What Pakistan Has at Stake in the Gulf


King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia receives Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Riyadh. AFP
King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia receives Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Riyadh. AFP

Democracy may have generated the unity of Pakistani lawmakers’ thoughts on Yemen but the country is in no position to ignore its geopolitical and economic interests in the Gulf and close, strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. The largest number of Pakistani expats worldwide live and work in the UAE and Saudi Arabia – over 3 million in total. Combined, they remit over $7 billion every year. The amount has been progressively climbing so much so that it has become the key ingredient of Pakistan’s debt servicing ability for several years now

IRSHAD SALIM | Special to Caravan

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] month and a half ago, several Saudi and Pakistani businessmen from the Kingdom visited Karachi Expo under the umbrella of Pakistan embassy and spent a remarkable time engaging with Pakistani businessmen and traders. Named “Green, White & Green”, the trip generated a multifaceted initiative meant to engage both countries businessmen as part of a people-to-people engagement – something which was hitherto amiss in Pakistan, but profoundly visible in the Kingdom — due to the presence of more than 2 million Pakistanis and hundreds of Pakistani-origin Saudis and Pakistani investors.

Therefore, when King Salman bin Abdulaziz particularly mentioned to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in March the need for increased interaction between the business communities of the two countries, it went well with the latter – being a businessmen politician himself from the largest province of Punjab, and the largest single beneficiary of the largest economy in the Gulf.

For many, the Saudi King’s one-liner contained attributes of a multi-billion dollar bonanza that could minimize the gap, if not shift, the trade imbalance between the two brotherly countries which consider one another like their own country or their second home. “..the Saudi leadership considered Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to be one country,”… ‘Pakistanis consider Saudi Arabia their second home”, former Pakistani Ambassador Naeem Khan had said during his several interactions with Pakistanis in the Saudi capital.

Mr. Khan had also said, “Pakistan considers the security of Saudi Arabia not just as a diplomatic or an internal matter but as a personal matter.” “Any threats to Saudi Arabia are also a threat to Pakistan.”

Fast forward: King Salman bin Abdulaziz receives PM Sharif himself in March — against all diplomatic norms goes to the airport and welcomes him to the Kingdom. Thereafter, Yemen situation arises and Sharif is asked to deliver — who throws the matter into the parliament akin to what Turkish PM did to US back during the Iraq war. The Sharif move yielded predictable outcome for him as his lawmakers fell in line with all others who traditionally considered Saudi and UAE too close for comfort.

However, the “unanimous” resolution by the Parliament stunned the Arab world, especially UAE and the Kingdom — two big happy hunting grounds for ordinary Pakistanis in search of livelihood and savvy entrepreneurs in search of safe haven for their wealth, both legitimate and ill-gotten. So what happened? Who went wrong where? Is the Yemen situation the spoiler?

Is a paradigm shift taking place in Pak-Saudi relations concurrent with regional shifts and new emerging alliances? While Mohammad Khalid Rana, President of Riyadh-based Pakistan Thinkers Forum may be generally representing the feelings of Pakistani expats when he says that: “Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia are standing shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Government and Saudi people. They will fight also if there is any threat to the Kingdom…threat to Saudi is a threat to Pakistan”.

However, the Pakistani society back home and in the Gulf stand confused if not divided. Lawmakers stand united with those who had challenged the very legitimacy of the Parliament itself. Many Pakistanis in the Kingdom and in the Gulf point to what is implicit in Rana’s views – that at the end of the day, we must do something about the situation — that has the potential to become an existential threat to their livelihood, lifestyle and  living. An ominous possibility of a nosedive in remittances cannot be ruled out if future hiring of Pakistani labors and professionals undergoes shift or course correction in the Gulf.

The largest number of Pakistani expats worldwide live and work in the UAE and Saudi Arabia – over 3 million in total. Combined, they remit over $7 billion every year. The amount has been progressively climbing so much so that it has become the key ingredient of Pakistan’s debt servicing ability for several years now. Ambassador Khan’s oft-repeated statements at community functions ring a bell: Saudi Arabia is the land of opportunity for Pakistanis”. “Saudi Arabia is the island of stability in the region”…that the security and stability of Saudi and Pakistan is one, etc.”

Over a 10 year period, these Pakistanis have remitted close to $60 billion, if not more – almost the same amount China has committed to Pakistan as investment and soft loan for the game-changing economic corridor. This highway, to be built over several years on purely economic based considerations, is expected to benefit China most in hard dollars terms. Regional countries combined will also benefit more than Pakistan, according to analysts. Fast forward and I find China, US, Iran, Afghanistan, even India, — their interests in the AfPak region having converged.

I call it “circumstantially driven economic alliance” of countries east of the Gulf. The emerging scenario, however, is benefiting Pakistan in the short term. Whether it will benefit more in the future than what it may have benefited from the Gulf during the last 30 years is subject to geopolitical risk assessment in which macro variables in the modern era play larger significant role than the micro variables.

