New developments in the Gulf and Asia are threatening to throw the traditionally military-controlled foreign policy of Pakistan into dire straits
New realignments in the Middle East and Asia, especially the recent UAE-Israel peace deal has sent Pakistan's foreign policy, which has been always anchored by the military establishment, spiralling out of control. The trigger was an angry outburst by foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on a domestic TV channel, accusing Pakistan's most trusted friend Saudi Arabia, of betraying the cause of Kashmiris. Qureshi even threatened that if the Saudi-controlled Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) did not immediately call a session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) on Kashmir, then Pakistan would be compelled to call a meeting of 'like-minded' Islamic countries outside the OIC.
No Pakistani foreign minister can make such a statement without getting the approval from GHQ in Rawalpindi and when the following day foreign ministry spokesperson endorsed Qureshi's statement saying it reflected people's aspirations and expectations of Pakistanis from the OIC to raise the Kashmir issue internationally, it confirmed that it was not a case of an emotional outburst. Prime Minister Imran Khan and his ministers never tire of saying that the civilian government and the military establishment are on the 'same page'. But when Saudi Ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Malkiy, instead of calling on the Prime Minister, straight away drove to GHQ to meet then army chief, it indicated there is some sort of gap between the civilian government and the army.
Initially, it was thought just posturing on the part of Pakistan as it is believed that Saudi Arabia is angry with Imran Khan's open flirtation with its bitter foes — Turkey and Iran — and this displeasure came out in the open when Islamabad was forced to repay $1 billion out of a $3 billion loan that Saudis had given one and a half year ago to avoid default on international debt obligations and they did not renew oil supply to Pakistan on deferred payment.
However, when Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, who is considered a foreign policy hawk, lashed out at the foreign office for failing to carry forward Prime Minister Khan's narrative on Kashmir many eyebrows were raised. Mazari, who people say aspired for Foreign Minister's job launched a blistering attack on the foreign office, saying "if our foreign office had taken action, the world would have listened to Pakistan. But our diplomats chose leisurely hotel stays, dressing in three-piece suits and heavily starched clothes and speaking over the telephone." This outdated method of diplomacy must end, she added.
In sharp contrast to Mazari's rebuke of the foreign office, Ali Amin Gandapur, Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan praised the foreign office saying its performance has improved and earlier there were 'traitors' sitting in the foreign office.
Finally, Imran in an interview to a Pakistani TV channel completely disassociated from his Foreign Minister's statement, saying "We never interfere in anybody's foreign policy. Our ties with Saudi Arabia are excellent and calling an OIC session is part of their foreign policy." Such divergence or confusion on foreign policy, that too on important issues of Kashmir and Saudi Arabia, have been rarely witnessed in Pakistan.
Dr Shahid Masood, a popular TV analyst and considered to be close to the military establishment, says Mazari, before making repeated attacks on 'foreign office', should know who frames the foreign policy in Pakistan. He said even a common man on the street will tell you who makes foreign policy in Pakistan, clearly indicating that it's the military establishment.
Pakistan foreign policy watchers say members of Imran's cabinet speaking in different voices, even those who are not authorised to speak on issues stems from his newfound love or fascination with Turkey and the geographical compulsion of being a neighbour of Iran, which of late has emerged as the main challenger to Saudi Arabia's leadership of the Islamic world.
Rauf Klasra, a senior Pakistan journalist, says the Saudis had long before this recent spat had conveyed their displeasure at the way Imran was courting Turkey and Iran. The first indication came during the UN general assembly session in 2019. On the sidelines, Imran met with the then Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the three leaders planned an alternative summit of Islamic countries in Kuala Lumpur. This angered Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman so much that he called back his private jet, which he had given to Imran to fly to New York, midday through and Imran had to take another flight to return home. Besides, of late Imran has been smitten by the Turkish television dramas, which glorify the Ottoman Empire. Recently, Turkish TV serial 'Dirilis: Ertugrul' was telecast in Pakistan after being dubbed in Urdu on his orders.
Prominent analyst Amir Mateen says: "These things irritate Saudi Arabia, which feels that in times of crisis we come to your rescue and on the contrary, you're showering praises on Turkey."
Same is the issue with Iran. The Saudis feel that some of Imran's friends, whom he has given important positions in his cabinet, are pushing him towards Iran. They believe that Pakistan had a role in the recent China-Iran $4 billion strategic partnership. This displeasure has been conveyed through diplomatic channels, Klasra says.
Mohammed Rizwan, a senior journalist of Pakistani origin and a Fellow at the Pragmora Institute, Canada, says today Pakistan finds itself in a tight corner with very limited options. There has been a serious division in the military establishment on the issue of whether Pakistan should remain an ally of the US or put all its eggs in the Chinese basket. Both choices are 'bad choices' for Pakistan. The cash flow from the US has dried and most of its other financiers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries already hit by dwindling oil prices are gravitating towards Israel and India. In such circumstances, the only choice left is to go the China way. But this alliance brings with it the baggage of Iran and Turkey which the US and its Arab allies will not tolerate.
"This is the result of the wrong policies pursued by the army for the past 70 years. Pakistan can't afford to lose Saudi Arabia. This is the reason why instead of prime minister Imran Khan, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa went to Riyadh but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman refused to meet him. This must have happened for the first time in the history of Pakistan-Saudi relations. It has been caught between the sea and a hard place. To be very honest, I don't see any escape route," Rizwan said.
The writer has worked on senior editorial positions for many international publications. Views expressed are personal