One-Day Panel Discussion on “Dynamics of Contemporary Middle East: Role of Pakistan”

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Post-Event Report

IPRI One-Day Panel Discussion on

“Dynamics of Contemporary Middle East: Role of Pakistan”

One-Day Panel Discussion on the topic of “Dynamics of Contemporary Middle East: Role of Pakistan” was organized by IPRI on March 13, 2019 at IPRI Conference Hall, Islamabad. Ambassador (R) Zamir Akram, Former Representative of Pakistan to United Nations, Professor Nazir Hussain, Director, School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR), QAU, Ambassador (R) Javed Hafeez, former Pakistani Diplomat, Professor Tugral Yamin, Associate Dean, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies (PCS), NUST were the speakers. Among the audience were ambassadors, academicians, students, journalists and IPRI Scholars.

Proceedings of the Discussion:

Ambassador Vice-Admiral (R) Khan Hasham Bin Saddique, President Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) in his welcome remarks said that due to United States (US) President Trump’s hands-off policy in the Middle East and rise of multipolarity, there is ‘rebalancing of power’ in the region with states on the one side and non-state actors, on the other. He acknowledged that the Middle East has been a region of turmoil since the 1980s, and until now, remains a region in flux. Unfortunately, there is no regional mechanism to address the issue of peace and stability in the Middle East. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) exists, its role could not emerge as it was envisioned to be. Explaining the Pakistan’s relations with Middle East, he pointed out that the country traditionally enjoys cordial relations with most of the countries in the Middle East, particularly in the political and security cooperation arena. He stressed that Pakistan needs to have a more robust and diverse relationship with the region that focuses on developing socio-cultural ties as well as economic collaboration. Under the current government, Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East are set to scale new heights, he added.

Talking about the contemporary setting of Middle East, he identified, with Iraq and Turkey marginalized, the role of leadership is largely left on Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to play. He said that in today’s Middle East, non state-actors (NSAs) have exploited the political vacuum of regional and domestic politics. He further added that the regional politics is largely governed by the interplay of global powers and regional dynamics.

Professor Nazir Hussain, Director, School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR), Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad spoke on ‘Middle East Geo Strategic Conundrum: Implications for Pakistan.” He highlighted that owing to its geo-strategic position and rich-energy resources, the Middle East is one of the most important regions of the world. Presently, however, it is facing an inescapable security conundrum due to its internal instability, chaos and disorder. He identified that at the regional level, the far-reaching Arab Spring has pushed Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen into the ranks of failed states. He further elaborated that rise of the Islamic State (IS) has emerged as the worst radical threat to the region’s modern history, challenging the regional political order by wiping out the territorial borders and spiraling beyond its borders. He observed that it is till before the 9/11 incident, Israel was the focus of Muslim world but in years that followed, Syria became the geo-political reality of Middle East and Palestine, which was once the core issue has now been forgotten completely. He warned that despite the fact this fragile and volatile region is of acute importance, there is a dearth of academic research on the Middle East being conducted in Pakistan.

Ambassador (R) Javed Hafeez spoke on ‘Mediating Regional Rivalries: Role of Pakistan.’ He stressed that Pakistan needs to be cognizant of the geostrategic position of Middle East region, which lies on three important commercial sea lanes: Hormuz, Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. He suggested that if Pakistan decides to mediate in Middle Eastern affairs, first and foremost, it needs to be invited by the parties involved. The second important aspect of mediation requires from the mediator to be seen as neutral, like Oman. Whereas, Pakistan’s geostrategic and geo-economic compulsions are linked with Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. Therefore, it could be difficult for the country to maintain neutral poise between two Middle Eastern rival countries. Pakistan needs to tread carefully with reference to Middle Eastern affairs because the stakes are higher and situation is more complex as compared to 1990s. Preferably, the country should wait for appropriate time to play a mediating role in the region.

He explained that foreign relations are not guided by ideological factors, or romantic perceptions. It is a game of pragmatism. He recommended that Pakistan’s future relations with the Arab states need to have more economic and commercial content. To promote inter-regional economic interaction, Pakistan has to improve its economic outlook, make it more secure and improve its image. He concluded that the thoughts relating to existence of Sunni Axis verses Shia Crescent in Middle East are pure academic constructs and are largely exaggerated by the West. These are not the permanent fault lines, the two sects coexisted for 1400 years together in times before.

Professor Tughral Yamin, Associate Dean, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, talked on ‘Safeguarding Pakistan’s Interest in Middle East.’ He pointed out that Pakistan has diplomatic, political and security interests in Middle East, which are largely based on cooperation in areas related to defence, counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics, investment and infrastructure.  He explained that this year, about 184, 000 Pakistani pilgrims will perform Hajj this year – 5000 more than last year. However, the overall volume of foreign remittance in Pakistan, which stands at US$ 19.62 billion from Saudi Arabia is being declined, whereas it is being increased from the UAE.

He further added that oil, trade routes, geography and terrain, faith and ideology are the variables, which contribute to the strategic importance of the Middle East. It is needed that Pakistan should not be seen merely as weak country forever seeking aid and oil on deferred price; as a provider of cheap unskilled labour; and source of a readily available military force that can be used as canon fodder. Pakistan should rebrand itself as a country that is not only militarily powerful, but is a hub of knowledge, an emerging market producing quality agricultural as well as industrial finished goods at competitive rates, and as a peaceful and harmonious tourist destination.

