Gen Bajwa reshaping relations with Middle East

February 23,2019

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LONDON: A leading Middle Eastern publication has said that Pakistan's relationship with the UAE and Saudi Arabia is being reshaped by its army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The Middle East Eye wrote in a detailed analysis that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa has “quietly reset the army’s relations with the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia and the UAE”.

Written by Kamal Alam, the Visiting Fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and lecturer at several military staff colleges, the analysis noted that the recently concluded trip of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is being seen as a landmark visit with strategic implications not just for their bilateral relationship but also for Pakistan’s role in the Middle East because General Bajwa has made Pakistan a strategic and equal partner, rather than a proxy in a Middle East conflict.

The analysis said that while the media headlines have focused on Imran Khan’s public embrace of Mohammed Bin Sulman, on the sidelines, the man who has reset the relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - and Pakistan and the UAE - has been Bajwa.

“For decades, analysts and policymakers have written about the Saudi role in Pakistan, with a focus on their military partnership. The former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, described their bilateral relationship as likely being one of the closest in the world “without any official treaty”.

The piece noted that in the past military and civilian leaders have benefited from Saudi largesse and received personal favours but under Bajwa that’s not the case anymore.

“Former president Pervez Musharraf admitted to receiving personal favours and financial rewards, and the Saudis have long been dismissive about the corruption of Pakistani leaders. It is for this reason that the Saudis have always preferred military rule in Pakistan, while former generals have allegedly profited personally, rather than helping Pakistan’s cause. Musharraf has said that under Saudi pressure, he let former prime minister Nawaz Sharif go, despite court action and question marks over his rule. The appointment of former army chief General Raheel Sharif as head of the Saudi-funded “Muslim Nato” raised many eyebrows in Pakistan, given the biased nature of the alliance and the absence of key Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Algeria and Iraq.”

It said, “Never before have the Saudis invested so heavily in Pakistan at the state level, without benefiting a specific politician or a general. However never Bajwa is putting the state before individual and hence winning admiration amongst Arab leaders”

The analysis argued that Pakistani-Saudi ties have been gradually moving out of the personal domain and into the strategic and “one of the key reasons for this strategic push has been the defence diplomacy of Javed Bajwa”.

It said that till a few years ago, relations among Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE were bad over Yemen to the extent that the UAE went so far as to say Pakistan would pay a “heavy price” for its “ambiguous stand” and led a media campaign against Pakistan when Islamabad voted in favour of Turkey for Expo 2020.

“In the years before Bajwa came to office in November 2016, the UAE had drifted closer to India, even sending its troops to take part in an Indian military parade. The logic in the UAE and Saudi Arabia was that “we pay the Pakistanis, so we should get support”. This reflected decades of Pakistani subservience to Saudi rulers, which failed to put the interests of the state first. In 2015, Saudi officials said that Pakistan failed to provide an adequate rationale for its Yemen decision. Bajwa subsequently embarked on a frantic diplomacy mission, explaining to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Pakistan stood ready to help, but had strategic constraints.

“He said that while Pakistan would aid the two Gulf countries in defence, it would not take sides in the proxy war with Iran or the Qatar blockade.

“Under Bajwa, Qatar’s emir publicly thanked the Pakistan Army for strengthening the Qatari military and playing a positive role in regional issues. The emir was clearly talking about the Saudi-led blockade, as well as bilateral cooperation in Afghan peace talks.

“In addition to taking on the role of mentor for several Gulf armies, Bajwa became the first Pakistan Army chief in decades to make an official visit to Iran, where he called for strategic defence ties. In diplomatic and military circles behind the scenes, and according to my sources, Bajwa has said that MBS needs time, and that he, Bajwa, would play a role in reducing Gulf tensions. They are already bearing fruit with the Qatari Army currently on exercise in Saudi Arabia amidst a major sign things between Doha & Riyadh are slowly improving. The Pakistan Army remains the only neutral actor with heavy mentoring duties in both Qatar and Saudi and able to bridge the gap. Bajwa is shunning the limelight and instead focusing on getting the job done.”


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