ISLAMABAD: Foreign Office spokesperson Dr. Mohammad Faisal dismissed on Saturday the impression that Pakistan's bilateral relationship with the Middle East was at the cost of the country's ties with the United States.
The government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has used its first four months in office to focus on strengthening its economic and security relationship with Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Middle East's embrace of Pakistan comes at a time when relations between the United States and its historically ally are unraveling, former diplomats and foreign affairs analysts said, adding that Pakistan had thus turned its attention to earning the trust and confidence of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. and building a close strategic relationship.
But the foreign office spokesman said Pakistan's ties with Middle Eastern countries were "not at the cost of our bilateral relationship with any other country.”
"Pakistan is actively engaged with the U.S. as well, and as a result of this U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Islamabad and U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has visited Pakistan three times," Faisal told Arab News. “The government believes in productive and proactive diplomacy and this is what we have done in the last four months."
But analysts say Pakistan has turned to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. as tensions with the U.S. rise over the fate of Afghanistan and attempts to forge a negotiated settlement to a 17-year-long war.
“Saudi Arabia and UAE are time-tested and all weather friends of Pakistan and it is quite natural for Pakistan to warm up its relationship with these countries at a time of ever deteriorating diplomatic relations with the United States,” said Tahir Malik, an international affairs professor at NUML University in Islamabad.
He said it was imperative for Pakistan to forge close ties with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. “to stay relevant in the international community.”
After being elected as premier in August, Khan chose Saudi Arabia for his maiden foreign trip in September where he held meetings with King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. He also travelled to the U.A.E soon after.
Both trips bore dividends: Saudi Arabia agreed to give Pakistan $3 billion in foreign currency support for a year and a further loan worth up to $3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports to help stave off a current account crisis. The U.A.E. has offered an additional $3 billion aid.
“I don’t think this kind of clarity and a clear appreciation of our close historic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. was demonstrated by previous governments in Pakistan,” political science professor Rasul Bukhsh Rais told Arab News.
He said the prime minister returned from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. with “incredible support at a very difficult hour in Pakistan’s history" marked by a new transition to democracy, a deteriorating economy, a new party [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] in power, and a new leader in the figure of cricket-legend-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Talking about future prospects for cooperation, he said Pakistan needed to explore trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, lure investors by offering special incentives, and in particular explore more opportunities to increase the export of agricultural produce.
According to the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, around four million Pakistanis are living and working in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
Former diplomat Javed Hafeez, who is an expert on the Middle East, said the bilateral relationship had been boosted by the credibility and honesty of the new Imran Khan government, which had appealed to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. He added that Pakistan remained committed to protecting the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia in case of any foreign aggression.