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This is a new beginning for Pakistan, or at least the hope for a new one as Imran Khan was recently sworn in as the country’s 22nd prime minister. In his first speech after the election victory last month, he clearly stated that Pakistan should play the role of a healer and pacifist in the Middle East. And this statement is significant, for it was in part Khan's political rallying and pressure that dissuaded the previous government in Islamabad from sending Pakistani forces to join the Saudi-led coalition's ongoing war in Yemen. With Khan now running the new government, the time is clearly ripe for a change in Pakistan’s stance in the Middle East.
The large Pakistani workforce living in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bears significant influence over Islamabad’s relations with the countries of the region; so does maintaining strategic relationships with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both of these elements present challenges and opportunities for the future.
The pay and working conditions of the huge migrant labour force that Pakistan sends to the GCC have long been a source of tension. There are also plausible reports of migrant workers’ suicides or attempted suicides being linked to poor working and living conditions, low wages and/or financial stress caused by heavy debts. Moreover, all Gulf countries maintain a form of the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment that, at its worst, may facilitate abuse of workers and violations of international labour standards. Yet one must not lose sight of the fact that it is the kafala system itself that makes Gulf citizens tolerate of very high levels of immigration, since it constricts the rights of migrants and reassures Gulf nationals that their national identity will not be threatened by such mass immigration. Actually, a growing problem for Pakistan is not the condition of workers, but a shortage of skilled émigré that match the required standards in the GCC; this confines most Pakistani labourers to conducting menial tasks and also hampers their promotion.
Another challenge is the declining volume of trade between Pakistan and the GCC. While trade between India and the GCC has been on a constant upward trajectory, Pakistan–GCC trade has been tapering at best. In July, during a meeting with the Pakistani Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, GCC Secretary General Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al-Zayani expressed his readiness to restart the dialogue process and conclude the Pakistan–GCC Free Trade Agreement. If implemented, this would play a very significant role in enhancing trade relations with the Gulf states and it would also give a boost to the private sector to invest in both countries.
However, the most perilous challenge Pakistan faces is balancing its relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. From a security perspective, Pakistan’s Middle East policy has largely focused on limiting the domestic fallout of sectarian tensions originating from the Saudi Arabia–Iran rivalry. In Pakistan, Shias account for around 20% of the total population – which is a significant number by any count. It also means that any tilt towards Saudi Arabia or Iran could contribute to sectarian tensions. In such a case, the damage to Pakistan would be severe. The Pakistan Army has had a jagged relationship with some GCC countries since it refused to fight in the war in Yemen in 2015. But in his first six months in office, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff, made it his priority to fix both relationships simultaneously. In December 2017, Bajwa spent three days in Saudi Arabia meeting with the Kingdom’s leadership. But to ensure that Iran was not isolated, he visited Tehran soon after. Newly elected, Prime Minister Khan has also said his country enjoys a ‘very special relationship with Saudi Arabia’, promising to enhance it further. Yet, he also made it clear that he would seek closer ties with Iran by resurrecting the Iran–Pakistan pipeline project, which had been overlooked by the previous government.
But to put Pakistani–Gulf relations on a more sustainable trajectory, Khan’s government needs to take several factors into account.
Immigrant networks can help to promote trade between countries of origin and destination by reducing transaction costs, primarily because they have information regarding both their home country as well as the country where they are situated, making them a key source of market information for exporters. Therefore the Pakistani government should adopt a more hands-on approach to diaspora affairs. With the help of Gulf states, the Pakistani government should set aside emergency funds for migrant Pakistani workers, to offer protection in the event that companies choose to break or violate their contracts. Islamabad should also identify Gulf-based companies that have a history of violating workers’ rights, so that they can be black-listed. This would work as a safeguard mechanism that would prevent Pakistani nationals from working for such companies. And, of course, better education and vocational training of workers should take place both in Pakistan and the Gulf. This would not only ensure that workers are aware of their basic rights, but also give them a chance to compete for better employment opportunities instead of being caught in a low-skill employment trap.
Pakistan should constructively respond to growing India–GCC and India–Iran cooperation, for it would be in Islamabad’s best interest to not always be seen to be in competition with India. Indeed, an India–Pakistan relationship is useful for long-term relations with the Gulf. Yet, by the same token, Gulf states must respect Islamabad’s refusal to become involved in their own regional confrontations, although Pakistan is willing to provide a conducive environment for negotiations that could resolve those conflicts.
High profile visits to Islamabad, first by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on 31 August and, later, by the Saudi Information Minister on 8 September, show that Khan’s government has its hands full already with Middle Eastern politics. Overall, Pakistan intends to be a pacifier, not an instigator of fresh tensions. And that applies, in particular, to the Middle East.
Arhama Siddiqa is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan. She tweets at @arhama_siddiqa
BANNER IMAGE: Migrant construction workers at the Burj Dubai construction site in Dubai, UAE on 4 June 2007. Pakistan's sizeable population of migrant workers in the Gulf continues to shape its relationship with the region. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.