Imran Khan is already beset by domestic problems. Rekindling his country's close relationship with its traditional Gulf allies is a wise move
The four delicate constituencies Imran Khan has to manage in order to achieve his goals
When his party won the Pakistan election on July 25, Imran Khan could have been forgiven for forgetting to celebrate. Leading the nation was never going to be a walk in the park, even for the US-backed military dictators who have run the country for nearly half its existence. As a democracy, the nation faces a unique double whammy. It suffers not only from the extreme partisanship that makes getting things done so difficult in even the most advanced democracies of Europe and North America. Its democrats have also never quite figured out how to get along with the generals that run the country’s powerful military.
That military has never been more relevant to Pakistan and the wider South Asian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern region. In a sea of instability and uncertainty, it represents one of the only sure bets. Friend and foe alike have long looked to it as an instrument of national and regional stability. Since 2014, when the army launched a comprehensive assault on terrorist hideouts on its border with Afghanistan, it has assumed an even stronger position in national affairs.
To top it all, Pakistan is in the midst of yet another trough in its economic boom-bust cycle. A few years of modest economic growth is almost always followed by a crisis. The growth comes largely from opportunistic economic policy that makes the best of fortuitous external events. The slowdowns usually come when old debts come due, or when global markets hit a rough patch.
In a region that boasts Dubai’s soaring landscape to the south, China’s unstoppable rise to the north and India’s economic juggernaut to the east, Pakistan’s mediocre economic performance is not surprising. It has never undertaken any meaningful reform of its economy. There is a disparity in the fortunes of a corrupt elite and the country at large, a contradiction that Mr Khan claims to want to fix. But transformational reforms do not come cheap. Low exports and high imports have been managed for the last few years through borrowing and the effects of this strategy are now being felt at precisely the wrong time for Mr Khan.
With the nation facing yet another economic downturn, one question has clearly been at the forefront of Mr Khan’s mind: is his promise of purging Pakistan of corruption and finally delivering justice to the country’s people a realistic one? In search of an answer, he has turned to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE share a long and intimate history with Pakistan. Many people of a certain age will know that Pakistan has repeatedly sought help from the Gulf whenever other avenues of financing have dried up. Perhaps the most important of these periods was immediately after the testing of nuclear weapons initiated by India 1998. When Pakistan responded with its own tests, the country suddenly faced sanctions from all quarters. Fortunately, the centuries-old tradition is that in times of trouble, South Asian Muslims and Gulf Muslims help each other out, no matter what.
This tradition has been tested in recent years. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen on behalf of the overthrown government of Adrabu Mansur Hadi has been disappointed by Pakistan’s lack of support. In turn, Pakistan's loyalty has been strained, not only by the growing friendship between Gulf nations and India but also by a perceived absence of wider understanding in the Arab world of just how brutal a terrorist onslaught it has faced in recent years. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorist groups have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis, sparing neither mosque, park nor school. Many Pakistanis have felt that the fight against terror was the country’s most difficult challenge to date – and one it had to face without the support of its traditional allies.
Nevertheless, Mr Khan has pursued deeper and more intense engagement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia is the only country he has visited twice since becoming prime minister. Those visits have borne fruit for his economic agenda. A substantial package of aid, including at least $3 billion in deferred oil payments, was announced last week as Mr Khan ended his second tour of Riyadh. A hectic series of bilateral visits has followed, with the UAE’s Minister of State and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, spending the weekend in Islamabad. Another key area of co-operation that Mr Khan is pursuing with the UAE is money laundering and anti-corruption. Pakistan’s anti corruption czar Mirza Shahzad Akbar is due for talks with the UAE’s Minister of Justice Sultan Al Badi. It has been suggested this is only the start of a long-awaited rapprochement between the traditional triad of allies.
In Pakistan, questions abound as to the quid pro quo. One Pakistani minister suggested that the nation could play a vital role in helping to negotiate an end to the Yemen conflict. Another theory suggests that Pakistan has committed to align itself against Iran. Yet another theory sees the country as having become more amenable to an end game in Afghanistan that aligns with US plans. Of course, this would require the Americans to stop backing the expanding influence of India in Afghanistan – a phenomenon that Pakistanis believe is often misused to damage their country, through a variety of overt and covert Indian actions. The truth is likely to be more complicated. Pakistan is often more influential in the international arena than most Pakistanis believe it to be, but much less powerful than foreigners think it is. Its most critical geostrategic advantage is that it borders China, India, Afghanistan and Iran. Its most intense vulnerability is a direct result of the same.
Despite these complexities, Pakistan is an integral part of the Saudi and Emirati national stories. An entirely new middle class has emerged over the last half-century on the back of remittances that millions of Pakistani workers have sent home. Their labour has not only fuelled a new kind of politics back home – which brought Mr Khan to power – it has also helped build the magnificence of the Khaleeji urban landscape, from Dubai to Jeddah.
Ultimately, the real success of Mr Khan’s efforts will be in coming good on his promises to the Pakistani people. His anti-corruption narrative is popular but his capacity to deliver is compromised by the wide net that he has cast to find allies. In a messy democracy, leaders often have to make messy alliances.
Perhaps the more urgent question is what will become of his economic agenda. Aid from Saudi Arabia and new investment from the UAE will certainly help stave off a crisis, but they cannot be expected to kickstart a juggernaut of growth. For this, Pakistan needs bold and substantial reforms. Here is where Mr Khan is most vulnerable. In order to enact meaningful changes, he must manage four vital constituencies. First, he has got along famously well with the military – this needs to continue. Second, he has taken on a vociferous and aggressive tone with the opposition – this will make achieving consensus in parliament very difficult, so he must find a balance. Third, he must thread the needle carefully between continuing to bolster relations with China and not making Pakistan’s position with the US worse than it already is, all the while trying to make sure that there are no flare-ups between Pakistan and India. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, he must continue to appeal to the general public and ensure that he has the force of popular will behind him.
When it comes to fulfilling election promises, the odds are generally against most populist leaders. They are decidedly against an inexperienced one like Mr Khan, attempting reform in a country where the status quo rules the roost. However, renewing Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will definitely not hurt his chances.
Mosharraf Zaidi is a public policy professional
Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily newsletter here