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Pakistan’s “Defense Diplomacy” Offers Inroads with the Gulf Monarchies

The broader Middle East, and in particular the Gulf region, has remained one of the most important pillars of Pakistan’s foreign relations. This has resulted in the development of extensive political, security, and economic ties between the two. Politically, both the GCC states and Pakistan were members of the Western camp during the Cold War, and both have maintained their alignment on regional security issues in the decades since. The Gulf states host millions of Pakistani expatriates, and the remittances sent by this diaspora are a vital part of Pakistan’s economy. Indeed, Pakistan remains a trusted partner in the security domain and has played its role in the development and modernization of the Gulf states’ own armed forces. This engagement is only reinforced by the cordial interpersonal relationships between the royal families in the Gulf and Pakistani civil and military elites.

During the last decade, Pakistan’s steady economic decline has resulted in far greater dependence upon Gulf financial support, ending any semblance of parity in Islamabad’s ties with the GCC states. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have emerged as the two most important stakeholders and hold significant leverage over Pakistan’s political and economic affairs. This development has converged with an erosion of trust between civilian power brokers in Pakistan and Gulf elites, particularly those in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leaving Pakistan’s military as one of the last remaining conduits of the bilateral relationship.

The Rise of “Defense Diplomacy”

Pakistan has been nominally led by civilian governments since the departure of former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, but the country’s relationship with the Gulf States entered a relatively rough patch over the next five years during the leadership of liberal Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from 2008 to 2013. The acrimony between Zardari and some Gulf leaders furthered the already functional engagement between Gulf ruling elites and the leadership of the Pakistani military. This pattern initially changed with the election of strongly pro-Saudi Nawaz Sharif in 2013, but Sharif’s decision to remain on the sidelines of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen the following year enraged Saudi elites and cast doubt on Pakistan’s security ties to the Gulf states. Then-Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan had also engaged in a war of words with the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash after the latter criticized Pakistan for not backing the Gulf states in their fight against the Houthi rebels.

The schism with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, prompted the Pakistani military to intervene in the country’s foreign affairs. This episode in Pakistan’s history, later known as “Defense Diplomacy,” began in 2014 when Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif traveled to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, helping to allay some of the bilateral tensions. Pakistan’s military particularly wanted to rehabilitate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and shortly after the meetings, Islamabad agreed to send another detachment of troops to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan also opted to join the Saudi-led “Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition” (IMCTC) alliance in 2015, and the now retired Pakistani Army Chief, Raheel Sharif, assumed charge of this new entity in 20177. These moves further restored trust between the two sides, while also giving Pakistan a physical presence in a Saudi-sponsored security initiative. Meanwhile, the military-to-military relationship continued to progress thanks to the annual exercises held by various sections of the armed forces of the two sides.

Defense diplomacy persisted under General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who replaced Sharif as the new Chief of Army Staff at the end of 2016. Bajwa was successful in developing a close and cordial working relationship with the rulers in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain. He was also able to retain Pakistan’s strategic autonomy, and amicably avoided Pakistan’s entanglement in the intra-Gulf diplomatic crisis in 2017.

General Effectiveness

After India’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status in 2019, however, Pakistan’s relationship with both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deteriorated. Concerned with the potential damage it would cause for their political and commercial ties to India, neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi unequivocally supported Pakistan’s claims. Also Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s attempts to be part of the Turkish led parallel axis in the Muslim World did not help his country’s case, either. A near-total breakdown in Pakistan’s ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was only averted, once again, thanks to the efforts of Pakistan’s top military commander and his close personal relationship with the Saudi and Emirati royal families.

Against this backdrop, another change of command has gripped Pakistan, with General Asim Munir assuming the position of the new military chief. Like his two predecessors, Munir has close connections to the Gulf region; as a junior officer, he served in the Pakistani military contingent stationed in Saudi Arabia. During his brief stint as the director of Pakistan’s infamous “Inter-Services Intelligence” (ISI) spy agency, he traveled to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to attend bilateral meetings. Munir’s leadership role at ISI, as well as his command of the military’s own intelligence wing, have given him a far greater awareness of the concerns of GCC states than his predecessors. Indeed, the general’s decision to make his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE underscores the vitality of the bilateral relationship and his desire to continue Pakistan’s tradition of defense diplomacy.

The decision by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to finalize new financial aid packages with Pakistan right after Munir’s trip suggests the positive impact that defense diplomacy can have on bilateral ties outside the security space. It is noteworthy that Pakistan’s civilian power holders had made several unsuccessful attempts to attain the same concessions.

It is clear that Pakistan’s bilateral ties with both Gulf states are driven almost entirely by its military. It is an open question, however, what the Pakistani side could give to the Gulf in exchange for its financial largesse. Because the relationship between the Arab monarchies and Iran remains tense and the negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are suspended, the Gulf’s strategic environment may soon reach a stage of nuclear brinkmanship. Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power, as well as its close strategic and security ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, makes it an important player in this standoff. As Pakistan’s bilateral relationships with the Gulf become increasingly determined by changes in the regional security landscape, actors responsible for the management of Pakistan’s strategic assets and security commitments—the military first among them—will take center stage in steering these ties.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Umer Karim is a visiting fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) London, where he focuses on the evolving political and security environment within South Asia and the Middle East. He is also a doctoral researcher at University of Birmingham where he focuses of Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy and Middle East International Relations.

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