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Lopsided foreign ties

October 26, 2018

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THE tightrope that Pakistan must walk in balancing its interests in relations with predominantly Muslim countries in the region and beyond is becoming ever more difficult. Forces unleashed by the Arab Spring and foreign military interventions from Libya to Syria have drawn the Arab world and Gulf countries into increased rivalries, hostilities and even outright war. From the wars and humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, to Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s competition for influence in the Muslim and Arab worlds, Pakistan has friends and allies on both sides of the complex struggles for power and influence that have broken out in the greater Middle East. Prime Minister Imran Khan has now claimed that his government will try and mediate to end the Saudi-led war in Yemen. By itself, that is a welcome sentiment. If Pakistan can help its friends and allies end their wars among themselves, navigating a fraught region could become somewhat easier for this country.

Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Mr Khan took office, while the prime minister has now visited Saudi Arabia twice. As a first-time holder of high office, Mr Khan has a steep learning curve in international politics and diplomacy, but at least he has not shied away from such matters and remained focused wholly on a domestic agenda. What is far from clear, however, is whether Mr Khan’s government and the Pakistani state can play a more effective role as peacemaker in the region. Having secured a partial economic lifeline from Saudi Arabia while not having made progress in building economic and trade ties with Iran, particularly the Iran-Pakistan pipeline that is in limbo, the lopsided ties of Pakistan with Saudi Arabia and Iran are unlikely to give Pakistan much leverage as peacemaker. Further complicating Pakistani ties with Iran is US President Donald Trump’s determination to severely weaken Iran with crushing sanctions.

Yet, the war in Yemen is an undeniable disaster, and diplomatic intervention is urgently needed there. Perhaps Pakistan can reach out to other Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia to coordinate its peace efforts, or a collective effort can be made to revive the moribund OIC, which could become a plausible forum in which the conflict in Yemen is brought to a peaceful end. Prime Minister Khan could also increase confidence in his own role as potential regional peacemaker if he takes the Pakistani parliament into confidence about the true terms of the financial assistance he has secured from Saudi Arabia. Mr Khan must adapt to his new position quickly and choose his words carefully when speaking publicly or on the record about regional conflicts. Credibility will come from both action and words.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2018

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