Pakistan’s foreign policy generally centres on its relations with its immediate neighbours, especially India and Afghanistan, and with larger powers such as the United States and China. But Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East are evolving at a faster pace, with important implications for its security and economy. How Pakistan will react to the worsening regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the current dispute between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will have a major impact on stability in the near future.
The Middle East itself has experienced continuous political turmoil for decades. There are many contentious issues such as ethnic diversity, the individual interests of various sects, no reasonable delimitation of the boundaries between nations, the political and economic aspects of various superpower interests, the existing political structures in the ineffective form of dictatorial regimes, emigration, and wars, to name a few. All this has led to the distortion of ordinary life in these countries.
Many dictatorial powers in this region have oppressed people for decades and after years of cruelty, the people finally had had enough. They decided to rise up, leading to the overthrow of many dictators. This has since come to be known as the Arab Spring. Gaddafi, Morsi and Saddam were some of the notable names that lost power, yet the governments that took their place are still struggling to stamp their authority due to various political biases within the country.
The ethnic diversity that can be found here leads to divisions between the different communities and not even nationalism can unite them. This can be attributed to an error in the demarcation of borders by the colonial powers. Therefore, small autonomous groups can be found spread over different geographic areas.
The regime in Syria has led to the interruption of normal life for its citizens and, as a result, many people are choosing to flee these countries, travelling to Europe in large numbers in pursuit of a better life. On a global scale, Russia supports the regime in power in Syria, while the United States opposes it, and as both are considerably powerful countries, this has led to an impasse that is making it difficult to find a solution to this crisis. On the other side, the people fleeing the country are becoming a burden to their new nations, many of whom fear that the security will get worse with such a large influx of unregistered refugees.
More than 21,900 civilians have lost their lives to sectarian violence since 2003, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. In the 1990s, Pakistan became the first line of deference in a sectarian proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while both countries offered financial and logistical support to Sunni and Shiite groups, respectively, as part of a wider struggle for influence in the Muslim world
Pakistan’s policy in the Middle East has largely been aimed at limiting the national consequences of sectarian tensions resulting from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan is a Sunni-majority country, but Shiites account for about 20 percent of the total population.
The country has the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran. It also has a history of sectarian violence that includes violent clashes and spates of assassinations between Sunni and Shiite groups. More than 21,900 civilians have lost their lives to sectarian violence since 2003, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. In the 1990s, Pakistan became the first line of deference in a sectarian proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while both countries offered financial and logistical support to Sunni and Shiite groups, respectively, as part of a wider struggle for influence in the Muslim world.
Because of this history, Pakistan is still wary of being dragged into power struggles along sectarian lines, as they are currently developing in the Middle East. The political and economic resurgence of Iran after the implementation of the nuclear agreement in 2016, and Iran’s willingness to participate in the power struggle in the recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen makes such a result possible in the foreseeable future.
Surprisingly, Pakistan seems to have acted intelligently during the Middle East crisis. They refused to take sides, and their parliament voted not to provide troops to the military alliance formed to fight terrorism in the region, as the alliance seems more anti-Iran than anything else. Pakistan did grant General Raheel Shareef permission to become head of the military alliance in 2017, but this appointment is more symbolic in nature than practical. The country has also offered to play a mediating role in order to end the latest Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
However, Pakistan’s neutral position has also had an impact on its relations with the other countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, who expressed their aversion to Pakistan’s position in the military alliance. But they do not understand that Pakistan cannot afford to impede relations with Iran due to various geopolitical and economic factors and that they are home to millions of Shiite Muslims and such an alliance would lead to tensions between the different sects. In addition, Iran’s improving relationship with India, and its threat to CPEC could also not be ignored. In light of these factors, Pakistan’s decision was perhaps the best we could hope for in the given circumstances.
The writer is a Quetta based columnist and an Independent researcher. He can be reached at Asadhussainma@yahoo.com
Published in Daily Times, September 14th 2018.