by violence and infighting, the PTI like other parties, all but ignored the crucial issue of the country's foreign policy, focusing instead on issues of domestic governance, unemployment, corruption, poverty and other slogans around lifting the fate of poor labourers and neglected groups.

But once the PTI chief realised his party was on the road to power, he offered some glimpses of his foreign policy goals and gave an outline of country's priorities in the international arena.

In his first victory speech, Imran Khan spoke of Saudi Arabia and Iran - two major strategic and political players in the Middle East. He stated that his government will further improve its relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is an old friend that has always stood by Pakistan in times of crisis. He also expressed his desire to play a conciliatory and peacemaking role in the resolution of conflict that has plagued the region for many years.

When it comes to Pakistani ties with Gulf states, it was the Afghan jihad of the late 1970s and 1980s which deepened their relationship, and their inter-dependence later transformed the mutual cooperation into deep strategic partnership.

With the exit of Nawaz Sharif, Saudi Arabia has lost a reliable ally

Today, Pakistani armed forces provide arms training to all six GCC countries. Many members of the Pakistani armed forces serve in GCC countries and some Saudi military battalions count Pakistani troops among their ranks.

Pakistani forces are also deployed in various sensitive locations such as oil refineries and security installations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. During his recent visit to Doha, Pakistan's chief of army staff, Mr Bajwa said that Pakistan's military would also provide troops to Qatar at the next football World Cup.

With the exit of Nawaz Sharif, Saudi Arabia has lost a reliable ally who never concealed his affection for the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular for both personal and strategic reasons.

His close affiliation with the Gulf states no doubt prevented forging of warmer Pakistani ties with Iran. But this might be about to change, as it was in part Imran Khan's political mobilisation and pressure that deterred the erstwhile government from sending Pakistani forces to join the Saudi-led coalition's continuing and catastrophic war in Yemen, after the National Assembly voted against it.

The harsh reaction from UAE's foreign minister, Anwar Gargash warned that Pakistan would pay a heavy price.

Unlike his predecessor, Imran Khan has no family business stake in the Kingdom or any particular personal affiliation with the Middle East politics. Moreover, he owes nothing to Saudi Arabia, unlike Mr Sharif who was granted asylum during his years of exile. Mr Khan has also announced his intention to diversify sources of investment, and he will be looking more toward Pakistanis residing in western countries to invest in the nation.

But the new government will still need Saudi Arabia for financial assistance to aid it in overcoming the ever-deepening economic crisis. A Saudi-backed bank recently proposed a loan of US$4 billion to Pakistan, an offer that Khan, once he is sworn in as prime minister, is likely to accept. 

The Prime Minister-designate Imran Khan has made it clear that he would also seek closer ties with Iran and would revive Iran-Pakistan pipeline project that was neglected under the previous government.

Khan accepted Rouhani's invitation to visit Iran, and said that he would like to tour its historic sites. But he will also be mindful of Pakistan's dependence on Iran's gas, given the volatile scenario since the US' withdrawal from the nuclear deal, or JCPOA. 

Houthi chief Mohammad Ali al-Houthi in Yemen - ally of Iran - sent a congratulatory message to Imran Khan

In another indication of newly emerging dynamics in the region, Houthi chief Mohammad Ali al-Houthi in Yemen - ally of Iran - sent a congratulatory message to Imran Khan, saying that the new leader would surely understand the quandary of fighting other people's wars.

The fate of the 41-nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, (IMCTC, formerly the IMAFT), headed by former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, is likely to be affected with the change of guard, as it is seen as anti-Iran coalition, particularly after President Trump's address to the Islamic Summit in Riyadh in May, 2017.

Looking to pursue a politics of pragmatism, Khan, like Mahathir of Malaysia, could chose to opt out of the IMAFT, an ill-advised project since its creation.

Given Imran Khan's preference for an inclusive approach in foreign policy, the new government will try not to get dragged into the ongoing intra-GCC conflict, or the Iran-Saudi conflict.

Protecting its economic interests along with maintaining a sort of neutrality will present the biggest challenge for the Khan's new government.

Qatar, for example, has already introduced a free 30-day visa on arrival for Pakistani citizens, and has acquired 49 percent stake in Pakistan's Port Qasim project. The growing economic ties between the two are likely to earn the ire of UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The new government will hope to avoid the divisive politics of the Arab world, unlike Nawaz who had embraced one at the cost of the other.

It will not be an easy ride for Pakistan when it comes to dealing with the Arab world. The country's energy and economic requirements will force Khan to tread carefully, and any policy of apathy or neutrality might entrench the region's ties with India, which Pakistan perhaps cannot afford.

Dr Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank. His area of research is political Islam and Arab politics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @fazzurrahman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.