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Mending Pakistan’s Ties With the West – Via the Middle East

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Mending Pakistan’s Ties With the West – Via the Middle East

Pakistan’s relevance in the Middle East theater is natural, and it is about time that Pakistan leverages that relevance to alleviate its isolation.

Mending Pakistan’s Ties With the West – Via the Middle East
Credit: Depositphotos

In Western capitals, Pakistan is widely perceived as China’s blood brother. Western analysts club it with the revisionist powers – Russia, China, and Iran – despite Pakistan’s lip service to “say no to bloc politics.” While Pakistan’s relations with China are unquestionably crucial for the country, it has clearly alienated the other pole, the Western world. 

A November 2023 Gallup Pakistan survey entitled “Perceptions of the Everyday American: India versus Pakistan” captured this alienation in numbers: 4 in 10 Americans consider Pakistan to be an enemy country, while just 28 percent see Pakistan as a friend. By comparison, the survey found that 56 percent of Americans consider India a friend of the United States, while just 11 percent of Americans consider India to be an enemy.

This alienation of the West and the resulting isolation of Pakistan, especially among the established democracies of the world, is partly the result of Pakistan’s choices.

The policy of aiding and supporting the Afghan Taliban not only created a major rift with the West but also failed to achieve the expected strategic dividends for Pakistan. It has backfired in the form of an increasingly stubborn Taliban and a major spike in terrorist activity in the northwest of the country, to the point that frequent attacks by Afghan Taliban-backed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are jeopardizing the political campaigns of those contesting the upcoming general elections, scheduled for February 8.

Pakistan’s policy of naming and shaming India has not worked either – at least not in the West, where, whether we like it or not, Pakistan is seen as an abettor of terrorism in India while India is seen as rightly distancing itself from Pakistan. That has less to do with truth and more to do with the fact that India is the United States’ strategic ally, which many Western analysts deem crucial for U.S. strategy in Asia, specifically the Indo-Pacific, in the emerging order. 

Cliched as it may sound, truth and falsehood do not matter as much in international politics. States are rational actors, not moral actors; their end goal is maximizing power, not virtue. The West has plenty of reasons to believe India regarding allegations of terrorism from Pakistan, courtesy of the alignment of interests between the two. Pakistan has almost the opposite effect, and so it is alienated.

But it is Pakistan’s compulsion, first and foremost, to find common areas of cooperation with the West, because Pakistan needs the West more than the other way around, especially economically. For Pakistan, the way forward is not to “hate” the West. It is to read the geopolitical chessboard and reassess its foreign policy to maximize its national power and prestige, even if that means embracing those one would otherwise struggle to shake hands with. 

A cursory glance at the chessboard would convey that by alienating the West, the mightiest and most influential of blocs in the world, from which Pakistan has a lot to seek, Pakistan has only weakened itself on the global stage. It’s widely perceived as a troublemaking neighbor, bracketed with dictatorships despite being a democracy, and has failed to shed the stigma of terrorism despite paying a heavy price in life and treasure, partly because of its ill-conceived policies and partly due to its ability to attract bad global press, which is monopolized by the West.

Pakistan must mend its ties with the West. Ironically, the crisis in Gaza and the recent Iranian attack on Pakistan might pave the way.

When the conflict in Gaza ends, the status quo in the Middle East will not be the same as it was before the war. The Palestinian issue, strategically sidelined by Israel and the West, will again be at the heart of the policy debates around the region. The United States will be no longer in a position to sideline the question of a Palestinian state without risking another October 7 for the Israelis. Indeed, its previous approach is already being described as a strategic blunder by Washington. 

The country that is likely to gain the most from the recent developments in the region in terms of primacy is Saudi Arabia, which many in Washington are seeing as the essential leader to rescue the region from chaos. As Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr put it in Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia is the only actor that remains on good terms with every country in the Middle East and North Africa. It, therefore, enjoys unparalleled legitimacy. Even Iran is now on talking terms with Saudi Arabia since the China-brokered resumption of diplomatic ties. The fact that the Iranian supreme leader called the Saudi king on the eve of October 7 is telling. In November, a month after the war in Gaza began, Saudi Arabia hosted the Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit, which was attended by leaders from across the Arab world, including Iran and Turkey. 

