The parliament has passed a resolution about the Pakistani foreign policy position on Yemen which largely advise the government to focus on a diplomatic solution. The reaction by state minister of foreign affairs of UAE has been unfortunate which can tantamount to a threat. But one thing is clear from this statement that it is an Arab and Persian nationalistic struggle.
Saudi Arabia has started exerting diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to change its position and become part of the military coalition announced by them. Our Saudi friends should understand that Pakistan is not a monarchy but is probably one of handful of Muslim countries with deep democratic tradition despite repeated interventions by military dictators. In a democratic dispensation decisions are not in the hands of few people but a national consensus has to be built through parliament, opinion makers and think tank reports.
But Pakistan has to also learn from the other two main countries that were approached by Saudi Arabia for a coalition i.e. Egypt and Turkey. Both these countries are trying to get a maximum economic and strategic advantage for their nations through this regional situation. Foreign policy is largely about two things i.e. trade/economy and security. Egyptian President Al-Sisi, a former military general, is obliged to Saudi Arabia who were the first one to offer an aid package of over $6.5 billion for his government when the military coupe overthrew democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi. He still lacks international legitimacy and through involvement in the Yemen crisis are trying to place themselves as leader of the Arab block. They are one of the most populous Arab nation and maintain the largest military organization as well. Financial resources of Saudi Arabia and security capability of Egypt in their view could be a winning combination to make them relevant as a regional power. Hesitation from Turkey and Pakistan to join a coalition will further increase Saudi reliance on Egypt.
As a successor to Ottoman Empire, Turkey has a long institutional knowledge of diplomacy in Middle East. Turkey has a border with Iran and has enjoyed a peaceful co-existence with her for last 360 years. Syria was the first regional issue that created a diplomatic tension between these two neighbors but despite it their economic cooperation continued. Turkey is blamed by the West to circumvent the economic sanctions on Iran by laundering oil money to her through front companies. West has also blamed son of President Erdogan to benefit from such activities. Iran is the second largest supplier of gas to Turkey after Russia. Russia has announced a new pipeline going through Turkey to supply gas to Europe. Iran at some stage could link with this pipeline to channel its gas to West after sanctions are lifted. So it was highly unlikely that President Erdogan will risk his relations with Iran for Saudi Arabia. Last week it became clear, during his visit to Tehran, President Erdogan complained to Iran that they are supplying expensive gas to them and requested reduction in price. They also signed MOUs to increase their mutual trade to over 30 billion dollars. Turkey’s foreign policy is driven by economic benefits while for security it looked towards NATO in the past and in the future might want to move close to Russia and China. It is clear now that Turkey used the Saudi card to gain more economic and energy concessions from Iran as well as in other war theaters especially Syria.
What should be Pakistan’s strategic interest in this regional crisis? Pakistan cannot afford to risk its long standing relationship with Saudi Arabia but at the same time cannot ignore that Iran is a neighbor. A possible solution could be to sign a mutual security agreement with Saudi Arabia. Through this agreement both countries should guarantee that they will come to each other’s aid if there is an aggression on their soil by foreign forces. Pakistan should also provide training and support in counter insurgency; counter intelligence, and counter terrorism as well as sell indigenously manufactured weapons. Pakistan can offer troops stationed around holy places so that Saudi armed forces can focus on protecting their borders. On the economic front, Pakistan should seek assurance from Saudi Arabia that its citizens will be offered equitable employment conditions as offered to other allies in the West. More job opportunities should be provided to Pakistani skilled labor. Special access should be provided to Pakistani exporters. And a special price offered for oil imports. Pakistan should convey to Saudi Arabia that our foreign policy cannot be a zero sum between two brotherly Muslim countries.
It is unfortunate that no meaningful agreements or MOUs were discussed during the recent visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Iran and Pakistan should enhance border security as well as explore trade development opportunities. Western sanctions has adversely affected the bilateral trade between these two neighbors. As sanctions are eased Iran can be a vital source of gas and electricity while Pakistan can export both services, processed foods and fruits. Pakistan can also be instrumental in building the banking and financial sector of Iran. Both these countries enjoy close cultural affinity towards each other which can be further enhanced through increased tourism and cultural initiatives.
Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia should closely cooperate on developing a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Middle East that include all sectors i.e. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon Yemen and Bahrain. The OIC should seek guarantees from both Iran and Saudi Arabia that proxy wars and support for non-state actors should be stopped. Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia should become guarantors of a non-aggression agreement between these two. Anyone suggesting that UN Security Council (UNSC) should be involved is out of sync with international relations of 21st century. UNSC has now almost became a debating club as no major issue is resolved at its table whether it is Crimea, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran nuclear program, Yemen, etc. etc.
Pakistan has to walk on a tight rope and will require skillful diplomacy to chart its course. The national consensus on a policy should give confidence to our diplomats that the nation is standing behind them.