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Pakistan and the widening Gulf: Implications for the Muslim Ummah

by August 18, 2017 General

Pakistan and the widening Gulf: Implications for the Muslim Ummah

THE Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a six member regional organisation consisting of the Gulf States; Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. All six monarchies are advanced, high income oil rich States. They are also members of the Arab league and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).The two largest countries of the GCC; Saudi Arabia and UAE in terms of Area, Population and Economy have been the de facto pilots and co-pilots of the regional block. As such, there has been a tendency for outsiders to view to GCC as a two-tier organisation with Saudi Arabia and UAE on top and the other four smaller member states below.

Since the genesis of the GCC, the lower tier has faced constant pressure to align its foreign policy with the Saudi Arabia and UAE nexus. Even within the lower tier there seems to be further divisions. Bahrain has often been more subservient and aligned itself with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, while Kuwait, Qatar and Oman tends to pursue a more deviant, independent and neutral foreign policy.

An example of this difference in foreign policy alignment can be seen with the rejection of Kuwait, Qatar and Oman in mirroring Riyadh’s hardline anti-Iranian position. Although disparity also emerges here as Kuwait leans more towards Saudi Arabia while it maintains relations with Iran. On the other end of the spectrum Qatar has been perceived by its GCC counterparts as being pro-Iranian. Oman continues to adopt a stance of impartiality on the stage of Arab-Persian rivalry. This is evident from the fact that Oman was the only GCC country that refused to take part in the Yemen Civil War. The increasing development of trade, economic and political relations between Oman and Iran has also aroused suspicion of the big guns in the Gulf. This provides sound explanation for the need of Qatar to maintain strong bilateral relations with Oman to support its Iranian policy. 

Pakistan enjoys very deep rooted relations with the GCC as a regional organisation and also bilaterally with each of its six member states. This is in tandem with Pakistan’s foreign policy of maintaining and developing fraternal bonds among “brotherly” Muslim countries. The Gulf provides a major source of remittance for Pakistan which is very essential for its macroeconomic survival. According to official figures from the State Bank of Pakistan (Pakistan’s central bank), between July 2016 to May 2017, Pakistan received a total of $11.019 Billion in worker remittances from the GCC countries. This is more than the combined remittance received from the United States (US) and United Kingdom at $4.264 Billion. Thus in light of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies and Brexit the Gulf remains an important overseas employer of Pakistani manpower. The region is also home to large numbers of the Pakistani Diaspora. Saudi Arabia alone accommodates 2.6 million Pakistanis this is followed by UAE at 1.2 million. The other 4 smaller GCC states host at least 100,000 Pakistanis in each one of them

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds a very special place in the hearts of the people of Pakistan given the position of the Saudi monarch who styles himself as the custodian of the two holy mosques. In 1979 Pakistan renamed its third largest city Lyallpur as Faisalabad after Saudi King Faisal. During Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait from 1990-1991, Pakistan aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and the US against Iraq in the liberation of Kuwait.

Following US imposed economic sanctions on Pakistan in 1998 after conducting nuclear tests; Saudi Arabia guaranteed Pakistan with a promise of 50,000 barrels of oil per day. A year later the late Saudi King Fahd saved the life of the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif  by negotiating his exile with the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Pervez Musharraf. This shows the significance and closeness between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Over the last few years, the foreign policy actions of Saudi Arabia have caused many nightmares and geopolitical dilemmas for Islamabad. The origins of this new era of Pakistan’s Middle East policy can be traced back to 2015. During the Yemen Civil War, Saudi King Salman called for Pakistan’s military support in the provision of warships, aircraft and ground troops to support the legitimate government forces of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Shia Houthi rebels allegedly back by Iran. This request was struck down by the Pakistani Parliament, passing a resolution declaring that “Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.” It was feared by Pakistani lawmakers that as this was a Sunni led coalition versus Shia outfits; Pakistan’s involvement could spill over into the country and worsen its own domestic sectarian extremism. Moreover, the risk of upsetting bilateral relations with Iran was also a factor that was taken into consideration in Pakistan’s decision to reject King Salman. As a consolation, Pakistan pledged its commitment to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The act of turning down the Saudi monarch is undoubtedly a shock to Saudi-Pakistan relations. It also shows that Pakistan has the ability to resist what many liberal commentators call the “Arabisation of Pakistan.” This also displays the prevalence of good sense in the making of Pakistan’s sensitive foreign policy judgments.

Pakistan’s non-participation in Yemen was even up by former COAS Gen (R) Raheel Sharif’s appointment to the Saudi led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) on 6 January 2017. This triggered a national debate in Pakistani civil society; it was perceived that this may affect the neutral stance of Pakistan in the affairs of the Middle East.

