Pakistan’s new government under Imran Khan unlikely to overhaul its Gulf policy

Khan has more widespread popular appeal than any other political figure in Pakistan but he is a new counterpart for all Gulf countries.
Sunday 09/09/2018
New era. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview at his home in Islamabad.  (AFP)
New era. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview at his home in Islamabad. (AFP)

DUBAI- Imran Khan’s election victory opens a new era for Pakistan but Islamabad’s Gulf policy is unlikely to see a major overhaul.

The security-dominated state in Pakistan has traditionally exerted the most influence in shaping Pakistan’s international posture and partnerships. Aspirations for Islamic unity and Palestinian independence are cornerstones that have defined Pakistan’s diplomatic positions and approaches to the Middle East.

Yet, in the last decade, Pakistan has increasingly worked to develop ties to countries that Saudi Arabia regards as its regional rivals — primarily Iran but also Turkey and Qatar. In doing so, there has been no significant strategic realignment but Pakistan has, behind the scenes, tasted the ire of some of its Arab Gulf partners.

Pakistan and its Gulf partners have no desire to risk losing the support and friendship of one another but complex geostrategic developments are driving both sides to review international partnerships and exploit new opportunities.

For Islamabad, the conflict in Afghanistan, massive energy shortages and a low-level Baloch separatist insurgency mean it is unable to afford a cold or unconstructive relationship with Tehran.

Iran, like Pakistan, finds the prospect of the Islamic State establishing a foothold in Afghanistan as disastrous and says only a political settlement with the Taliban can end the insurgency. It is also highly suspicious of US motives to remain in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s energy needs are growing as fast as its population of 215 million. Acute electricity and gas shortages have stunted Pakistan’s economic growth and blocked poverty alleviation. Geography dictates that there is no country better positioned than Iran to address Pakistan’s energy shortages.

Pakistan also seeks security in its largest province, Baluchistan, which borders Iran, as it courts more than $50 billion of investment with China to develop a trade corridor to connect western China and Central Asia to the Arabian Sea via a deep-sea port in Gwadar.

Pakistan has been fighting fringe Baluchi separatist groups, which it considers proxies of India, since the 1970s. Constructive ties with Tehran could ensure that the long border can be insulated at a time when Pakistan’s armed forces are stretched on two fronts with India and a highly unstable Afghanistan.

Pakistan has thus pursued the difficult approach of balancing its needs and dependencies on Iran and the Arab Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from which Pakistan’s economy benefits from massive remittances and development assistance.

While a “win-win” scenario appears unachievable in the highly divided Gulf, Pakistan could be said to pursue a “don’t lose-don’t lose” scenario. Yet the new Khan-led government’s narrative that won it its first national mandate to govern and the emergency-like economic situation it inherited will present new opportunities with Pakistan’s Gulf partners.

With Pakistan’s economy in need of urgent financial rescue, the government is preparing for a 13th bailout from the International Monetary Fund but would welcome financial assistance from friendly countries — something Gulf states have done in the past. Pakistani Finance Minister Asad Umar said the country needs a $9 billion bailout urgently.

Despite their own respective economic challenges with depressed oil prices and low productivity in non-oil sectors, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, on the one hand, and Qatar and Iran, on the other, could all find compelling reasons to offer financial support to the new government in Islamabad.

Khan has more widespread popular appeal than any other political figure in Pakistan but he is a new counterpart for all Gulf countries. Personal relationship-building will essentially start from here and there will be curiosity in what support can be offered to the Pakistani government considering favours previously granted to Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf.

Even if financial assistance is unable to change Pakistan’s Gulf policy directly, there are

millions of Pakistani hearts to be won and whose goodwill would prove useful to helping influence Pakistan’s approach to the Gulf’s key problems.

The Arab Gulf may have the advantage based on the legacy of ties to Pakistan but also the United Arab Emirates’ and Saudi Arabia’s economic courting of India and ties with the United States being elements that, if channelled into the Gulf’s Pakistan policy to facilitate a settlement in Afghanistan and some type of peace agreement with India, Islamabad could be persuaded to review its Gulf policy and its approach to Iran.