Arslan Bin Shahid
Pakistan, which since inception has maintained close ties with the Arab World holds a significant position in the regional dynamics; a fact that has irked India for long. Off late, India is exerting its influence vigorously to develop deep rooted relations with global powers in line with its greater regional and global ambitions. Increased trade ties with Middle East, diplomatic partnerships and recent high level visits of UAE, KSA and Israel are indicators of Indian ambitions of achieving more leverage in the region.
Being the third largest energy consumer in the world, India fulfils approximately 63% of its energy needs from the oil rich powers of Middle East. Moreover, Middle East being a huge market for Indian raw materials, IT and pharmaceutical also holds over 7 million of Indian diaspora which contribute largely to Indian economy.
Therefore, a strong India-GCC relationship becomes paramount for India’s rising economic interests and its aspirations to exert its influence beyond the Indian Ocean. Indian engagement of Arab world which commenced after President Abdul Kalam’s visit to UAE in 2003 has witnessed gradual rise and recent Indian engagement of KSA and UAE by its ‘Link West Policy’ where India entered into joint investment of $44 Billion with Saudi Aramco and forged a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership highlighting defence and counter-terrorism with UAE are a major leap forward, directly affecting Pakistan’s relations with the Arab world. Indo-Arab economic and security ventures coupled with socio-political stunts of conferring highest civil award to Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi, construction of Ram Temple in UAE and inclusion of Hindu religious studies in Saudi curriculum are viewed with great concern in Pakistan especially when Pakistan needed Arab’s support in favour of Indian heinous acts of brutality in Kashmir and elsewhere in India resulting from abrogation of Article 370 & 35A and Citizenship Amendment Act. These Indian initiatives and the reciprocal warm response of few Arab countries is being considered a step to alienate and reduce Pakistan’s space in the region.
Regardless, owing to division of Middle East on sectarian lines and corresponding sectarian and regime legitimacy threats for the foreseeable future, only economic linkages and geo political relevance are likely to dictate Middle East’s relations with outside countries where India takes precedence over Pakistan owing to its growing regional geo-political and economic clout.
Changing dynamics of Middle East thus have dir-ect consequences for Paki-stan due to proximity, economic dependency and religion-sectarian attachments. Pakistan cannot remain oblivious to events in the region and has to tailor its stance as the situation de-mands.
Quest for Indian re-gional dominance and riv-alry in Middle East betw-een the Iranian and KSA blocs, intertwined with interests of global powers left Pakistan with the opti-on of neutrality or change of strategic alignment – each option having its own pros and cons.
Non-availability of any faultless ideal approach and no cut and dry solution, whichever ap-proach Pakistan adopts will have compromises. Pakist-an must endeavor to adopt an approach which suits her in the long term but with manageable consequences to minimize the risk.
In the current circumstances, Pakistan cannot afford to open up another, potentially lethal fault line of division on sectarian grounds, hence conclusively taking sides may be detrimental.
Avoiding taking sides conclusively, while maintaining a hands on approach through an aggressive economy and diplomatic engagement, with Middle Eastern countries based on cold rationality of logic seems the most plausible way forward for Pakistan. Sentiments and emotions will have to take a back seat while treading these narrow straits and Pakistan’s interest shall have to be of prime importance. Hence, considering balance, ensuring maximum safeguard and insulating Pakistan from external threats, an interest based balanced, yet proactive and hands on approach is recommended. Pakistan must relentlessly engage with all the major stake holders in the Middle East at political and diplomatic fronts. The same can also be diversified through engagement of Civil Society and internal influencers on both sides.
Recent visit of Pakistani premier to KSA is being considered as a turning point in this regard. To thwart Indian economic ingress, Pakistan must endeavour to develop stronger economic ties by capitalizing on CPEC. Extension of CPEC to Iran and possible inclusion of Arab States can generate economic positivity leading to interdependence and reduction in mutual friction.
Pakistan can therefore act as a bridge between the rival blocs rather than being viewed as a mere spectator who ultimately bears the brunt of this sectarian strife. Concrete steps must be taken by Pakistan to remain viable as any laxity in maintain and further advancing her relations with Middle Eastern countries can be detrimental for Pakistan’s territorial and economic security. Economic interests have long surpassed the redundant notions of cordiality based on religious affinities. Pakistan must therefore make efforts to remain viable in the geo-economic front by adopting a more neutral and non-zero-sum approach.