Pakistan and the Gulf: Brothers but not allies?

Pakistan’s neutrality on the Yemen conflict has resulted in a sense of betrayal in the Arab world. Neutrality in itself is a stand, and Pakistan is seen as anything but neutral. For the sake of its own national interests, Pakistan refused to join the call of its traditional “allies” in the Middle East. Pakistan must have calculated possible reactions against its decision and how to survive the fallout, if any.

Its relations with the Gulf states have always been strong, especially with Saudi Arabia, which has a unique place in the hearts and minds of Pakistanis due to its religious status. How these states must have felt, then, at Pakistan’s decision.

However, it would probably not have come as a surprise had one followed the talk shows, print media and statements by politicians in Pakistan, as the armed forces silently watched developments. Everything was moving toward staying out of the Yemen conflict while extending only political support to Operation Decisive Storm.

Policies toward Pakistan should be revised so as to build better relations with its media, society and polity. Only then will it feel that the Middle East is part of its geopolitics

It took Pakistan two weeks to develop a stand, and in the end gave parliament the right to decide, though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had the constitutional right to send troops after consultations with the armed forces. The decision to leave the matter to parliament would deflect pressure and save the country from political embarrassment.

Unspoken fear

There was unspoken fear of exacerbating sectarian tension in Pakistan if it chose to take sides, as its neighbor Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Also, around a third of Pakistani troops are engaged in an internal war with militant groups, and the eastern border with India is always on a state of alert. In addition, Pakistan sees itself as a South Asian state more than a neighbor to the Middle East.

Its decision not to be part of Operation Decisive Storm clearly shows that geopolitics is more important to Pakistan than chasing political interests; geography is a fixed component while all else is variable. Furthermore, the country has diversified over the last decade, with a strongly emerging media and a vibrant parliament.

It is hoped that Pakistan practised democracy in its true spirit when it decided not to join Operation Decisive Storm, and that this approach would be adopted on every matter of national interest. Pakistan must undoubtedly strengthen its democracy and give its civil institutions a chance to thrive, but democracy should be a permanent practise, not an occasional one.

Shunned and isolated

The reaction to Pakistan’s stand should not leave such an important regional power feeling shunned and isolated. This could leave Pakistan with no option but to look to other regional powers.

Interestingly, Iran’s stance on Yemen is prevalent in Pakistani media, while Operation Decisive Storm’s stance is entirely absent. This raises questions about Middle Eastern efforts over the years to build alliances, and calls for scrutiny of policies adopted. Why did only two Pakistani religious parties take to the streets in support of Operation Decisive Storm, while the rest of the country’s polity and the media were against military participation?

Policies toward Pakistan should be revised so as to build better relations with its media, society and polity. Only then will it feel that the Middle East is part of its geopolitics.


Baker Atyani is Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief in South and East Asia. He is a veteran journalist, covering conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in Asia. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by MCF with "Exceptional Courage in Journalism" award.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.