Amongst the key regions any Pakistani government must specifically focus its energies on is the Middle East, particularly the Gulf states and Iran. And with the international order being shaken to its core — with the Mideast being the epicentre of numerous geopolitical earthquakes — the government that takes the reins after February 8 must hit the ground running where managing relations with this region is concerned.
Three regional states, in particular, merit particular mention: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran.
There are a variety of reasons that link these states to Pakistan and make them matter in its foreign policy formulation. They include economic compulsions, geography, history, people-to-people ties, culture and faith. Therefore, all mainstream parties vying to take the throne of Islamabad must have solid policy briefs ready concerning all three of these states.
THE BONDS WITH SAUDI
Along with China and the United States, it can be argued that Saudi Arabia completes the troika of states that matter most in Pakistani foreign policy — when Riyadh speaks, both Islamabad and Rawalpindi listen.
Managing relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran will be a major test of diplomatic skill for the incoming government
In fact, it can be said that the two deepest bilateral relationships Pakistan maintains are with China and Saudi Arabia.
The relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia goes back to the independence of the country, with both states signing a Treaty of Friendship in 1951. The relationship has economic, military, cultural and geopolitical dimensions.
Saudi Arabia’s status as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites gives the kingdom a special position throughout the Muslim world, including Pakistan. Beyond matters of faith and culture, the kingdom has, for decades, served as a magnet for Pakistani workers, both professionals as well as blue-collar labour.
Pakistani engineers, doctors, accountants and other professionals have held key posts in the kingdom’s public and private bodies, while Pakistani workers have literally played a role in building the kingdom, toiling on its construction sites and working other labour-intensive jobs.
Current figures put the number of Pakistani expatriates in the kingdom at around 2.5 million. These workers send billions of dollars in remittances to Pakistan every year and, by most accounts, the highest number of dollars is sent by overseas Pakistanis based in the kingdom.
Without these dollars, Pakistan’s precarious economy would be in even more dire straits. Saudi Arabia has also offered oil to Pakistan on preferential terms over the years, especially in times of financial and geopolitical crises, which have been far too many in this country’s chequered history.
Therefore, for reasons of pure economics, political governments — as well as the establishment — want to stay on the Saudis’ good side.
However, it is not just about riyals and dollars. There is also strong defence cooperation, as Pakistani troops have been stationed in the kingdom for decades, while Pakistani officers have been training Saudi personnel since at least the 1960s.
Moreover, former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif has been commanding the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition, which was touted as the ‘Islamic Nato’, though its purpose was questioned by many, as Iran was not asked to join.
The UAE has similarly strong bonds with Pakistan. While these may not be as strong as ties with the Saudis, the bilateral relationship with the Emirates is a considerably robust one.
Many of the same factors influence the Pakistan-UAE relationship: the Emirates serve as a major source of employment for overseas Pakistanis and, as a result, a key source of foreign exchange through remittances.
Current estimates suggest there are between 1.7-1.8m Pakistanis living in the UAE. Just as in Saudi Arabia, Pakistanis have played an integral role in the development of the UAE, ever since the country was formed in 1971. PIA’s role in the development of Emirates, Dubai’s airline, is a matter of lore, while many Pakistani businesses are based in the UAE.
It is also a fact that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are under the security umbrella of the US, while Pakistan is also seen as a partner, if not a part, of this geopolitical grouping.
That is one of the reasons why Pakistani foreign policy is often closely allied to that of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington though, of late, our Gulf friends have been less than vocal about the Kashmir cause, while deepening their relations with India.
UNEASY TIES WITH IRAN
Perhaps because of our close ties with the Saudis and the US, Pakistan has failed to develop relations, at least at the official level, with Iran according to their full potential, especially after 1979.
Before the Islamic Revolution next door, things were different, as the Shah’s Iran and Pakistan were both firmly in the American camp, bound together with the West in military pacts such as the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento), also known as the Baghdad Pact.
In the aftermath of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, Iran made a 180-degree shift in policy and went from being America’s policeman in the Middle East and a loyal client to becoming Uncle Sam’s principal adversary in the region.
Pakistan had to adjust accordingly, though the process was less than smooth, especially during the Afghan ‘Jihad’, when the country, led by Gen Ziaul Haq, became increasingly wedded to American and Saudi policies. The military strongman also greatly distrusted Shia political activism, influenced by Iran, in Pakistan.
Some observers have viewed the post-1979 Tehran-Islamabad disconnect from a ‘sectarian’ lens, though it can be argued that it is more of a geopolitical difference in views. Revolutionary Iran considers itself a supporter of the mustazifeen-i-jehan, or the ‘oppressed of the earth’, and, more recently, a central pillar of the mahwar-i-muqawamat, or axis of resistance, leading the charge against US/Western hegemony in the Middle East.
Pakistan, of course, takes a more centrist approach in foreign policy and, while it is extremely close to China and has had occasional disagreements with the US, Islamabad is by no means a vocal supporter of anti-American foreign policy.
While the official line in Pakistan-Iran relations is one of brotherhood and amity, ties have been tested several times in the post-1979 period. One of the tensest moments was recently on January 16, when Iran struck what it said was a base of the Jaish al-Adl terrorist group in Panjgur.
The attack was unprecedented and Pakistan struck back two days later, targeting what it said were hideouts of Baloch separatist groups in the Iranian town of Saravan. Naturally, both strikes made news globally, but the two sides dialled down the rhetoric relatively quickly.