Ambassador Zamir Akram, Session Chair, former Representative of Pakistan to United Nations, in his concluding remarks, said that the tools of regime change and preemption (as proposed in George W. Bush’s strategy) have worked well to secure American interests in the region. As the region faces turmoil, the first and foremost interest of the US has been the security of Israel followed by the secondary ambitions of securing the free flow of Oil and access to important commercial regional hubs and sea lanes. The US sees Iranian Nuclear Programme as a gesture to checkmate Israel and the possible global concerns over Iranian capabilities that ultimately play out in favour of Saudi Arabia. He further stated that the coincidence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran need to be looked at in the perspective of peace in Middle Eastern region.

Discussion and Question/Answer Session:

The discussion was followed by Question/Answer session in which following points and comments were made by participants:

  1. It was inferred that it is better to take initiative in mediating between two opposing parties. Not only Pakistan but other countries should also mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  2. There is a misunderstanding about Islamic Military Alliance. Its nomenclature is changed as the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). It is a neutral platform and the primary objective of the Coalition is to protect Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and terrorist organizations irrespective of their sect and name. The Coalition is based on a state’s national laws. The four main objectives of the IMCTC are as follows:
  3. Counter Financing
  4. Counter Narrative
  5. Training
  6. The provision of Counter Terrorism force at the request of member states if they want.
  7. It is observed that Saudi Arabia complaints about its poor image in Pakistan. On the other hand, the reality is that the people of Pakistan have high regards for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s pro Saudi policy represents the aspirations of its people. Pakistan needs to adopt a pragmatic foreign policy discourse. Neutrality may favour someone else (India) but not Pakistan. Pakistan’s security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is governed by security agreement of 1982, which stipulates Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. In fact, the standard policy of Saudi Arabia does not demand from Pakistan to be involved in any conflict. The relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not at the cost of Iran.
  8. Pakistan’s fight against militancy and terrorism is well known. The country has a lot of experience in the field of counter terrorism. Therefore, it is capable more than any other state to strategize, fight and root out terrorism.
  9. Pakistan’s policy on Yemen is based on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2216, which legitimizes the government of Mansoor Hadi. Pakistan supports the national peace initiative, which is it’s consistent policy. There are no ground troops of Pakistan in Yemen.
  10. On India’s role in Middle East, initially Pakistan was complacent about India’s role in the Middle East. There was an impression in Pakistan that its influence in Middle East could not be countered by any hostile state. However, Indian ingression into Middle East has raised eye brows in the power corridors of Pakistan. It is evident by the invitation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members to the Minister of External Affairs of India, Ms. Sushma Swaraj for attending the OIC Summit as Guest of Honour.
  11. The vision 2030 and CPEC are compatible to each other. The Kingdoms’ eagerness to transform Aramco into a global industrial conglomerate and transformation of Public Investment Fund into world’s largest sovereign fund offer Pakistan an unprecedented opportunity to extract Saudi investments.
  12. The rivalry in Middle East is about regional states in pursuit of influence primarily in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. There is no sectarianism in Middle East, its only power game.

Recommendations:                         

  1. There is a trend in Pakistan to discuss mostly about the turmoil in Middle East without thorough research. Resultantly, there is a dearth of academic discourse on the implications of Middle Eastern politics on Pakistan. Hence, Pakistan needs to create specialized research desk on Middle East as New Delhi has around 100 dedicated researchers, researching dynamics of Middle East, its future and options for India. Moreover, existing quantity and quality of research and researchers on Middle East need to be improved.
  2. Since long, Pakistan has been a victim of terrorism, which affected its social fabric and economic development. This experience prevents the country from activities engaging in Yemen and Syrian conflicts. Pakistan needs to disseminate that it is not a global warrior but only a Muslim majority state following dictates of the realpolitik.
  3. There is no regional mechanism for discussing and resolving regional matters in the Middle East. The GCC has been unable to evolve. It is the need of the hour for concerned states to take regional initiatives to debate and resolve intra-regional matters.
  4. Pakistan’s geostrategic and economic compulsions are attached with Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. It could be difficult for the country to maintain neutrality between them. Therefore, Pakistan should adopt “balanced approach” in its foreign policy discourse.
  5. Pakistan need not change its foreign policy approach towards Israel unless international community takes Palestine and Jammu & Kashmir conflict seriously.
  6. The prevailing environment does not Pakistan allow to involve in the Middle East conundrum, especially for mediation. The country should wait for the right time as the current dynamics of geopolitical and geoeconomic situation of the Middle East is much more entangled. Nevertheless, Pakistan should continue its struggle for not just establishing peace and stability in Middle East but also to maintain unity and harmony of Muslim Ummah.
  7. Pakistan needs to work on its perception building in the Middle East. In order to do so, it should not be seen merely as poor country. Besides, it should also avoid seeking aid and oil on deferred prices time and again.
  8. Pakistani labour is being exploited in the Middle East as they are considered unskilled and easily accessed. They encounter problems including non-payment of salaries, expiry of visas and non-renewal of identity cards/residence permits for expatriates and exploitation at the hands of employers and contractors. In this regard, Pakistan should invest in vocational training more to avoid becoming the provider of cheap unskilled labour.
  9. Pakistan should invest more in military Coalition of Muslim countries meant to combat terrorism.
  10. Pakistan should keep on playing a positive and effective role between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the solution to the conflicts of Middle East lies within the region.
  11. The increased Indian and Israeli role in the Middle East politics should be tackled at diplomatic level. Pakistan may be blamed for complacency as far as Indian influence in the region is concerned, nevertheless; Pakistan needs to counter the influence of India in Middle East and that of Israel’s influence in South Asia and Middle East through practical quid pro quo diplomacy.
  12. Pakistan should rebrand itself as a country that is:-
    1. Not only militarily powerful but is a hub of knowledge
    2. An emerging market producing quality finished goods (agricultural as well as industrial) at competitive rates
    3. Peaceful and harmonious
    4. A great touristic destination.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the speakers and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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