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The Abraham Accords have put Pakistan in a foreign policy quandary

TOP NEWS-ENG-26-09-2020 (1)

The question of recognizing Israel and normalizing relations have certainly brought a fundamental shift in the way the ‘Muslim world’ on the whole used to approach the Middle East. While the Israel-Palestine conflict still exists, ‘normalized’ relations between Israel and the Gulf would considerably dampen the intensity of this conflict; for, Israeli annexation and atrocities and Palestinian resistance will no longer receive universal support from within the Muslim world. However, while the Gulf-Arab bloc largely appears to be soft on Israel and there is expectation that Saudi Arabia and some other states will follow the UAE and Bahrain, powerful Muslim countries from within the non-Arab world, such as Turkey and Iran, have taken a strong exception, terming normalisation a ‘great betrayal’ of the Palestine cause; hence, the emerging political fault-lines, which are most likely to require important foreign policy calibration by almost all Muslim countries. 

This is equally and especially true of Pakistan, which has a history of close ties with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While both countries have strong state-to-state ties with Pakistan, they have equally deep popular ties. If Saudi Arabia is largely looked upon as a holy land, Pakistan’s majority of the Muslims continue to look up to Turkey as the emblem of the last known Caliphate. Turkey’s vow to continue to support the Palestine cause is only adding to its political stature and enhancing its soft power. 

And, as far as Pakistan’s own position on the question of normalizing ties with Israel is concerned, it aligns perfectly with Turkey and Iran than the UAE and Saudia. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet recognized Israel, there is no denying that Bahrain, which largely depends upon Saudia for its military security, could not have taken this decision without Saudi consent. A Saudi recognition of Israel is, therefore, only a matter of time. As the reports indicate, unlike his ailing father, Mohammad bin Salman sees normalisation as important and do-able for the future of the Kingdom. 

While Pakistan has always opposed Israeli occupation of Palestine, the fact the Gulf states are in line to recognize Israel means that Pakistan will be opposing these states as well as far as this question is concerned. This opposition will certainly manifest itself in platforms like the OIC, where Pakistan has already been trying to discuss Kashmir (in the face of Saudi opposition). 

However, the question is: how far can Pakistan go in opposing the Saudis and the Emiratis? 

The question is important; for, opposing Gulf states on this matter will not simply be a political question; it will have enormous economic implications as well. 

Considering the extent to which Pakistan relies on these states for economic aid, deferred oil bills and employment of millions of workers as well as the remittance they send back to Pakistan providing the biggest source of money, Pakistan inevitably has very limited options. What adds to the economic dimension is the fact that Pakistan’s economy remains in doldrums. Distancing itself from its old allies will only add to its difficulties.  

This was pretty evident when Saudi Arabia, angered by Pakistan’s persistent demand for a high level OIC session on Kashmir and its criticism of Saudi inaction, led the Kingdom to withdraw its deposit US$ 1 billion from Pakistan. This action proved strong enough for Pakistan to launch, as I wrote previously for SAM, corrective measures to help both countries survive the shock, although the largely autonomous geo-political forces continue to leave their impact on the otherwise ‘brotherly relations.’ 

Importantly enough, it is the same autonomous geo-political changes that may allow Pakistan to play a more assertive role vis-à-vis the Gulf states than is normally realized. This is evident from the way Saudia’s self-arrogated leadership of the ‘Muslim Ummah’ is being increasingly challenged not only from within the Gulf-Arab world but form the non-Arab world as well. This is evident from how even the UAE and Saudi Arabi are no longer on the same page in Yemen and Libya. Saudia’s five-year long failure in Yemen has eroded its hard power; the way it continues to engage in indiscriminate bombing of Yemen is diminishing its soft power as well. 

Turkey’s increasing drive towards expanding its own influence and revamping its Ottoman era dominance from the Middle East to Africa is adding to the difficulties both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are facing. In other words, while the UAE is bent upon replacing Saudi Arabia as the leader of the ‘Muslim Ummah’, Turkey is equally in the same race and vying for dominance in its own way, directly challenging the UAE in Libya and elsewhere as well. 

This increasing fragmentation presents Pakistan with an opportunity to deftly exploit the situation to its advantage. 

This, however, might not be possible without reducing economic dependence on the Gulf states. 

One way of reducing dependence is creating a strong economy. Another way is to have new friends, willing to help Pakistan. When the Saudis recently withdrew their deposit, Pakistan resorted to China. If Pakistan can continue to fully implement the CPEC and integrate itself with the New Silk Roads, including Iran, Pakistan can certainly reconfigure its domestic and external economic landscapes, including its supply of oil & gas, changing from dependence on Saudia to diversifying it towards Iran.