GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Interests of Pakistan in the Gulf
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Interests of Pakistan in the Gulf
Amb (R)Sajjad Ashraf
The Persian Gulf wealth, due to oil and gas discoveries, largely a twentieth century phenomenon, in addition to economic growth elsewhere, is heavily dependent upon peace and stability in the region. Of critical importance to the global economy is the need to keep the Straits of Hormuz open through which a bulk of world’s energy supplies pass. Any interruption of energy flows will particularly affect China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia – regions that are fastest growing economies in the world.
The Gulf oil discoveries resulting in tremendous construction boom and its spillover are heavily dependent upon expatriate workforce especially from the Indian Sub-continent, and relatively less affluent Arab states. The Gulf States would therefore, need to maintain friendly working relations with both India and Pakistan. The States also need to ensure that sub-continental conflicts do not extend into the large workforce in the Gulf.
Beyond the region it is in the interest of the Gulf States that the region does not become a playground for the big power rivalries, an area in which they have so far done well by aligning with Western powers but the cost has been heavy. Such an alignment, given the shifting power structures will also need to be adjusted during the coming decades.
Pakistan, created in the name of Islam considered itself close to all the Muslims across the world. The Gulf States were then, poor and desolate. Trading was free in these states in items generally prohibited for imports into the sub-continent promoting smuggling in the Indian sub-continent. Only Iran because of its size and early oil discoveries was a state of consequence. Iraq, at the end of the Gulf came second. Trading relations developed early between the sub-continental west coast and the Persian Gulf region. The Baluchs from the Makran Coast maintained closer connections with the Sultanate of Oman, which also owned the Gwadar and its surrounding territories.
Pakistan acted more like a patron to Arab sheikhs before oil discoveries. Pakistan’s own ineptness has now turned the tables.
Located close to these states, with multiple interests, it is in Pakistan’s security interests to maintain a stable, peaceful, conflict free Gulf region. Pakistan views its foreign relations largely in competition to India. To stave off the Indian influence Pakistan chose the easy route by offering the Americans to become their hired guns and help maintain the existing order in the region. Pakistan’s interests with attendant risks remain aligned with the West. However risks for Pakistan increase manifold as Pakistan is seen to be particularly close to the ruling families of these states. As recent events in Bahrain have demonstrated, Pakistan needs to re-think the nature of its engagement with the Gulf States.
China’s rising economic clout and consequent security interests imply that the China will need assured energy supplies in the future. Maintaining presence in the Gulf directly or through Pakistan therefore remains critical to China also. As Pakistan seeks to balance India, it will be tempted to support Chinese interests in the region.
Pakistan’s security interests, which has substantial economic undertones is connecting the Gulf to the potentially rich Central Asian region through the Gwadar port, which the Chinese built for Pakistan. While the port is being managed by the Port Singapore Authority under a 40 year contract, there are calls within Pakistan to scrap the agreement in favor of the Chinese.
Pakistan also hopes that in case of any faceoff with India the Gulf States, which have each developed close relations with India will act as a moderating interlocutor at the least, if not in open support for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s economic interests grew in the region with discovery of oil in much of the Gulf late 60’s onwards. The three facets to the economic interests are: worker remittances; trading; and investment source. Pakistan’s strength of earlier years has declined proportionately with the comparative skill levels of Pakistani workforce. This composition affects the relative foreign exchange remittances from the Gulf for Pakistan. The Pakistani workforce is mainly concentrated in very low end unskilled categories.
Pakistan’s perennial competition with India adversely affects Pakistan in another way. India has a substantial Muslim population and much of it coming from Kerala. Indian workforce is considered better disciplined. The affluent Gulf families employ their domestic staff like cooks and maids from India and they influence the minds of Arab children as they grow in their homes. The effects of this practice have become apparent during the last few decades.
As Pakistan remains in competition mode with India, it should watch with particular concern the Gulf States allowing public servants to engage in business simultaneously. With rising economic clout India’s capacity to engage constructively has increased considerably in the Gulf power echelons. The consequences are multi-faceted Gulf-India connection involving trade, travel, investments and remittances. This growing economic connection between India on one side and the power circles of the Gulf will also help shape the future course of interests of either side.
Pakistan needs to take stock of its abilities and match them with its ambitions. For now, the ambitions do not match up to Pakistan’s abilities. The result can only be suicidal policy pursuit where many countries have failed in history.
And if Pakistan always continues to consider itself in competition with India it does not bode well for its interests in the region. Pakistan therefore, needs to blend into the regional power equation in the interest of beneficial interdependence.
The pan-Asian cooperation in the Gulf depends firstly on cooperation within the Gulf and followed by balancing of interests of major international players like US, Japan, and China. India will also need to play deftly to stay out of regional rivalries to secure its economic and strategic advantages. Pakistan, the only Islamic state in the equation will most likely have to either collaborate with India or piggy back China to secure its security and economic interests. Any conflict between India and China does not help Pakistan in the longer run.