Historically, Pakistan has managed its bilateral relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia at a level where it always had some space to manoeuvre.
The OIC is holding a preparatory meeting of its senior officials in Jeddah for the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers. Reportedly, the meeting will not include Kashmir on its agenda — due to Saudi reluctance.
During his recent visit to Malaysia, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged that he had not attended the Kuala Lumpur summit in December last year because of a “misconception” among some countries close to Pakistan that it would divide the Muslim world. He was referring to Saudi Arabia, where he had been invited by the crown prince and persuaded to stay away from an event led by Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, which Riyadh considered a threat to its influence in Muslim nations.
This was not a piece of good news for Pakistan, which is struggling to maintain its balance between two emerging political alliances in the Muslim world. It also hurts Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts for the Kashmir cause. Pakistan’s geo-economic and strategic challenges make it difficult for the country to fully cooperate with or annoy either of the two blocs. Pakistan is caught in a dilemma where its heart is in the Malaysian-Turkish bloc, which has been openly supporting Pakistan’s Kashmir cause, but its mind is with the Saudi-led bloc, which has money and political influence that Pakistan needs for its struggling economy.
Historically, Pakistan has managed its bilateral relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia at a level where it always had some space to manoeuvre. However, increasingly assertive approaches of the emerging “ummah blocs”, in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are contrastingly placed, have constrained this space for manoeuvre.
And this is happening at a time when Pakistan has a Prime Minister who cannot seem to hold back his sentiments. At the same time, the country’s overall economic and geostrategic situation won’t allow him to act as a populist leader.
Populist politics has made inroads in society with relatively more success where middle classes (corporate and services-based) are expanding and heading towards an identity crisis. In such circumstances, a populist leader can afford to say much. Pakistan’s circumstances require a diplomatic posture that entails a consistent and rational approach. Hence, Pakistan is forced to tread carefully in its ties with the two opposing Muslim blocs, which are exploiting the political, economic, religious, and sectarian tendencies of the Muslim world.
The story of a “fragmented” Muslim world is not new. Similarly, the efforts of prosperous Muslim nations to build up strategic economic and political influence within Muslim societies also have a history. The use of religious and sectarian branding for this purpose is a lethal tactic used by Saudi Arabia and Iran, deepening the Shia-Sunni divide in Muslim societies.
Now Turkey appears to be attempting to “appropriate” Hanafi Islam in an effort to become the custodian of this particular school of thought that is followed by a big majority of Muslims. The Turkish religious intelligentsia is evidently promoting the narrative of the supremacy of Hanafi Islam. Qatar is rebranding Salafi Islam while accommodating political Islamists within its geopolitical vision. Iran has its own religious view and also a sense of civilisation, which makes it take pride in its political character.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad takes pride in championing Asian values. He was among the architects of “Asian exceptionalism”, which had challenged the universal concepts of democracy and human rights in the early 1990s. With Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he challenged the Western narrative, believing that economic growth and prosperity could be achieved without following the Western model. What does Pakistan have to be proud of? Nukes, a weak economy and a complicated neighbourhood?
Maybe, the leaders of the ummah find it difficult to ignore Pakistan for it has a strong and active military and a big consumer market. Had we had economic and political stability, we would not have needed to indulge in regional proxy wars. Pakistan would have been among the strongest contenders for the leadership of the ummah with an entirely different diplomatic posture. However, this is not an ideal world and Pakistan will have to choose what suits its interests best.
On one side is the Saudi-led bloc, which bailed out Pakistan on several occasions to support its economy and that accommodates a significant number of Pakistani workers. Apart from defence cooperation with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia also has political clout in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi, which could be useful for Pakistan in times of need. Iran is a neighbour with the potential to provide an uninterrupted supply of power and energy, but there are costs. Malaysia is a new ally of Pakistan. Like Turkey, it has an eye on Pakistan’s consumer market. Some see in Malaysian diplomatic support for Kashmir an effort to tap into the Pakistani market.
It’s easy to define Pakistan’s choices but harder for the country to make them. Should it embrace the Turkish-Malaysian bloc, or count on its realist understanding of political-economic relations and join the Saudi-led bloc? Alternatively, should it continue treading a tightrope? But whatever choice it makes, it should not come at the cost of its self-esteem and dignity.
By arrangement with Dawn