Appraising Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Vis-À-Vis Gulf States

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Middle East is again in turmoil. Escalating skirmishes, intensifying violence and sharpening geopolitical tensions have exacerbated the already charged and volatile situation of the region. Being at the epicenter of world politics, the Middle East always remained as a battleground for competing interests and powers. A combination of political upheavals, unending civil wars, an abundance of energy resources and the return of great power competition have dramatically transformed the geopolitics of the entire region. Besides that, the divergent and often clashing interests of assertive powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have added an additional layer of volatility in the region. Being in the contiguous zone, Pakistan over the years has faced the dilemma of opting to choose either of the two. In the backdrop of changing Middle Eastern dynamics, Pakistan cannot afford to remain oblivious to evolving geopolitical realities. Because any upheaval in the Middle East has the potential to create a plethora of challenges for Pakistan especially on the policy level be it terrorism or sectarianism, hence, it is imperative for Pakistan to completely shun its Strategically Complacent attitude.

The Middle Eastern policy of Pakistan is born of regional power dynamics, underpinned by sectarian and economic configurations and by the country’s own strength and weakness. The prime factors that dictate Pakistan’s foreign policy vis a vis Middle East are the region’s abundant energy reserves and the presence of centuries-long sectarian division. Both credentials are of vital importance to Pakistan, a demographically rich country, whose dwindling economy is dependent on oil reserves and the remittances of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and Iran both occupy a crucial place in Pakistan’s Foreign policy calculus. The commonality of religion and shared Islamic Ideals is what has tied Saudi Arabia and Pakistan together. Strong bilateral relations between the two-span over decades and extensively cover all aspects of policy be it strategic, political, cultural, or economic. On the other hand, Pakistan-Iran bilateral relationship is a product of multiple factors like civilizational experiences, shared linguistics and the presence of historical, cultural and religious congruity. The relationship between them started amicably when Iran right away recognized the creation of Pakistan along its eastern border. Pakistan returned the favor of cordiality and mutual respect by explicitly backing Iran be it in its war against Iraq or during the Iranian Revolution. Having said that, the amity between them didn’t last long. The warmth in their bilateral relationship has been tested on several accounts be it during the outbreak of the Afghan war, imposition of US sanctions, Indian burgeoning ties with Iran, or on accounts of Individual Idiosyncrasies. All of these factors added layers of mistrust between Iran and Pakistan, however, the factor that exacerbated the tensions between the two Muslim neighbors was the erection of a three-way zero-sum matrix between Pakistan Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Throughout the past, the situation left no room for Pakistan to bandwagon with either of the two, hence, the best possible policy option to safeguard its fault lines was to strike a tricky yet delicate balance between the two Middle Eastern rivals. To debunk the anti-Iran narrative, Pakistan has undertaken cautious measures of appeasing both ends. For that, neutrality has been preferred as state policy vis a vis Intra-gulf split. The legislative action undertaken by Pakistan in wake of the Yemen war highlighted the trends of the State balancing both sides. Despite intense Saudi pressure, Pakistan adopted and implemented the neutrality resolution of 2015, a wise step that aided the country in avoiding a faraway war. The historic step of staying impartial by in Yemen war did appease Iran but it also created a host of problems for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. However, the tide soon turned in favor of the Saudi camp when ex COAS Raheel Sharif was appointed as the head of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. Moreover, to bridge the gaps in bilateral relations, Pakistan as a corrective action deployed 5000 troops in Saudi Arabia. These policy decisions underline the trend of Pakistan struggling to maintain its neutrality policy towards the Middle East. The most pertinent question that needs serious attention of policymakers is that whether or not Pakistan will be able to navigate the split between Iran and Saudi amidst escalating regional tensions. There is no direct answer to this question, however, one thing is for sure that it will be extremely arduous for Pakistan to sustain the balancing act. In terms of policymaking, Pakistan needs to diversify its allies. For that Pakistan needs to move beyond the myopic lens of viewing Middle Eastern politics solely from the lens of Intra-Gulf rivalry. Pakistan must take steps to cater to the smaller states of the Middle East be it Oman, Bahrain, or Jordan. The diversification of allies will not only open new avenues for Pakistan but will also aid Pakistan in escaping the dilemma of bandwagoning with either of the two Middle Eastern bulwarks.

 

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