This showed that, behind the nationalistic bluster on both sides, there were rational actors willing to talk their way out of a jam. While this time both sides decided to shake hands and make up, unless the issue of cross-border militancy is addressed in a frank manner by both capitals, the next incident may have more worrisome repercussions.
Managing this delicate issue will be a major challenge for the incoming government. Moreover, just as Iran views with some discomfort Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi Arabia and the US, similarly, Islamabad watches with concern close ties between Tehran and Delhi.
However, while official and geopolitical relations may swing between lukewarm to cordial, cultural ties between Pakistan and Iran are deep. The fact is that Iranian culture has, over the centuries, made deep inroads into South Asian Muslim culture, impacting everything from language and poetry to architecture and religion.
Pakistan has one of the largest Shia Muslim populations in the world, and many of these individuals look up to Iranian mujtahids (jurists) in matters of faith, while every year thousands of Pakistanis travel to Iran for ziarat of the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad.
So, while both states do not always see eye to eye on global politics, culture and faith are a binding force.
Given the complex background of ties with these three important Middle Eastern states, and the often-contradictory positions they take in foreign policy, it would help to see where the frontrunners’ in the upcoming elections — the PML-N and the PPP — stand.
The leaderships of both mainstream parties have, over the years, cultivated close personal relationships with the royal houses of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Nawaz Sharif and his clan spent years in the kingdom during the Musharraf regime during Mian Sahib’s first exile, and the House of Saud is believed to have intervened and ‘convinced’ the late military strongman to transfer the Sharifs to the kingdom. Mian Sahib and his family have not forgotten the favour.
Meanwhile, the PPP’s top tier is believed to be close to the UAE rulers. Benazir Bhutto spent part of her years in self-exile in the Emirates during the Musharraf era, before returning to Pakistan in 2007, while Asif Zardari has used the UAE for medical visits, as a haven when things have gone awry at home, or to discuss politics in a ‘safe’ locale.
Looking at the 2024 election manifesto of the PML-N, the party of the Sharifs talks of “special focus on Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar”, while adding that PML-N “has historically maintained brotherly ties with the leaderships of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. We intend to take this journey to new heights by: making a major effort to facilitate a greater number of our skilled manpower to this region; [building] partnerships anchored in our shared
values, but equally manifested in the economic, trade and commercial spheres; [working] together to bring peace and prosperity in the lives of our peoples”; and, significantly, “ensure consistency of policy to avoid detriment to bonds that took decades to build.”
This take is largely in consonance with the party’s 2018 position, where Saudi Arabia and Iran were included in the list of “traditional friends and allies.”
With regards to Iran in the 2024 manifesto, the PML-N pledges to “enhance economic and energy ties, capitalising on geographical proximity and cross-border trade; explore avenues of joint ventures in energy, particularly in the oil and gas sectors”; and “develop infrastructure to facilitate trade and enhance border security.”
Curiously, in its 2024 manifesto, the PPP hardly mentions Iran, though relations with the Gulf states are discussed in relative detail.
“Recognising that KSA, UAE, Qatar and GCC countries and Turkiye remain Pakistan’s old allies, we will prioritise the region for advancing common issues on joint platforms and leverage investments and ties via large diasporas and remittance enhancements,” says the party of the Bhuttos.
References to Iran are limited to promises of “resuming work on the Pak-Iran gas pipeline” as well as enhancing “existing trade agreements with Afghanistan and Iran.”
Comparatively, the PPP’s 2018 manifesto was much more ambitious in bridging the Gulf, when it observed that “we will strike a rational balance in our relations with Riyadh and Tehran to shore up our influence and enhance prospects for engagement with each” while reaffirming “that Pakistan’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains strong” and promising to be “steadfast in our diplomatic and strategic pursuit to capture new entry-points as a result of Tehran’s re-emergence as a key regional player.”
Ex-diplomats agree with the key points both parties have raised in their manifestos regarding ties with these three states.
Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, UK and the UN, tells Eos that “even though de-escalation between Pakistan and Iran is underway, the relationship has been damaged, which will take time and effort to repair.
“Border management with Iran will be a major challenge for the next government, especially as Pakistan has two other troubled borders and can hardly afford a third hot front,” says Lodhi. “Relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE are already strong but will require consistent high-level engagement to keep them on a positive trajectory.”
Former foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry observes that “the new government needs to work with Iran on stabilising the border and to increase economic interaction. As for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, opportunities should be created to attract their investments in Pakistan.”
The challenges ahead
As mentioned above, the challenges regarding Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE are considerable, and balancing ties with these important states will require immense diplomatic skill.
Both the PML-N and PPP have highlighted the need to attract Saudi and Gulf investments, which dovetails nicely with the aims of the recently set up Special Investment Facilitation Council, a body being steered by the military.
Of course, the new government should focus on attracting Gulf money towards productive and mutually beneficial enterprises in Pakistan, instead of heading to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi every time the coffers are near empty. Our Arab friends have begun to hint in unsubtle ways that the age of the free lunch is over.
Equally important will be how Pakistan reacts to geopolitical disturbances in the region. For example, in 2015, the PML-N-led administration wisely took the matter of the Yemen war to parliament which, through a resolution, opted to stay neutral in the conflict that had pitted the Iran-backed Houthi Ansarallah movement against the Saudi/UAE and West-backed Yemeni government.
While this move did not go down well in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, in hindsight, it was the right thing to do to keep Pakistan out of the Yemeni quagmire.
If matters deteriorate, and the US and its clients in the region opt to take on Iran and its allied groups more aggressively, Pakistan will again be asked to make difficult choices. This is something the parties hoping to form the next government should start planning for now.
The writer is a member of staff.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2024