By Dr. Nazir Hussain

Apr 23, 2014

The Middle East region has undergoing tumultuous changes in the last few years impacting the adjoining regions including Pakistan. In the wake of the ongoing crises, the region is divided on multiple fault-lines; ethnic, sectarian and nationalistic. Unfortunately, various Muslim/Arab states, especially Iran and the GCC, have taken opposite sides to pursue their national security objectives leading to proxy wars in the region. Pakistan has cordial relations with all the Muslim/Arab states of the Middle East, but in the given circumstances, it is becoming difficult to keep a balance between Iran and the GCC states.

Therefore, this article endeavours to look into the Middle Eastern dynamics impacting Pakistan’s capacity to keep balancing relations with Iran and the GCC states in the historical, geopolitical and geo-economic realms.

Historical context

Pakistan’s interaction with the Middle East predates its independence. All India Muslim League and later Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, vocally supported the Palestinian cause. However, Pakistan’s active involvement in the region was not taken positively by the Arabs as Pakistan being the part of western alliance system (CENTO and SEATO) supported the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 war against Jamal Abdul Nasir of Egypt.

Believing in pan-Islamism, Z.A. Bhutto articulated Pakistan’s policy dwelling on regional cooperation and forging closer ties with Muslim/Arab states. Bhutto’s vision translated into an economic bonanza attracting Pakistani workforce in the GCC states ushering in socio-economic progress in Pakistan. Subsequently, the economic support and assistance from the GCC states transformed Pakistan’s socio-economic landscape. This friendship was reciprocated by Pakistani military in providing training assistance and enhancing military-to-military contacts. In the backdrop of U.S. sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear explosions, Saudi Arabia whole-heartedly supported Pakistan with financial credits and supply of free oil. These bonds transformed from state-to-state to personal relations between the leadership of Pakistan and GCC states.

Geopolitics versus geo-economics

Pakistan’s endeavour to balance its relations with Iran and GCC can be best explained in the context of geopolitics versus geo-economics. The changing regional dynamics and imposing ground realties compel Pakistan to develop cordial relations with its immediate neighbours.

Pakistan shares over 900-km-long border with Iran. The bordering villages and Baloch tribes have strong social, economic and trade bonds, depicting heavy interdependence. Iran also provides about 100 MW of electricity to the Baloch areas and is keen to enhance this power supply to 1000 MW. Besides, Iran is looking for Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project and construction of an oil refinery in Balochistan. The mutual trade is approximately over $1 billion with the potential of increase up to $7 billion in the coming years. Despite many commonalities, both countries have different perspectives on Afghanistan and the Middle East, and have competing interests for wider intra-regional trade through Gwadar and Chahbahar ports.

If Iran is a geopolitical reality, the GCC states have a strong bearing on Pakistan’s socioeconomic development. There are more than three million Pakistani workers in the GCC states, providing much needed foreign remittances to the country. Saudi Arabia and UAE provide major share in overall remittances of Pakistan, i.e., $4.3 billion out of a total $11.569 billion (2012-13), accounting for 10 per cent share in the country’s GDP growth. The GCC has also $30 billion investment commitments with Pakistan. UAE is the third largest export partner (8.5%) and KSA is the second largest import partner (12.3%) of Pakistan. The table above depicts the overall trade/economic activity between Pakistan and the GCC states.

Country Workers Remittances Export Import Total I+E
KSA 1.5 m 2628 m 186 m 2390 m 2576 m
UAE 1.2 m 1785 m 920 m 4346 m 5266 m
Kuwait 160,000 445 m 42 m 1760 m 1802 m
Oman 175,000 287 m 90 m 164 m 254 m
Bahrain 45,000 151 m 30 m 60 m 90 m
Qatar 52,000 35 m 55 m 142 m 197 m
Total GCC 3.132 m 5331 m 1323 m 8862 m 10185 m

The GCC states, in particular KSA and UAE, have provided massive social and economic support to Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, creating strong links with the people. Pakistan and GCC states have also developed strong political and defence links; Pakistan is being considered GCC’s strategic partner in the future.

Options for Pakistan

Pakistan’s recent involvement in the Middle Eastern security dynamics came to limelight as a result of Saudi dignitaries’ frequent visits to Pakistan and a joint statement issued after the visit of Saudi Crown Prince, coupled with $1.5 billion ‘gift’ to Pakistan. Due to the inept perception management of the government, a debate was initiated in the media and parliament. The Foreign Office issued several statements and ultimately Sartaj Aziz, the advisor on Foreign Affairs and National Security, had to give a policy statement in the Senate that Pakistan is not changing its Middle East policy. He also showed the willingness to play a positive role in removing misunderstandings between Iran and the GCC states.

Pakistan is caught between geopolitics and geo-economics; the heavy economic reliance of Pakistan on the GCC states is compelling the country to be involved in the Middle Eastern security dynamics. Pakistan itself is suffering from a 30-year-long war which is now being fought inside the country; suffering severe social, economic and humanitarian costs. Pakistan has also witnessed a deadly proxy war on its soil in the 1980s resulting in a huge human and material loss. There are several sub-national, ethnic, religious and sectarian movements going on in the country. Therefore, Pakistan cannot afford to open a new front at this juncture.

In the past, Pakistan had played a constructive role during the Iran-Iraq war and the Kuwait crisis, and it can still play an important role as it has excellent relations with both sides. Pakistan cannot afford to choose sides as it has heavy reliance on both sides and is caught between the dynamics of geopolitics versus geo-economics.


Every state has the right to pursue its national security objectives, but not at the cost of others. There is an urgent need to address the concerns of other states; the mutual mistrust between Iran and the GCC states has to be overcome with political will and diplomatic sagacity. If the Iranian leadership can develop understanding with the U.S., it can also develop the same with the GCC states. On the other hand, Iranian apprehensions of ‘the GCC pursuing the agenda of external powers’ must also be addressed.

Pakistan has strong historical, religious, cultural, economic and political bonds with the Middle Eastern region and it cannot remain aloof from the changing security dynamics. Pakistan, having cordial relations with all Middle Eastern states, can play a constructive role in bridging their differences and removing misperceptions and keep a balance at the same time. However, it really is a test of Pakistan’s political acumen and effective diplomacy.

Send this to a friend