Rethinking Pakistan’s Relations with the GCC

There it is. “Imran Khan bows out of Malaysia Summit”. Written in big, bold letters across most mainstream regional newspapers. One cannot help but think, what a world we live in where those who stand by us during our lowest points have to be shunned in place of those who couldn’t care less. Malaysia and Turkey, true partners with regards to the narrative on Kashmir, were informed that Imran Khan will not be visiting the summit in Kuala Lampur which was attended by Muslim leaders the world over. In fact, some say this summit was a brainchild of Imran Khan, Turkey’s Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir when they met on the sidelines of the UNGA summit in New York. Thus, to see Imran Khan not attend at the 11th hour, especially at the behest of certain friendly nations, opened up a floodgate of emotions.

There are several reasons as to why this specific compromise by Khan Saab has stung more than others. Firstly, one obvious cause of this anguish is the continued portrayal of Pakistan as a country that is beholden to others in return for economic support. This mercenary tag that the nation has unfortunately developed for itself was supposed to be up-ended under Imran. Or so we hoped. He was to be the man who would look the rest of the world in the eye and truly represent the pulse of the nation. No apologies, ifs and buts, just straight-faced logic more in tune with his speeches while he was in the opposition as well as his most recent address at the UNGA. This is the man that we hoped would respond to Saudi Arabia’s and UAE’s concerns regarding the summit in the only way that was required, that it is none of their concern where Pakistan chooses to send its representatives, similar to how they view Pakistan’s concerns over Emirati and Saudi relations with Modi’s India. The rumblings emanating from the corridors of power in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi touched upon how the summit would lessen the role of the OIC. Strange considering the OIC is all but useless in the modern world. Hence, to see Imran make a quick trip to Riyadh and announce upon his return that he will not be attending the summit, was a huge slap in the face for those expecting something different.

Granted that the KSA and UAE had most likely threatened to roll back or outright cancel the agreements made last year regarding the deferred oil payments and cash deposits, the manner in which this situation played out is perplexing. Any concerns that the GCC nations had should have been communicated far earlier so as to avoid this exact issue. Furthermore, in his attempt to mediate between KSA and Malaysia, Imran should have sent his Foreign Minister rather than travel himself. His supporters can understand the economic stability argument and how disrupting the current stabilization process would do more harm than good, however the optics of the entire fiasco leave a lot to be desired.

Secondly, it is pertinent to mention how the UAE specially invited India to a meeting of the OIC, directly after the February 2019 skirmish between Pakistan and India which resulted in Pakistan shooting down an Indian MiG and taking prisoner Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Varthaman was later released by Pakistan as a gesture of goodwill, much to the chagrin of Indian policymakers who were expecting the blundering Pakistani diplomacy of yesteryear. Secondly, the UAE bestowed their highest civilian honor to Modi the same month that his party revoked Articles 370 and 35A in Indian Occupied Kashmir, stripping Kashmiris of their identity and simultaneously revoking their basic fundamental rights. Till date, the Kashmiris are not able to move freely, access the internet, congregate in public places or merely offer prayers in their mosques. It was at this time that the UAE thought it wise to confer their highest civilian award to Modi. Any novice geopolitical analyst can see the timing of this act was intentional. A message to Pakistan saying “the Kashmiris are irrelevant”. In the world of diplomacy, these types of actions are carefully and meticulously planned. Also, the $15 billion Saudi investment in Indian oil refineries further reflects the increasing confluence of Indian and GCC economic interests.

An argument can also be made that the Gulf bloc has still not fully forgiven Pakistan for denying to take part in the disastrous campaign in Yemen which has resulted in more than 100,000 dead, 85,000 of which were children who died of starvation. The manner by which UAE’s foreign minister Anwar Gargash had said that “Pakistan will pay for its ambiguous stance on Yemen” said it all. Pakistani policymakers must ensure that the GCC bloc, and specifically the UAE, is kept in check. For a country that has relied on Pakistan for the establishment of many of their institutions namely Etisalat, Emirates Airlines and the training of the UAE armed forces, they seem to have short memories. Pakistani policymakers must ensure the UAE are constantly reminded of this fact. If the emergence of Gwadar Port as a competitor to Dubai is one of the reasons behind the UAE’s antics, Pakistani power-brokers must use that as a bargaining chip rather than as simply a source of unease between the two nations.

With this context in mind, the stellar manner by which Mahathir Mohammed responded to the entire situation was nothing but historic. Not only did he not take any offence to Pakistan’s withdrawal, he went out of his way to ensure that Pakistan was not portrayed negatively in the media by insisting the withdrawal had nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. It is definitely in Pakistan’s interests to court those nations that are above transactional relationships as can be seen by the way Mahathir didn’t relent on his comments on Kashmir earlier this year, even after pressure from India. This must be reciprocated. The solution lies in gradually extricating Pakistan’s foreign policy from their relations with the GCC. Constant efforts must be made to strengthen the emerging Pakistan-Turkey-Malaysia Muslim bloc behind the scenes so as to, in due time, create a viable alternative to the economic benefits that come with partnering with the GCC. While the GCC nations go out of their way to “send us messages”, Malaysia risked it all to ensure the Pakistani nation wasn’t alone during those testing times. Imran Saab, we understand the argument that revolves around economic consequences, what we can’t fathom is meek capitulation.