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(First published on December 21st, 2019)

Two controversies raised their heads this week. One legal. The other diplomatic. You have heard much too much about the former; and as more details filter in, you can tell that a reprieve is likely to come, at least for the moment, owing to some fundamentally unsound bits that have surfaced. However, in the overall scheme of things, the more important one gets lesser attention in the Islamic Republic. The latter is far more important because Pakistan is in the most decisive phase of its diplomatic development. And that is to be expected as the world around us threatens to break and remake itself every single moment. As a proponent of an aggressively proactive foreign policy, I have some candid thoughts to share with you. And that is why this has to be an undiplomatic column. Before we move forward even a bit, let me remind you that the usual caveats apply, and the views expressed here are mine alone.

When this government came into power and was immediately faced by a balance-of-payment crisis, my constant refrain was that the country needed to approach the IMF for the solution. It was the only plausible, long-term method to heal from the malaise borne out of the shoddy and the myopic economic policies of the past. Of course, there were many sticking points but given that all variables were within the pale of what Donald Rumsfeld once called the “known knowns”, we could manage. However, Pakistan first chose to knock the door of friendly Muslim countries and managed to get some relief from the Arab countries especially Saudi Arabia. In return, Pakistan also kept its end of the bargain when the Khashoggi controversy surfaced and world leaders and businesses were distancing themselves from the investor conference, a passion project of the Saudi Crown Prince, the Pakistani Premier produced himself on the occasion. It was a statement of far-reaching consequence. I don’t think either our Saudi friends or our Pakistani office-bearers have truly grasped how much it helped the kingdom’s de facto leadership. When the region is out of the woods, I will explain it in a separate piece. Likewise, when the Crown Prince arrived in Pakistan, he was driven around by none other than the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Something that is unheard of, at least as far as I can remember.

And that is all well and good. Apart from being symptomatic of the deep ties between the two countries, it is also the smart play. But that was not the only ask.

Before I take the argument any further, I must invoke the examples of our two critical allies: China and the US. Had it not been for their support I don’t think the country could be where it is now. Both have invested a lot in this country and continue to do so. The scale is mindboggling, and no two countries come close to that. But while they must have their expectations, they have respected the country’s right to make independent decisions. China’s rise is a new phenomenon and we still have to see how its expectations change but it has never publicly sought to impose its agenda on Pakistan or export its ideology to the country. For a nation that has often been accused of being illiberal, this is a remarkable exhibition of a democratic outlook.

With the US we have had many ups and downs. However, during its best moments, this relationship has complimented both countries. In fact, the cooperation has been of exceptionally existential benefits to both. Perhaps because of the Donald Trump presidency when the American debates became local, average Pakistanis are gaining more insight into American society and the resentment ebbs and admiration grows. But we cannot deny that until only recently the country was facing a high tide of anti-Americanism. This public sentiment was known to our American friends but quite contrary to the sensationalism clouding the media on both sides, they quietly worked with Islamabad to improve relations. This patience and hard work on both parties seem to be paying off some serious dividends. It might sound naïve to some in this global environment but Pakistan’s relationship with both these countries is soon to reach new heights.

Now come back to the Muslim world. Apart from Turkey, I do not see any other Muslim country which doesn’t demand undivided loyalty. At the start of Nawaz Sharif’s recent stint in office, Pakistan had to accept a handout from the Saudi kingdom. But then we got an earful when the country could not send its forces to an almost certain ambush in Yemen. I can go on and on about similar issues with many other Muslims countries – some known, some unknown. But the point here is that all of this is due to a lack of understanding of Pakistan’s importance. Of course, the country has many internal fault lines that can be exploited and a permanent rival in India, but the true importance of it is not even known to most of its citizens. Suffice it to say that even when acting subconsciously, it can make or break you.

So, the recent controversy surfaced when after a hurriedly arranged Saudi visit by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the news emerged that he would not be going to a summit in Kuala Lumpur. Since in matters of diplomacy you hardly expect a straight answer, speculation grew that the latter decision was a product of the former. The assumption here is that the Saudis see the said summit as an attempt to undermine the OIC. The very idea that a summit anywhere can undermine the OIC sounds absurd. You undermine something that needs help in doing so. When other bodies like the GCC do not undermine the OIC, other summits cannot either. If anything undermined the OIC it was the participation of the then Indian foreign minister in one of its key events when it was threatening to fight one of its key members, Pakistan. And the thought that Pakistan would willingly become party against the kingdom betrays an astounding depth of ignorance.

But the image that somehow Pakistan’s hand was forced is deeply disturbing. Image is important in countries like Pakistan where many interest groups work simultaneously to influence international relations. It is not our place to suggest how our Saudi brethren conduct their business. The only thing to remember is that rigidity does not get a nation too far. However, at a visceral level this entire episode has affected the kingdom’s image in the country. If it is unfounded, the kingdom needs to do something to dispel it. If there is any modicum of truth, then it needs to learn to trust Islamabad. Some relationships are too important to lose.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2019.

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