 An apprehension that has been dispelled by the Government of Pakistan As reported by Dawn News, Pakistan’s  National Security Advisor (NSA) Lieutenant-General (R) Nasser Khan Janjua asserted that “Gen (R) Raheel Sharif will use his experiences and knowledge to remove internal misunderstandings among Muslim countries…….He will become a reason for the unity of Muslim Ummah.” The Pakistani NSA remarks exemplify Pakistan’s unrelenting resolve on its policy of not taking part in any action that would cause division in the Muslim Ummah.

On 5th June 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Maldives announced that it would cease its linkages with Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Political Islamism and it alignment with Iran. Following the severing of ties, Qatar was given a list of thirteen demands that it views as attempts to undermine its sovereignty. These demands include reducing diplomatic ties with Iran, closing down the Iranian embassy in Doha, Shutting down Al Jazeera and its affiliates, as well as the halting of construction of a Turkish Military base in Qatar among several other demands.

It can be hypothesised that the hawkish conduct of Saudi Arabia in antagonising fellow “brotherly” Muslim countries such as Qatar and Iran will eventually bound to cause the Kingdom to lose its moral authority and political capital in the Muslim world. Also to aggravate matters further it has been observed that there has been a paradigm shift in Saudi-Israeli relations.

During the January 2016 Davos World Economic Forum in an interview hosted by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “I think Saudi Arabia recognizes today that it needs a path to reform as well, and they see, as do many in the Arab world that, they see Israel as an ally rather as an enemy, because of the two principle threats that threaten them. The first is Iran, and the second is Daesh.” This shows that in the world that we live in today where friends become enemies, and enemies become friends; Iran is now a bigger enemy to Saudi Arabia than Israel. In fact due to Iran’s generous sponsorship of Hezbollah (Shia militant group), which according to Prime Minister Netanyahu is worth a billion dollars per year has created a common enemy out of Iran for Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Although it must be conceded that such a policy is indeed in the strategic national interest of Saudi Arabia; it places Muslim countries that have close geographic proximity with Iran such as Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Pakistan who would ideally like to contract strong bilateral relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran in an awkward position.

The diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar has turned the Gulf into a more polarised zone. This has given Pakistan limited room for manoeuvring akin to walking on a tight rope while performing a juggling stunt. Unlike Turkish President Erdogan, Pakistan cannot take the side of Qatar nor can it adopt the stance of Saudi Arabia. As these developments unwrap in the Middle East Pakistan is experiencing a strenuous activity in adhering to its foreign policy of neutrality in conflicts involving the Muslim Ummah. This crisis has also caused permanent damage to regional integration and cooperation within the GCC. As a result the GCC’s ability to function as a multilateral organisation has been severely hindered. Pakistan is currently in a process of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC, with the rifts in the Gulf this will now have to take a backseat.

In order to balance Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic designs in the Muslim Ummah, Pakistan should consider spearheading the formation of a multilateral organisation constituting major non-Arab Muslim states. This would include Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. The organisation can be called the “Al Ajami” (an Arabic term referring to non-Arabs). The raison d’être of the Al Ajami would be to allow these states to pursue their policies of neutrality in the Muslim world, preserving the unity of the Ummah as well as to champion Muslim issues in the international community. It will also be able to push back to spread of sectarianism and extremism arising from the Arab world.

The widening Gulf has triggered tensions not only for Pakistan but also for the entire Muslim world. Washington’s alignment with Riyadh on its Middle East policies has not only increased the audacity of Saudi Arabia but also its bargaining powers when dealing with key partners such as Pakistan. This creates immense pressure for such countries to be coerced into joining camps.

As such Pakistan has no better option than to remain steadfast on its policy of neutrality unless it is willing to become a crony state of Saudi Arabia. The effort of Pakistan in sustaining the balancing game projects its desire to uphold national values and ability to stand up to Saudi Arabia when required to do so. Hence, Pakistan’s foreign policy in the Middle East can serve has a model for other Muslim countries to emulate. It must also be understood that Pakistan would not be able to do this if it was not for its intimate bilateral relations with China as well as its decreasing dependence on Saudi Arabia.

 This is also a lesson that states have to devise balancing mechanisms to preserve its sovereignty when confronted with a hegemonic power however this must be done with upmost diplomatic prudence to avoid either a case of neo-colonialism or risk offending the great powers. In an emerging multipolar world and changing global order, such balancing acts would become the routine business of foreign policy makers.

The writer is an expert analyst on Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. He was a former Research Intern at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore