Pakistan, The Middle East and Central Asia


For Pakistan, the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia represent the hope of strategic depth, an identity outside of its competition with India, and a hoped-for source of both energy supply and economic support. Pakistan’s strong relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are built on common interests, shared objectives in the region, and personal ties to the rulers. Afghanistan, once a common cause across the Muslim world, has become the principal problem area in Pakistan’s relations with Iran, once a major strategic connection, and its newer ties with Central Asia.

Arab ties: highly personal: Pakistan has maintained cordial ties with most Arab countries, but Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are by far the most significant. In both cases, the personal dimension is as well developed as the national. Both became significant aid donors in the 1970s, after the price of oil shot up. Both have also provided jobs to large numbers of Pakistani workers. The sheikh of Abu Dhabi and some of the other UAE rulers have been frequent travelers to Pakistan, where large tracts of land have been made available for their hunting trips.

Relations with Saudi Arabia were intensified by their collaboration in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia provided substantial financial and political support for the fight against the Soviet occupation and later against Afghanistan’s communist government. Coordination on Afghan policy was frequent and close, and the Saudi government’s preference for quiet diplomacy fit in well with Pakistan’s distaste for reviewing contentious policy issues in public. More recently, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Pakistan alone have recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. While Saudi Arabia has since distanced itself a bit from the Taliban, especially since Osama Bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan became so controversial, it has not withdrawn that recognition, nor has it publicly opposed Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

Pakistan’s decision to send troops to the Gulf War further strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s current exile in Saudi Arabia is one result. The royal family did not want to see the man who had been at the helm during the Gulf War languish in jail. The exile, controversial inside Pakistan, illustrated the Pakistan government’s deference to strong Saudi views.

Other Arab countries’ relations with Pakistan have been less intense. Ties with Iraq have frequently been a problem, the product of the Iraqi Baath government’s distaste for the more conservative Pakistanis and perhaps also of Iraq’s traditionally strong ties with India.

Economic connections: After the United States and the European Union, the Arab countries are Pakistan’s largest trading partner. In 1998-99, they accounted for 24 percent of Pakistani imports (up from 18 percent in 1990). The largest share of this trade is oil, for which the Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E. are the largest suppliers. Pakistan currently imports around 300,000 barrels per day. Its demand for oil is rising about seven percent each year, reflecting both the growing needs of Pakistan’s economy and limitations on its petroleum refining capacity and crude extraction. The oil and gas ministry hopes to lessen this demand by greater use of natural gas as a source of energy. Here too, Pakistan is hoping to cooperate with its Arab friends. Their proposal is to link themselves into the Dolphin Project, an attempt to supply gas through an underwater pipeline originating in Qatar’s North Dome gas field.

Pakistan’s exports to the Arab countries have remained steady through the 1990s at about 12 percent, and consist primarily of onions, rice, and cotton. Remittances from the estimated one million Pakistani workers in the Persian Gulf have been Pakistan’s largest foreign exchange earner since the mid-1970s. However, they decreased sharply after the Gulf War, from $2 billion per year to an average of about $1.5 billion during the mid-1990s, and have been closer to $1 billion for the past two years. The Middle East became a major source of aid after the oil price increases of the 1970s. Over the years, this aid has significantly decreased, especially with the cash flow problems of many Middle Eastern countries after the Gulf War. Pakistan’s official figures show commitments of $181 million in 1999/2000, or about 11 percent of total aid commitments. Disbursement figures totaled 3 percent of overall aid disbursements.

Iran, a study in contradictions: Pakistan’s traditionally warm relations with Iran had their roots in the Cold War security alliance both shared. The economic counterpart to the Iran/Turkey/ Pakistan security alliance, Regional Cooperation for Development, was in practice quite an anemic organization, but bilateral economic ties with Iran were important. Pakistan still imports close to $1 billion of oil per year from Iran. A possible pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, with an extension into India, has been under discussion for years. Pakistan and India have both blown hot and cold on the project, each fearing dependence on the other for sensitive energy supply.

After the Iranian revolution, Pakistan continued to cultivate ties with Iran, but the relationship became more mercurial. Afghanistan initially was a common concern, as Iran, like Pakistan, took in over a million Afghan refugees. The end of the Soviet occupation and the ascendancy of the Taliban made Afghanistan a bone of contention, however. Iran has accused the Taliban of smuggling drugs through Iran, violating human rights, and promoting a false image of Islam. The Taliban’s strongly sectarian Sunni orientation and their anti-Shia actions – including the kidnapping and killing of a number of Iranian consular staff – brought Iran to the point of massing troops on the Afghan border.

At the same time, Sunni-Shia clashes have roiled Pakistan. Press sources estimate that over 1,000 Shia Muslims have been killed in the past 10 years due to sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s response to the violence against the Shias in Pakistan has been widely criticized by the Iranian government. This past November the Supreme Court exonerated the assassins of an Iranian diplomat and seven others. At the same time there are accusations of Iranian involvement with violent militant Shia groups.

Central Asia: the hoped-for hinterland: The independence of the Central Asian republics brought to life Pakistan’s dream of strategic depth. For Pakistan’s policy, this meant more than simply military space, attractive as that might be. Pakistan hoped to develop political ties with the Central Asians and to serve as a bridge between them and the rest of the world after their seventy years of isolation within the Soviet Union. Pakistan was quick to establish diplomatic and trade relations, and has been eager to show a higher profile than India in this region. It also revived the old RCD, with Central Asian membership and a new name, the “Economic Cooperation Organization,” in an effort to build a framework for closer economic links.

Energy is the main economic attraction of Central Asia, where estimated resources run as high as 46% of the world’s gas reserves and 150 billion barrels of oil. A major problem is transporting this energy to the market. Pakistan has been involved in extended negotiations to construct oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and perhaps beyond. Afghanistan’s chaotic political situation and Pakistan’s own financial difficulties are both major complicating factors.

The Central Asians, however, also oppose Pakistan’s involvement with the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan’s smaller ethnic communities, which have historically shared in governing Afghanistan but are not represented among the Taliban, come from the same ethnic groups as the neighboring Central Asian countries. Movement of Afghan and Central Asian dissidents across porous borders has exacerbated instability and caused resentment among Central Asian governments. So has Taliban-supported drug smuggling. The biggest problems are in Tajikistan, but the Afghan connection troubles Pakistan’s relations across the area.

The Muslim world: On a more general level, Pakistan attaches great importance to its membership in the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). This is the arena in which Pakistan can most successfully operate without having to compete with India. Pakistan strongly supports Muslim solidarity on such issues as the Arab-Israeli dispute. It has tried to obtain comparable support for its policies from the OIC, with uneven success. The OIC at its last meeting supported naming a special envoy on Kashmir, but OIC members have not stood with Pakistan when it tried to use the Kashmir issue to attack India in the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

The darker side: More troubling for the West are the effects on Pakistan of violent Islamic militant groups. The long struggle in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s close involvement in it have produced a growing number of militants, some local and some from other parts of the Muslim world. Their involvement in violence in Kashmir has exacerbated the long-standing India-Pakistan dispute there, and their forays into violence further afield has made them a strong concern for the United States. The unwillingness or inability of successive Pakistani governments to confront their unofficial political power, and the fragility of institutions and education in today’s Pakistan, have made Pakistan a source of instability that radiates outward to its neighbors.

The specter of Pakistan exporting its nuclear explosives or know-how to other parts of the Muslim world has been a concern ever since Pakistan’s nuclear program started. Thus far, however, there is no indication that Pakistan has gone down that road, and the government’s policy statements continue to stress that it has no intention of doing so.

Looking ahead: Pakistan’s ties with the Muslim world still reflect a fundamentally constructive quest for an identity and a set of relationships that take it out of the India-centered South Asian context. Energy trade with the Middle East is still vitally important to Pakistan, but the other economic relations have weakened as Pakistan’s economy has stagnated and aid flows and remittances have shrunk. But the tone of Pakistan’s future ties with these countries – especially with Iran and Central Asia – will be set in Pakistan. Two areas are critical here: policy toward Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s own internal cohesion. The Muslim world can offer sympathy in both areas, but the key decisions are Pakistan’s to make.

The South Asia Monitor is published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific public policy positions. Views expressed in this publication are those of the authors.

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