Imran Khan (pictured) as Prime Minister will shake up Pakistan’s politics — but is unlikely to affect Islamabad and the Middle East
With the arrival of election season in Pakistan, the political temperature is running high. This will start the third consecutive democratic transition of power since the departure of former military ruler President General Pervez Musharraf after the 2008 elections.
The possibility of new political players at the helm of Pakistani politics presents questions not only about the state of the civil-military relationship in the country but also a change will affect Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East in general and the Gulf States in particular.
The vote on July 25 will be the culmination of intense political wrangling and rivalry between the Government of Pakistan Muslims League (Nawaz) PMLN and the main opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI — Pakistan Justice Movement).
The PTI never accepted the electoral victory of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the 2013 elections. The party campaigned against his government, first on the issue of electoral rigging and then over the Panama Papers scandal, which eventually resulted in the Supreme Court dismissing Nawaz from the premiership and barring him from holding any public office for life.
With Nawaz out of electoral politics and his daughter and brother mired in judicial probes, the prospects for Imran Khan’s PTI are an all-time high. With the inclusion of defecting electables from across the political spectrum, there is a possibility Imran could become Prime Minister.
This new political reality pushes us into the domain of unknowns and unpredictability, especially in the outlook vis-à-vis the Middle East.
Historically Pakistan’s relationship with Middle Eastern states followed Cold War patterns of alignment, with the exception of a brief period of cordiality across the board during the premiership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.
With the start of Afghan Jihad, Pakistan’s relationship with the Arab Gulf states took on a new dynamic and gradually developed into a strategic partnership. The Pakistan Army has not only trained Gulf armies but has also been deployed in different Gulf countries, helping it build a solid reputation.
Moreover, Nawaz Sharif enjoyed good relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, while his traditional rival, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was considered closer to Iran. With the fall in the political fortunes of the PPP and the rise of the PTI as the new nemesis of Nawaz, those traditional political rivalries are no longer relevant.
These new fault lines in Pakistani politics were on display when in 2015, under pressure from the PTI-led opposition, the Parliament voted against sending Pakistani troops to Yemen and in favor of neutrality in the conflict.
However, as the Parliamentary resolution noted and was also pronounced on different occasions afterwards, Pakistan’s commitment toward Saudi national security never changed. It is interesting to note that Pakistan did eventually send some troops to Saudi Arabia in advisory and training roles and, although there was some noise from the opposition, the tacit military will behind the move meant it was overruled.
Since the approaching polls can result in a possible reversal of roles in the parliament, with PTI forming a government and PMLN sitting in opposition, the implications of these developments will be crucial for the state of the civil-military relationship and Pakistan’s calculus toward the Middle East. During the past five years the PMLN’s government and specifically Nawaz Sharif’s relationship with the military can be best summed up as hostile while, on the other hand, the PTI and Imran Khan had a rather positive view of the state’s security establishment.
Another intriguing development has been the recent visit of Imran to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. During the visit, he was accorded official protocol by Saudi authorities and on his return, he vowed that Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and China would not change, regardless of the state of Pakistani politics. Moreover, the PTI’s cadres have upped their engagement with Middle Eastern envoys in Islamabad during recent months, realizing their significance vis-à-vis Pakistani politics.
The probability of an improved civil-military relationship and the cordial relationship between Saudi Arabia and the military and the civilian leadership — both suggest that Pakistan’s engagement with the Middle East will follow traditional patterns of friendship and brotherhood and will not witness any substantial change.