How Can Pakistan Get 'Closer' to Mideast States?

Published July 12th, 2022 - 05:29 GMT
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in Islamabad on 1 April 2022 [AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images]

Pakistan's parliament has elected Shahbaz Sharif as the country's next prime minister following the removal of Imran Khan. Opponent parties took over the government with the formation of a new coalition. The largest number of cabinet ministers in the new Pakistani government is made up of representatives of the ‘Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’ and the ‘People’.

The Middle East has played an important role in Pakistan's foreign policy since the beginning of Pakistan's independence. Meanwhile, in the current situation, it seems that the coalition government of Pakistan will pay attention to foreign policy in several areas.

Economic diplomacy and providing foreign capital

Pakistan is shifting its priorities from geostrategic to geo-economics.  Pakistan's foreign policy places particular emphasis on economic diplomacy to reap the benefits of the globalization process as well as meet the challenges of the 21st century. Any political or diplomatic effort without the benefit of extensive economic cooperation is an incomplete attempt to communicate. Therefore, Pakistan tries to use its strategic position for economic gains. Shahbaz Sharif, the new prime minister, is facing many economic challenges. Pakistan's economic crisis is the main worrying challenge.

Therefore, for Islamabad, solving the problems of Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves, Pakistan's inclusion in the (FATF) list, reducing the growth rate, reducing foreign capital, increasing dependence on loans, decreasing the value of the rupee, decreasing foreign direct investment, widespread inflation, increasing dependence on imports, fluctuations of Global prices, energy shortage, and food crisis is very important.

Also, the current government should diversify the energy resources of the country along with providing foreign capital and economic reforms. In fact, just as the current government needs the support of the United States to invest in China and to continue financial assistance from international institutions, it also needs the actors of the Middle East.

The regional trips and economic and Middle Eastern diplomacy of the officials of Islamabad and Shahbaz Sharif will have a profound effect on the country's national economy. In this field, the expansion of cooperation with various actors in the Middle East can be in line with securing Pakistan's economic interests. For example, Islamabad hopes to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied natural gas from Qatar. It will try not to deprive itself of Iran's gas resources by lifting the sanctions. Also, importing oil-based on late payments and discounts, etc. from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. to Pakistan are important options for Islamabad. The wide market of the Middle East can be considered by most of the manufactured and food products of Pakistan.

In another dimension, considering Pakistan's strong dependence on the resources of millions of Pakistani immigrants in the Middle East countries, Islamabad pays more attention to the countries of the region and the important role of the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East countries and sending their foreign funds. So, Shahbaz Sharif's foreign policy is likely to be guided based on Pakistan's economic interests and giving priority to economic development as a strategic necessity and in line with maintaining, promoting, and advancing Pakistan's national interests.

Geopolitical goals and balanced foreign policy in the Middle East

Pakistan's foreign policy in 2021 witnessed several obstacles such as managing the consequences of the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, the type of balancing relations between the United States and China, negotiations with the Global financial institutions, and establishing a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even now, one of the biggest challenges of the new government is the balance and restoration of diplomatic relations with the Middle East.

Regarding article 40 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the preservation and strengthening of fraternal relations with Islamic countries in foreign relations is also under the consideration regarding the Middle East.  In this regard, the issue of Kashmir remains at the center of Pakistan's foreign policy. Maintaining national security and geostrategic interests, including Kashmir, is important for Islamabad. But over the past few years, India has established close strategic ties with many Middle Eastern capitals. Even now, it seems that Islamabad is trying to prevent the silence of Islamic countries in front of India's approach in Jammu and Kashmir or to raise Kashmir against India in Islamic gatherings.

In another dimension, it doesn't want that the expanding relations of Middle Eastern actors with India cause them to support India's approach. Pakistan does not want to see Middle East actors supporting India in the Kashmir issue. In addition, Pakistan is looking for more support from the Middle East countries for its approach in Islamic and international organizations and forums in front of India. It doesn't want to see India's growing role in the Middle East and India's success in isolating Pakistan at the regional level.

There is a tendency among Pakistanis that Islamabad should work on its self-sufficiency. So Pakistanis sought diversity in their foreign policy.

Despite some of Imran Khan's opposition to the United States, closeness to the 'China-Russia-Iran axis', his trip to Moscow, support for the cause of Palestine, and opposition to joining the peace of Abraham, the current government of Pakistan tries to have a more appropriate and balanced arrangement of relations with Middle Eastern actors.

It seems that by reducing the total focus of foreign policy on the United States and China, they are considering the balanced development of relations with actors such as Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Also, dealing with the future scenarios of the Afghanistan crisis will continue in cooperation with the actors of the Middle East.

While some actors in the region see Shahbaz Sharif's presence in power as an opportunity to establish extensive relations with Pakistan, Islamabad will probably try to balance its relations with the major players and even facilitate their interactions with mediation in order to remain neutral towards the conflicts in the Middle East.

Pakistan is probably moving towards how to take advantage of the possible reduction of tensions between the long-time rivals. For example, it used its political relations with Riyadh to attract investment or benefited from its relations with Iran by closely consulting on regional issues, especially Afghanistan.

In this regard, the meeting of political and military leaders from Saudi Arabia in recent months, and Saudi financing are more important to strengthen Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves in return for military and security cooperation. Also, Islamabad wants the UAE to play a greater role as Pakistan's largest trade partner in the Middle East and the main source of investment in Pakistan.

In the same field, along with Erdogan's upcoming visit to Pakistan, the relations between Pakistan and Turkey will be faced with developments in the economic field, information exchange and joint military exercises, weapons technology, and manufacturing.
In another dimension, with the visit of Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to Tehran, issues such as border management, pilgrims, cultural communication, removing the main obstacles on the way of trade and border clearance, more border bazaars, and more electrical energy cooperation have been under consideration.
In fact, Pakistan is focusing on a multipolar policy in the region. Islamabad may give priority to relations with Saudi Arabia. But it knows that if Iran-Pakistan relations are greatly reduced, it will have a negative effect on Iran's approach to economic, geopolitical, and anti-terrorist cooperation. Apart from this, in line with African politics and the expansion of multilateral economic relations with African countries, Islamabad is likely to start stronger relations with countries such as Egypt.

However, the recognition of Israel by Pakistan is an important challenge. There is no complete coordination in Pakistan in this field.

In the meantime, despite the emphasis on no change in Islamabad's position towards Israel and support for a two-state solution, there is a possibility of paying more attention to this issue to reduce India-Israel relations and pressure reduction Pakistan's key international partners and other Arab actors.

Pakistani diaspora and soft power

In foreign policy goals, it is important to promote Pakistan as a dynamic, progressive, moderate and democratic Islamic country, to develop friendly relations with all countries of the world, and to protect the interests of Pakistani immigrants abroad. 
In this regard, increasing Pakistan's position as a peaceful country, promoting tourism and facilities for tourists, managing Pakistani pilgrims, facilitating the issuance of visas, increasing air flights, and opening new Pakistani embassies provide important opportunities for expanding the country's soft power.

Development of military and defense relations
Extremism and terrorism have become the major security challenges for Pakistan and the Middle East. In this regard, strengthening cooperation in the field of fighting terrorism and extremism, strengthening cooperation, and sharing expertise and information can be effective. In addition, Pakistan is one of the countries that produce weapons. In the past years, Pakistan's defense exports have had many Middle Eastern customers, such as Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc., so it can play an important role in increasing Pakistan's exports.

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