rime Minister Imran Khan has invited the Turkish President, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, to address a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament. The opposition intends to honour President Erdogan by attending this session. But in 2016, when the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invited President Erdogan to speak before a joint session of parliament, Imran Khan led his PTI parliamentarians out of the National Assembly. He said he didn’t accept the legitimacy of the Sharif government and parliamentary majority to accord it any respect. The irony is that the current opposition parties have also rejected the legitimacy of the selected prime minister but have not allowed it to sour relations with Turkey. What’s so special about Turkey and President Erdogan that so excites Pakistani prime ministers?
Nawaz Sharif’s motive was unconcealed. He wanted to do business with Turkish companies when Turkey’s economy was booming. That’s when Turkish companies were awarded contracts to clean up garbage in Punjab cities, supply offshore electricity, invest in the education sector, on “attractive” terms. Mr Sharif was also curious to learn some tricks and tips from Mr Erdogan on how to control the military, enhance his powers and prolong rule. But he was careful not to be drawn into a developing power grab in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Turkey after the Arab Spring changed many political equations in the region. Indeed, he stuck close to Saudi Arabia so that Pakistan could continue to avail its financial generosity in times of need.
But Imran Khan has wittingly squandered Saudi Arabia’s goodwill by seeming to favour a developing power bloc in the Islamic world led by Turkey. This is significant because it comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is reeling from the same acute disease of stagflation – meaning it can’t help us financially – and its relations with Saudi Arabia are downright hostile following the Khashoggi affair. Mr Khan has naively expressed the view that the Saudis have “misunderstood” the motive of the budding alliance in Kuala Lumpur in the same way that they “misunderstood” his “sincere” attempt to try and bridge the Saudi-Iran divide some months earlier. His reason for edging closer to Iran and Turkey and Malaysia is that they support the Kashmir cause verbally while Saudi Arabia and its OIC bloc don’t. But state realism demands a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis of such foreign policy moves.
President Erdogan has shifted Turkey’s historical interest in Europe to the Middle East by cultivating economic and political interests in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia. It wants to become a regional power. This is evident in its policies relating to Libya, Sudan, Qatar, Egypt, etc., which are at odds with Saudi interests. The struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has also spilled into the GCC after the latter’s rift with Qatar. All this doesn’t bode well for the unity of the “Islamic” world. But in Pakistan’s case, annoying Saudi Arabia and America could be suicidal. For all intents and purposes, Islamabad is tied into the US-Saudi axis. It is dependent on Saudi money to prop up its forex reserves, it is dependent on Saudi oil on deferred payment terms, it is dependent on several billion dollars of remittances sent by Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia and it is wooing Saudi investments in Gwadar. Pakistan is also dependent on the US for support in mediating FATF requirements, helping to alleviate military tensions with India and nudging international finance institutions like the IMF and World Bank to assist its ailing economy.
Turkey and Malaysia, on the other hand, do not offer anything by way of a significant quid pro quo for Pakistan. Both countries’ private sectors are eyeing enhanced exports of goods and services to Pakistan and both leaders are posturing as global statesmen manipulating regional dynamics. Both seek to exploit Imran Khan’s naivete by pandering to his ego following his celebrated Kashmir speech at the UN last year.
Bilawal Bhutto is rightly demanding that Pakistan renegotiate terms with the IMF so that the masses are not further impoverished by rising prices, rising taxes and rising unemployment. Under the circumstances, state realism demands closer ties with America and Saudi Arabia so that economic and political concessions can flow from the former on FATF and IMF and from the latter on forex deposits, investment, remittances, oil facilities etc. Indeed, instead of positively resetting strained relations with America and consolidating traditional ties with Saudi Arabia, the Imran Khan regime is floundering dangerously on both fronts.
The US-Pak relationship has become one-dimensional. It is dependent on Pakistan’s ability to deliver American goals in Afghanistan. Under President Donald Trump, this is a precarious situation in an election year. If Pakistan is unable to bend the Taliban to accommodate US concerns, President Trump is quite capable of reverting to his capricious self when he accused Pakistan not so long ago of playing a double game and held out the threat of sanctions. Similarly, the Saudis under their Modern Prince, Muhammad bin Sultan, should not be taken for granted, let alone offended.