Pakistani cooperation with the Gulf and other Arab countries has always been a matter of more give than take. As the most powerful and efficient army in the Muslim world, Pakistan usually gives military or diplomatic support to Arab causes. In return it gets cheaper fuel, investment, trade opportunities, or sometimes handouts. There have been some shameful incidents during this relationship, e.g. when in 1970, then Brigadier Ziaul Haq, while posted in Jordan at the head of an armoured brigade, crushed Palestinian refugees in Jordan to preserve King Hussein’s rule. In more recent days Pakistani troops participated in suppressing uprisings in Saudi Arabia, notably the occupation of the Ka’aba in Mecca by armed insurgents in 1994. Pakistani mercenaries were used by Bahrain to quash pro-democracy protests as recently as 2010. Their brutality was noted and criticised by pro-democracy activists. Then too, Saudi Arabia has financed the very militants Pakistan is currently fighting, and has pledged to spread its Wahabi ideology throughout the region. Given this past, there is necessarily wariness when we discuss deepening ties with the Arab countries, and what the price may be of handouts like the recent $ 1.5 billion deposit into the Pakistan Development Fund by Saudi Arabia. The opposition does not believe the government’s claim that the money was a gift, and insists there must be a strategic motive, like support and weapons for Saudi-funded rebels in Syria. Pakistan’s recent shift in policy on Syria, calling for a transitional democratic council to take power, has worried the opposition that Pakistan will again be drawn into internal Arab conflicts of a sectarian hue that will rebound bleakly on this country.
The visit by the King of Bahrain, the first such official visit in 40 years, is conspicuous by its timing in this regard, coming as it does on the heels of the joint Pak-Saudi communiqué on Syria. The visit finalised a number of bilateral cooperation and trade deals and promises were made of increasing investment in several key sectors such as infrastructure, oil refining, mining and banking. Pakistan and the Gulf States have a natural trade relationship. Pakistan’s agricultural resources and proximity make it the ideal partner to export food and other products to the region, while Pakistan needs oil and investment. Large numbers of Pakistani workers in the Gulf send home billions of dollars in remittances, a significant contribution to our foreign exchange reserves. However, trade and investment is where the relationship should begin and end. Our Arab and Muslim neighbourhood is heading full steam into a wider sectarian conflict, and Pakistan should stay away from that fray. Instead, our foreign policy must be independent of pressure from Arab ‘friends’ and focus solely on what is of benefit to us. *