Located within a vital geostrategic region, Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country in the world, and the only one that possesses nuclear capabilities. However, it is also locked in a protracted rivalry with neighboring India, extending back to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 by the departing British. Moreover, Pakistan is also beset by major internal struggles: a civil-military imbalance, ethnic and sectarian tensions, persistent economic stress, and increasing threats to the climate. All of these issues have been exacerbated by the country’s ongoing political uncertainty. Faced with these challenges, Pakistan’s international partners are attempting to figure out how best to configure their bilateral relationship with Islamabad in order to best promote their mutual interests.
As it attempts to balance its relations with the U.S. and China, Pakistan has also maintained close ties with several Gulf states, especially with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to its clear ideological affinities—particularly with Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the destination of the Hajj, on which many Pakistanis embark each year—the Sunni majority Islamic republic of Pakistan also has economic compulsions that tether it to the Gulf states. Over half of Pakistan’s remittances come from the Gulf states, and over 77 percent of Pakistani overseas workers are employed in Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone. Pakistani labor has helped build much of the Gulf states’ new infrastructure, and Pakistanis also play an important role in the financial and health sectors of these countries. Islamabad has also forged strong bilateral security ties with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and its military has provided advice and training to Saudi and Emirati personnel. Pakistan has benefited from both nations’ largesse in times of economic need; the Saudis even promised Pakistan free oil to keep its economy afloat after it was sanctioned by the West for developing nuclear weapons in 1998. In turn, Pakistan has apparently assured the Saudis it would provide them a nuclear deterrent, if ever needed.
During the Cold War, Pakistan joined most of the Gulf states in supporting the Western bloc. The height of Pakistan’s participation in the conflict came from 1979 to 1989, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to support its friendly communist-aligned government. During the war that followed, Pakistan collaborated actively with Saudi Arabia and the United States to repel the invasion. Saudi money paid for the establishment of many Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi madrassas across Pakistan, inculcating a hardline Islamist ideology into thousands of jihadis. After the Soviets withdrew, however, these groups not only took over Afghanistan under the banner of the Taliban, but also became embroiled in sectarian conflict in Pakistan.
After the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognized the new Taliban government that stayed in power till the U.S. overthrew it after the September 11 attacks. However, the three countries later shared intelligence to curb Al Qaeda’s ability to target Muslim countries from Afghanistan.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have maintained close personal ties with prominent Pakistani civilian and military rulers. This includes the Sharifs, but also the Bhuttos and General Pervez Musharraf—all of whom sought refuge in the Gulf after they lost power, and some of whom made plans there to return. Benazir Bhutto, both the daughter of popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and a prime minister in her own right, returned to great acclaim from the UAE in 2007 to contest the coming general elections (although her comeback was tragically cut short by an alleged Taliban assassin). Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in Saudi Arabia two years later. General Musharraf himself went into self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid criminal charges in 2016, and remained there until he died in early 2023.
Pakistan has also exerted some agency when it comes to negotiating its relations with the Gulf states. For instance, the Pakistani parliament refused in 2015 to participate in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, worsening its relations with Riyadh. For its part, Pakistan has expressed vocal disappointment toward the lack of substantive Saudi and Emirati support for the rights of Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where New Delhi has steadily cracked down on political freedoms and human rights. Besides growing economic ties between the Gulf states and India, the UAE’s decision in 2019 to give its highest civilian award to Prime Minister Modi—only days after his move to undo the special status of Indian-held Kashmir—provoked particular frustration within Pakistan.
For its part, Pakistan has long aspired to enable a Saudi-Iran rapprochement, but has achieved little success in this regard. It did, however, welcome successful Chinese diplomatic efforts to broker a Saudi-Iran peace deal earlier this year. Pakistan and China enjoy a “special relationship,” and Islamabad is a close partner in the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative,” or BRI. Beijing has also welcomed Saudi and Emirati investments in Pakistan, which can enable it to service its accumulating Chinese infrastructure loans. The Saudis, for example, have been planning to set up an oil refinery in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar, where the Chinese have built and operate a commercial deep-sea port. The UAE has also leased several berths at the Karachi seaport in an effort to upgrade them and to bolster their shipping capabilities.
Perseverance Despite Tensions
Frictions between Pakistan and the Gulf states have increased in recent years—and particularly following the rise to power of Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-populist prime minister. In matters of foreign policy, Khan proved indecisive; he wavered between closer ties with the Gulf region and backing a Turkish, Qatari, and Malaysian effort to bypass the Saudi Arabia-led Organization of Islamic Countries, earning Riyadh’s ire (although, after Gulf pressure, Pakistan elected not to participate in the Kuala Lumpur summit). Whatever Khan’s actions, however, the Pakistani establishment remains keen to maintain strong ties with the Gulf states. Even though Pakistan refused to send in its forces to Yemen, it reiterated its commitment to protecting Saudi Arabia from any external aggression, and the former Pakistani army chief also agreed to lead the Saudi-created coalition of Muslim countries against terrorism.
With the dismissal of Khan’s government this past year, Pakistan has entered a period of prolonged political turmoil. A caretaker government is currently in charge, and the establishment seems adamant to prevent Khan’s return to power in the next general elections scheduled for January 2024. Based on recent polling, analysts predict the formation of a weak coalition government, which will enable the military of the country to continue exerting outsized sway on both foreign and economic policies. The current political polarization within Pakistan has distracted needed attention from serious economic challenges facing the country, which is highly indebted, insecure, and a major hotspot for climate-related disasters.
Pakistan is trying to diversify its options amidst the great power competition unfolding in South Asia. While balancing Chinese and American support may become increasingly challenging, increased investments by the Gulf states in Pakistan does not make U.S. policymakers as nervous as more Pakistani indebtedness to China. Saudi and Emirati investments can offer beneficial returns. Moreover, exerting influence within the contemporary world order is also much more complex than it was within the bipolar alliances forged during the Cold War. The world is now multilateral, and geoeconomic imperatives have taken precedence over traditional ideological or security-dominated geostrategic postures. The Gulf states, for instance, have realized the need to engage with Israel, which in turn may allow them greater leverage to address the plight of the Palestinians. Similarly, the Gulf states could impress upon India and Pakistan the need to mend ties by engaging in more trade or much-needed environmental cooperation. The next climate moot (COP28) being held in Abu Dhabi later this year provides an ideal opportunity to make existing bilateral engagement with Pakistan ‘greener’, but to also explore the possibility of supporting transboundary climate mitigation efforts between India and Pakistan. Facilitating cross-border environmental cooperation in the Indian subcontinent would not only be beneficial in its own right, but it would also provide the basis for these rival nations to begin addressing more protracted problems such as the Kashmir dispute. Saudi and Emirati diplomacy is much better positioned to play a mediating role in South Asia than either China or the US, which have so far fueled regional insecurities instead.
While the state of democracy in Pakistan is precarious right now, Saudi and/or Emirati diplomatic intercession to help lessen the Indo-Pakistan rivalry remains feasible, even if the Pakistani military remains a powerful player in the country’s politics. Were such mediatory efforts to bear some fruit, they could go a long way in helping balance civil-military relations within Pakistan, as well as enable the country to focus its resources on addressing lingering economic and human development challenges.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.