The Saudis also have hard power: their 2022 military budget of $75 billion was more than that of Qatar ($15.4 billion), Turkey ($10.6 billion), Algeria ($9.1 billion), Kuwait ($8.2 billion), Iran ($6.8 billion), Oman ($5.7 billion), Egypt ($4.6 billion), and Iraq ($4.6 billion) combined. Many in Washington see the U.S. propping up Saudi Arabia to take the helm and drive the region toward stability through a resolution of the Palestinian question, a Saudi-Israel normalization of ties warranting Israel’s long-term security, and possibly a Iran-U.S. nuclear agreement.

Pakistan has historically enjoyed close ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and has always been active on the Palestinian question. Now Pakistan has an opportunity to signal its intent to play an active role in the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led diplomacy marathon to come. “Signaling intent” requires more than passively voting on pro-Palestine resolutions or voicing support for Palestine; it implies encouraging the United States to play an active role in resolving the crisis, voicing Pakistan’s full support for Saudi Arabia in leading the peace campaign, and expressing a willingness to welcome Israel to the international fold provided that a two-state solution is materialized. 

On the last point, Pakistan expressing its willingness to normalize ties with Israel if a Palestinian state is established is perfectly in line with the country’s official policy and its backdoor engagements with Israel for years. Saying it out loud at this point will add another strong voice to the call for Palestinian statehood, give further assurance to the West that a two-state solution can resolve Israel’s security dilemma, and help mend Pakistan’s ties with the West.

In this context, the recent Iranian attack on Pakistan came with a silver lining: Pakistan is now under a little less pressure to strictly walk the tightrope of “balancing” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In other words, Pakistan has the strategic space and a reason to align with Saudi Arabia, at least in the short term, without necessarily sending off an emissary to Tehran to delineate the reasons for that. And since Saudi Arabia’s emerging regional hegemony will enjoy the backing of the West and at least the blessing of China, Pakistan’s support for Saudi leadership on key regional issues will only project the country as a responsible player whose foreign policy preferences are aligned with the dominant faction of the community of nations, thus helping Pakistan reclaim some lost social capital in Washington and allied capitals. 

The United States was quick to censure Iran’s attacks in Balochistan. Any move by Pakistan toward the West-Gulf alliance will only be welcomed in Washington, London, and Brussels. 

Since India is often the key variable affecting Pakistan’s foreign policy decisions, it is pertinent to highlight that the Middle East theater is much more favorable for Pakistan than the Indo-Pacific one in terms of great power politics. India enjoys much greater strategic relevance in the Indo-Pacific than Pakistan ever will. The United States deems India the “net security provider” of the Indian Ocean Region, and China sees India as its main regional foe, fully backed by the West. Pakistan, at its maximum, can peddle China’s claims in the Indo-Pacific; India is one of the principal actors in the great power politics of the region. 

On the contrary, Pakistan enjoys historic religious, cultural, strategic, and economic ties with the Middle East, whereas India’s ties with the Gulf are predominantly economic. Moreover, it only helps Pakistan that China is a friend to all Arab states. The Arab states, however, have played on both sides of the pitch, enjoying strong ties with both China and the United States – something the great powers seem fine with despite efforts to enhance their influence in the region. 

In Pakistan’s case, China has never demanded exclusivity. If Pakistan adopts a pro-West, pro-Saudi Arabia stance in the Middle East, it is likely to be appreciated by China, which sees Pakistan as an important bridge to the Middle East and the Islamic world. Pakistan’s relevance in the Middle East theater is natural, and it is about time that Pakistan leverages that relevance for strategic ends: to alleviate its isolation and work toward mending its popular perception in the West.