Pakistanis have become so accustomed to walks of shame that we surprise even our closest and dearest friends when we walk away, instead of getting in the wrong bed at the wrong time.
The GCC military operation in Yemen is the wrong bed at the wrong time. Ever since hostilities between Houthi rebels and government forces roped the Saudi-led coalition into action, the assumption in the GCC capitals was that Pakistan would be Pakistan: irrationally loyal friend, to the end. Here at home, with Operation Zarb-e-Azb still on, a complex war of attrition with many terrorist groups only beginning, and an opposition that keeps smelling blood, the assumption was that Pakistan had to focus on Pakistan: first, second and third.
What seemed to be common sense to many in Pakistan simply didn’t read the same way to the Saudis or the Emiratis. Reactions to the historic parliamentary resolution opting to stay out of Yemen clearly indicate that what seemed to be common sense in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, didn’t read at all that way here in Pakistan.
PM Sharif could have easily manoeuvred Pakistan into a domestic crisis by choosing to dive in all the way with the Saudi call to arms from day one. Instead he set out on a painstaking and intricate series of steps that have led to the difficult and correct decision of choosing not to commit troops to Yemen. So now what?
Well, now, in the great tradition of all heroes, our leader finds himself in the thankless position of having to follow up his courageous gambit with a series of even more difficult and complex decisions. Pakistani democracy has created an unprecedented opportunity for itself, no matter how much of it we may ascribe to GHQ. History may or may not remember PM Sharif for the grandness of the decision to not go to Yemen, but it will probably not forget or forgive him if he allows this opportunity go a-begging.
The opportunity? To transform both our relations with the GCC and wider Arab world, and more importantly, to transform our fiscal and economic decision-making culture. Here are the five things PM Sharif needs to get to work on, all urgent and inescapable, to make this decision count.
First, he needs to assuage the Emiratis and the Saudis. If we expect our Saudi and Emirati brothers to be understanding of Pakistan opting to not heed a call to arms from the GCC, then we can certainly find it in our hearts to be understanding of Anwar Gargash’s angry tweets. Over-the-top over-reactions to a single official’s tweets are going to make a bad situation worse.
Before the damage from irresponsible official and unofficial statements sets in, PM Sharif needs to send a delegation to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi (and Dubai) to explain the rationale for Pakistan’s inability to jump into the Yemen fray. These delegations should be led by people he trusts, but must also include in-service members of our foreign service, and members of the opposition. These delegations would have a single-point agenda: damage control.
Second, he needs to retool Pakistan’s approach to foreign policy, especially in the GCC and Middle East. The current organisation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaves Pakistan’s diplomats vastly under-resourced. To understand how poorly resourced the ministry is, we need no look further than the China desk, which was only recently beefed up and now equals the resources we dedicate to Afghanistan and the United States. In contrast, both the Europe and Middle East desks are dramatically understaffed. Investing immediately and in significant numbers in our desks will signal Pakistan’s seriousness in professionalising the work of diplomacy with the GCC states. Surely, both treasury and opposition leaders realise that the reason for the high expectations of Pakistan is the heavy personalisation of these relations. It is time to increase the role of professionally trained diplomats in managing affairs with the GCC.
Third, the PM needs to call an urgent meeting with Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and have a serious discussion about a quantum leap in revenue generation in Pakistan now. Not in 2019, or in 2024, but now. Not incrementally, but immediately. Not in the manner of bureaucrats and accountants that say, “Sir, this is not possible”, but in the manner of heroes, like wartime prime ministers, who say, “We are doing this, no matter what happens, we’re doing this, so make it happen”. The time for this quantum leap in Pakistan’s balance sheet is not next year. It is now.
The budget is due to be presented in about two months. Most of it has already been prepared. Whatever the bureaucratic machine has produced is the same rubbish that we’ve been producing for decades. It will not deliver this country from an existential dependence on external inflows that are more contingent on the charitable disposition of countries like the UAE than they are on the free and fair exchange of labour, goods and services. Pakistan won’t be able to absorb back the over one million Pakistanis in the Emirates because of one budget, but there is no roadmap for creating ten million jobs before the 2018 elections that does not include Pakistan’s ability to dramatically raise revenue generation.
This is simpler than the suits will make you believe. It requires taxing wealthy people. Most of them are either friends of the Sharifs, or friends of the people the Sharifs have to be friendly with to stay in office without the threat of the dharna growing into an unmanageable problem. It will also require engaging the PML-N’s core constituency of small and medium sized businesses in Punjab in a fiscal relationship with the Pakistani state. If we ever wondered why Nawaz Sharif needed people like Rana Sanaullah, Chaudhry Nisar, and Khawaja Asif then the next couple of months should put an end to the wonder. If the Nawazites can’t keep the N League political machine in place through a couple of rounds of FBR-sponsored booster-shots, maybe it isn’t worth all that after all?
Fourth, Pakistan needs to invest in a massive programme of long-term public diplomacy in the Arab world. For decades, Pakistan has basically survived the Arab street on the back of the original conception of Pakistan – something that was romanticised on the Arab street for decades. However, Pakistan has been around for over seventy years. Those on the Arab street that were vulnerable to such romances are either dead or too old to dance to Bollywood numbers.
In the interim, Pakistan got involved in all manner of controversial things assuming that Muslim ‘brotherhood’ would be enough to see it through. It isn’t. The Kuwaitis will never forget our wise decision to eschew participation in the first Gulf War. We don’t need to change our decisions. But we do need to deal with their fallout better than we have. Arab states behave in self-interest, and they do it brilliantly. They will respect a Pakistan that is acting in its self interest. But to get to that point, Pakistan will need to hold the GCC’s hand and explain who we are today, not who we were in 1924.
Five, Pakistan needs to robustly invest in a deeper, more dynamic relationship with Iran. This does not mean becoming closer to Iran, nor does it mean doing Iran’s bidding. It does mean getting close enough to Iran to be able to understand its behaviour, predict its moves, and do whatever we can to insure ourselves against Iran’s obviously grand designs.
Ultimately, the principal driver of our decisions must be our national interest. It is in Pakistan’s national interest to not only ignore incendiary remarks from GCC leaders, but also to invest the effort to explain ourselves to the GCC states better, and in turn, help them understand the Pakistan of 2015. This is the only way to ensure that our historic resolve to remain focused on Pakistan is not derailed by panic.