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Pakistan and the Gulf security architecture

February 11, 2021 at 9:39 am

Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan (R) welcomes Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (L) upon Thani’s arrival at Nur Khan Airbase in Rawalpindi, Pakistan 22 on June, 2019 [Pakistani Prime Ministry Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

On 30 January, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa paid a two-day visit to Qatar where he met with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, along with other military officials. General Bajwa and Al-Thani reportedly discussed issues related to defence, security and regional geopolitical issues. The visit came a few weeks after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states announced a restoration in diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, following an over three-year embargo.

Pakistani analysts state that General Bajwa’s recent visit had been in the pipeline for some time, however, it had been stalled in light of the Qatar-Gulf crisis. Prime Minister Imran Khan is also expected to visit Qatar – his fourth visit as prime minister – in the coming days. The visit to Qatar comes after a tense year in Pakistan-Gulf ties, including a souring of relations with Pakistan’s leading partner in the region, Saudi Arabia. Some academics have speculated that Pakistan is concerned with a reduced role in the Gulf security architecture, heightening the importance and direction of this visit.

Pakistan-Qatar ties

Pakistan and Qatar have established political, economic and security relations which have led to signed agreements on trade exchanges, investments, culture and education. In 2016, the two countries signed a 15-year (later extended to 20-year) agreement in which Qatargas 2 would export 3.75 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually, as well as 2,000 megawatts of power to the national grid. For Pakistan, which faces severe electricity shortfalls, this deal vastly helped diversify its energy portfolio. During the Qatar-Gulf crisis in June 2017, Pakistan maintained a neutral standpoint and retained its trade relations with Qatar. For example, Pakistan Qatar Express Service – launched in August 2017 – connected Hamad and Karachi ports. The objective was to boost trade between the two countries. By 2019, bilateral trade between the two nations had increased by 63 per cent (in favour of Qatar). Remittances from Pakistani ex-pats and workers in Qatar are also significant. In December 2020, remittances from Qatar made up almost 27 per cent of the remittances from Gulf countries (barring those from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates). Pakistan and Qatar also have a mutual interest in the Afghan peace process, and Pakistan has time and again lauded Qatar’s integral role in the Doha talks.

Ties between Pakistan and Qatar have strengthened over the years, largely due to frequent and high-level state visits. Khan made his maiden visit to Qatar in January 2019, which was reciprocated in June of the same year. During these visits, the two countries signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on tourism, business and exchange of financial intelligence. That same year, Pakistan offered to provide security during Qatar’s FIFA World Cup in 2022. Presently, approximately 150,000 Pakistanis are working in Qatar – most of them on FIFA-related projects. Although there have been payment-related issues, Pakistani officials have voiced confidence that these will be rectified soon.

In the security and defence arena, Pakistan and Qatar signed an MoU on defence cooperation in 1983. Since then, the two countries have been engaged in joint training, exercises and deputations. A large number of Pakistanis serve in the Qatari Armed Forces as well as in key advisory roles. Recently, officials from both countries have discussed ways to enhance aviation and naval cooperation.

READ: Adapting to the new normal: Covid-19 and Pakistani workers in the Gulf 

A Pakistani woman walks past the portraits of visiting Qatar's ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (C) along with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) and President Arif Alvi (L) on the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad on 21 June 2019. [FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images]

A Pakistani woman walks past the portraits of visiting Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (C) along with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) and President Arif Alvi (L) on the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad on 21 June 2019. [FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images]

Can Qatar be key in revitalising Pakistan’s relevance in the Gulf security architecture?

Though both countries have negotiated defence in the past, General Bajwa’s recent visit notably comes as long-term structural changes are taking place in the Gulf, specifically the UAE-Israel rapprochement last year. Even though it has unofficial ties with Israel, the Saudi regime would not want Israel to assume a greater role in the region, since this would manifest a direct challenge to the regime. It is common knowledge that all countries in the Gulf have official or unofficial links with Israel. This will diminish Pakistan’s importance in the Gulf since its stance against Israel will create an unnecessary hindrance for the Gulf countries in their various dealings. An example of the downgrading of ties with the Gulf can be seen in how, recently, the UAE included Pakistan in a list of countries not eligible for a visitor visa. Pakistan’s non-recognition of Israel has made Islamabad more susceptible to pressure from the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Here, India presents itself as a good option as an ally for them, especially due to its economic and strategic relevance.

Our mutual fight: The case against Pakistani normalisation with Israel 

Relations with the Gulf and South Asia also seem to be shifting. In 2015, Pakistan refused to send troops to partake in the Yemen war, resulting in strained ties in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. India has also become more involved in the Gulf in recent years; the Modi administration has made a point of strengthening links with the Gulf. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has not only heavily invested in infrastructure and oil projects in India, but the two countries have also cooperated in counter-terrorism and joint naval exercises. An Indian army chief even called his maiden visit to the Gulf in December 2020 “historic”. India-Israel ties are also likely to present less of an issue for Gulf countries with improving ties in the region. Moreover, India and Israel form a perfect nexus with several Gulf states, especially the UAE. Pakistan’s outright refusal to recognise Israel leaves open space for India to strengthen its Gulf ties. India and Israel have strong bonds in defence cooperation, as well as intelligence-sharing. It is already said that India has taken on the Israeli blueprint in terms of its actions in occupied Kashmir.

Pakistan has long showcased itself as the main security provider for various Gulf countries. In fact, Pakistan prides itself on establishing aviation authorities in many of these countries. Due to close family links between many Pakistani governments and the Gulf regimes, Pakistan has been considered a reliant ally when it comes to defending Gulf interests. Now, in light of changes taking place in the Gulf, particularly Gulf-Israel rapprochement, Pakistan has less to offer. India is already replacing Pakistan when it comes to exporting manpower to the Gulf countries, and it is portended that in light of the Indian chief’s visit to the Gulf, in the near future, India may provide military training to Gulf countries. Pakistan’s foreign policy, until recently, had not taken into account strengthening economic ties with all Gulf countries. Yet, the current geopolitical landscape is ripe for a reversal of past policies.

The space for competition in the Gulf is rapidly disappearing, and Pakistani officials need to realise this. Similarly, Qatar, which is at the moment largely dependent on Turkey for the defence of its leadership, sees in Pakistan a viable ally in terms of regime security.

Improving ties with Qatar will also provide Pakistan with a broader role in the Gulf, and an opportunity to be relevant again in the Gulf security architecture. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides an ideal pathway in this regard. In 2019, Qatar expressed its desire to invest in the CPEC in the frozen food industry. Hence, CPEC posits a way for the reinvigoration of Pakistan-Gulf ties through avenues such as food cooperation. Moreover, bringing in Qatari investment would also give much-needed confidence to other Gulf countries to invest in Pakistan – something that Pakistan’s current economic situation requires desperately.

Thus, in the current changing landscape, Gulf countries are less likely to view Pakistan through the old lens and will primarily focus on their own strategic, closely followed by economic, interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.