The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government in Islamabad has given the go-ahead to the appointment of Pakistan’s ex-army chief General Raheel Sharif as supreme commander of a Saudi-funded “Nato-like” Islamic military organisation. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz had sought his appointment to the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) — it seemed the king didn’t even ask Islamabad before announcing the appointment. Saudi umbrage, triggered by Pakistan’s refusal in 2015 to join the Saudi war in Yemen, is
expected to subside after this.
Could Pakistan afford to ignore the offer? Realistically speaking, it could not. In 2015-16, overseas Pakistani workers remitted $20 billion. Out of this, $10 billion came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while the US and the UK together accounted for only $5 billion. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting the Yemen war to which Pakistan’s parliament declined to send Pakistani troops in 2015: Significantly, this year, remittances declined by 14 per cent. Meanwhile, breaking news in India is that King Salman may visit the country in 2017.
Given Pakistan’s wobbly balance-of-payments position, it can hardly ignore the ominous smoke signals from its disappointed Arab friends. The United States under Donald Trump is expected to become less friendly to Pakistan after cosying up to India and increasingly taking on China at the global level. General (retd) Sharif’s appointment would clearly be a guarantee against a possible mass expulsion of Pakistani workers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Pakistan is blindsided by its growing India-centrism as it swings with China towards a resumption of relations with Russia, although China’s more “realistic” approach would disapprove of this Pakistani way of preferring a tit-for-tat reset. Even the Saudis didn’t act like that. They hated Barack Obama’s leaning to Iran through a deal on the Iranian bomb and made angry noises about Washington which they never made in relation to Israel; their anger subsided when Trump challenged Iran. Narendra Modi will see to India’s economic interest — unlike Pakistan where the deep state wouldn’t allow this kind of strategically light-headed approach. That Iran exports 16.5 per cent of India’s crude oil, at times, free of transport cost, and built Chabahar port with Indian help, is in Rawalpindi’s bad books. But shocks are in store if Islamabad looks at India’s purchase of oil from the Gulf states.
The UAE is a preferred partner for the $75 billion infrastructure investment announced by India in 2016. And India plans to increase its crude imports from the UAE by 15 per cent. Pakistanis would be jolted by the fact that 1,30,00,00 Indians outnumber 9,00,000 Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia. India is important for Iran and the UAE equally: Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserve Limited (ISPRL) has an agreement with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) for topping up one of the two caverns at the Mangalore Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) facility. PM Modi’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia disturbed Pakistani dovecotes with the leverage he seemed to have regionally. Compared with a more indebted Pakistan, India was free to build a port in Iran — and yet be welcomed by the Arabs across the Gulf.
PM Modi doesn’t have to be told to put the economy first. PM Nawaz Sharif too has learnt the hard way that India-centrism should be tempered by a suppleness of approach to its eastern neighbour. He actually won the 2013 election pledging he would normalise relations with India through free trade. He knows he has good cards to play: The resumption of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, the facilitation of another gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India and — with China’s approval — getting India to become a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has so far only attracted New Delhi’s wrath.
China clearly shows the way as it breaks the narrow thinking of Islamabad by investing heavily in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Brookings website had Tanvi Madan writing on PM Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia: “The region remains India’s main source of imported oil and natural gas… In addition, as of January 2015, there were 7.3 million non-resident Indians in the region (64 per cent of the total). These non-resident Indians remitted over $36 billion in 2015 (52 per cent of the total remittances to India).”
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