Since last year, with the Arab street all too exhausted from a decade of political upheavals and wars, efforts have been ramped up to normalize relations with Israel giving it hopes of all the needed validity it has long sought for. Israeli PM visiting Muscat and delegations travelling to Bahrain and UAE made headlines. This may cost the Palestinians dearly if Arab states and countries like Pakistan go down the path of recognition but first some logic onto why it’s not really Saudi Arabia but Pakistan that is the big prize in the Muslim world.
*Why Pakistan matters?*
Since Saudis have been in a rivalry by the two other big poles of power in the Muslim world – Iran and Turkey – it has little influence over them or their allies. Turkey with Qatar, Muslim brotherhood, Azerbaijan, Libya under it’s wings and influences in Yemen, Somalia, Malaysia and Tunisia is a Sunni rival but has also accepted Israel so that doesn’t pose a challenge to it’s efforts. Iran with it’s allies like Hezbollah keeping Lebanon in check, Iraq and Syria under it’s fold can also call on shias in other countries, it thus is clearly opposed to any normalization with Israel. That leaves to the Saudis & Emaratis countries that are outside these spheres with Pakistan and Indonesia being the biggest population centers that clearly do not fall on any side of these rivalries. A recognition by any of these states can let off a lot of steam from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi while making it easier for their own normalization with Tel Aviv. With Indonesia maintaining some informal contacts and trade links with Israel this leaves Pakistan to be pinned down.
Pakistan is viewed favorably on the Arab street. An otherwise inconsequential country in Arab politics it has a strong state democratic system besides being a nuclear power with a majority Sunni Muslim population and a strong Islamic identity at that. It’s with these credentials that Pakistan can give an important impetus to Riyadh & Abu Dhabi now spearheading the cloak and dagger diplomacy to lend legitimacy to Israel in Muslim capitals.
That makes Pakistan and not Saudi Arabia itself the big prize that circles in Washington have been eyeing.
*How Pakistan can be brought in line?*
For the two Arab capitals pressuring Islamabad is easier due to it being beholden financially under debt. With large expatriate populations contributing to foreign exchange reserves and Pakistani politicians finding safe havens in Jeddah and Dubai it is not hard for some Arab diplomats to walk down power corridors in Islamabad (or Rawalpindi) and make over the table demands. This happened last year when a UAE minister on behalf of Saudi Arabia let his Pakistani hosts know that Kashmir is not an issue of the Muslim Ummah.
Dictates of this kind is something that Imran Khan too has lately admitted to in one of his interviews. It maybe easy to pressurize Pakistan but for it to succumb to such pressure is not easy due to a massive public sentiment opposed to Israel due to the vision of it’s forefathers – Jinnah & Allama Iqbal – that forbade any relation with the occupation in Palestine.
There are many overt and possibly covert ways of pressing Pakistan to do what is necessary. Suspension of UAE work visas has been one. Arrests of Pakistani expats and other measures to have been made to affect a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy vis vis Palestine and its question.
*What Pakistan ought to do instead? *
With Trump leaving the White house it may not be likely that Israel’s rolling ball would gather moss. Recently Sudan that had agreed to normalize relations with Israel has moved the issue to be ratified with it’s parliament. For Netanyahu his 5 million $ wheat handouts may not be a walk in the park especially when democracies or some forms of it are involved in such highly important decisions such as recognizing the Zionist project.
For Pakistan to resist this pressure to accept Israel will bring it more dividends in the long run especially with the Kashmir issue heating up and likely one that would continue to do so with Modi in power.
If anything at all Pakistan foreign policy should be focused on bolstering it’s working relations with those in the neighborhood to forge stronger bilateral ties. With Arab foreign ministers having clearly told Islamabad that we ought not to drag them into our issues with India should be clear Pakistan’s geopolitical interests need a radical shift to be able to stand on its own feet. Of course this comes hand in hand with economic well being that Chinese President Xi Jinping advised our leaders back in 2018. But it is not too late to start down that path of hardship and struggle but sure fireway of success and sovereignty.
(Azeem Sabzvari is an engineer by qualification is a part time reader on regional affairs.)