Thirst for fast connectivity worldwide is spreading like a virus. The Gulf is no exception. Form and substance of governance, dependency and interdependence, intratrade and trade, and international diplomacy, immigration economy etc. have brought distant neighbors and trading partners closer and immediate neighbors in the backyard as well as in the front yard.

While China-Iran relations are transactional, the US-China-Russia-Iran interests in the region are security-centric in the short term but economic driven in the ultimate analysis. Thus, in order to justify the means for stability, international and regional players, albeit stakeholders are encouraging forging of alliances within alliances in the future resource rich region northeast and east of the Gulf.

India has its own reasons to be drawn within the contours of the newly developing big game. Developing group dynamics between and among countries in the region are also favoring India to draw Pakistan into its sphere of future trade and economic zone which extends all the way to Israel – something it has been longing for since the independence, just as it was during the Asoka era. Iran-India pacts and agreements, old and new, carry footprints of both ancient civilizations’ assertiveness.

Pakistan therefore finds itself in the cul-de-sac of opportunity albeit history. Presently it may be construed as a win-win economic bonanza for years to come. The China-Pakistan economic corridor is being considered the beginning of a “great future” for the second largest Muslim country in the world. However, it is ruled by politicians and lawmakers who are yet to understand what Parliaments in democracy delivers.

If they are asked what the bill they have just voted for translates into visionary or actionable steps, a large number will have no problem confessing that they haven’t even read the document they have voted to approve or disapprove.  They have been voting on party lines and at the direction of their party heads.

However, their business savvy but not so visionary decision of unanimously voting to stay neutral in Yemen while giving the government the right to defend the integrity and solidarity of the Saudi Kingdom falls short of the benchmark established long ago by Pakistan: “Security and stability of Saudi and Pakistan” is one.

Democracy may have worked in generating unity of Pakistani lawmakers’ thoughts. Diplomacy is at work now as instrument of “damage control” lest, the sole loser of Saudi-Pakistan and UAE-Pakistan tiff may morph in the form of diminishing returns of “look south westward” policy of Pakistan which Bhutto had envisioned, carved and delivered to the nation as his dying gift. The future belongs obviously to the Pakistani youth (more than 50% of the populace) who look south westward (Gulf) for quantum economic success.

While China has offered trainings, jobs, scholarships, etc., the differential may not be too great to attract Pakistani youth to undertake mass exodus to Beijing in search of the pot of gold at the end of the developing rainbow called Pakistan-China Economic Corridor which is being dreamt to become the trading Autobahn of the AfPak region.

The Saudi-China relationship is a strategic relationship, as compared to Iran-China relationship which is transactional. “These new security paradigms might force Islamabad to forge even closer ties with Saudi Arabia”, said Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute. It was therefore expected that Pakistani lawmakers’ unanimous resolution urging the government to remain neutral on Yemen evoked a strong response from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a stunning silence from the Kingdom.

“It is understandable,” said Engr. Rehan Ahmed who has been living in Bahrain for the last 18 years. “Convey to our decision makers to strengthen Pakistani community here in Gulf countries,” he added. UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash while speaking to the Khaleej Times warned Pakistan of having to pay a “heavy price” for taking on what he called an “ambiguous stand”. He added that Pakistan should take a clear position “in favor of its strategic relations with the six-nation Arab Gulf Cooperation Council”.

He also went on to say, “The vague and contradictory stands of Pakistan and Turkey are an absolute proof that Arab security – from Libya to Yemen – is the responsibility of none but Arab countries.” “The Arabian Gulf is in a dangerous confrontation, its strategic security is on the edge, and the moment of truth distinguishes between the real ally and the ally of media and statements,” Gargash tweeted moments after the parliament unanimously passed the resolution insisting on neutrality in the Yemen conflict.

In short, Turkey and Pakistan – two non-Arab but Muslim states — have been put on notice. “Interestingly, the armies of both these non-Arab countries combined, form the military might of modern day’s two most important Islamic states in the world, flanking two key strategic locations on the arc of the crescent region. Both hold access to or control the exit point of resources much needed in years to come by those who control world’s two-third resources,” I wrote in January 2014.

Both these countries have been and continue to witness dramatic changes in civil-military relations. Their armies no longer call the shorts. The two heads of the governments are close. Both want the boots to remain in the barracks. On the electoral map of Turkey, nearly all areas – apart from the Aegean coast, — are AKP party orange. It is Erdogan’s power base. In Pakistan, Sharif’s PML-N rules the largest province of Punjab.

Turkey has heavily invested in Punjab. China has been doing so for several years now. The region is open once again — for business as usual on the ancient (resurrected) Silk Route. While the buzz word on the Lahore streets is “learn Chinese”, the buzz word on the Jeddah and Riyadh streets is, “invest back home”. Rana can’t learn Chinese. His son can’t either. Some of his relatives back home may.

The Saudi-China relationship is a strategic relationship, as compared to Iran-China relationship which is transactional. The transformation of the Saudi-Pakistani relationship into transactional, as it now seems poised to become, unless visionary approach is invoked by Pakistani movers and shakers, will be considered a paradigm shift with far-reaching consequences.

All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan


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