Friday June 09, 2023

Pakistan faces a region in flux

April 10, 2023

Pakistan's focus on domestic issues has left the surrounding region in a state of uncertainty. Of particular concern is India's monitoring of the recent Chinese-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to leverage its potential benefits. The regional press offers insight into India's response.

According to The Diplomat, a foreign policy focused digital platform, India's reaction to the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement has been subdued, which some experts find unsettling. However, Indian and Chinese interests in the Gulf have the potential to clash. Both the countries are major importers of Saudi oil, and China's oil imports from Iran are substantial. Iran has traditionally been a significant hydrocarbon supplier for India. A China-friendly Middle East would give Beijing leverage to manipulate India's interests, besides greatly boosting China's Belt and Road investments and its African ambitions.

Moreover, increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East may indirectly benefit Pakistan, both economically and strategically. Given the close relationship between Islamabad and Beijing, China may advocate for Pakistan's case and influence wealthy Gulf countries to help ease Pakistan's financial woes. In such a scenario, the Middle East under China's sphere of influence may fundamentally undermine India's commercial and security interests.

Despite all this, the current developments may create an opportunity for India to project itself as a more effective alternative to China, as per The Diplomat.

According to FP Magazine, while a successful Iran-Saudi Arabia deal may have benefits for India and Pakistan, it is important not to overstate them. Both the countries will likely remain cautious in their dealings with Iran due to the United States' stance on the matter. The US does not want its partners doing business with Tehran, and India, in particular, has little incentive to engage more with a core US rival and risk angering Washington.

However, The MINT reports that the Iran-Saudi reconciliation could improve India's ability to handle relations with Iran, which was not pleased with India's growing engagement with Saudis and UAE. Positive relations with Iran are crucial for India's efforts to establish direct land connectivity with the Central Asian region.

Meanwhile, The Indian Express highlights how China has successfully utilised its ties with Iran facing domestic pressure, sanctions and deteriorating relations with Europe over its military support to Russia. This China-brokered agreement demonstrates how Beijing has transformed its economic influence in West Asia into diplomatic power, and India must now confront this new reality.

A renowned writer for FP Magazine and a US-based South Asian Think Tank, Michael Kugelman, suggests the recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement could potentially unlock new opportunities for India and Pakistan to prioritise key economic projects with Iran.

These projects include development of the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which India envisions as a crucial part of a connectivity corridor that will eventually extend to Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi has already pledged assistance towards this project. Additionally, the completion of a partially constructed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline could provide Pakistan with a much-needed energy security boost.

Kugelman's insights highlight the potential benefits of improved relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, not just for the two countries themselves, but for the wider region.

By fostering greater economic cooperation and connectivity, these projects could help promote stability and prosperity in South Asia and beyond.

As such, it is important for policymakers to consider the potential opportunities that may arise from this rapprochement and to work towards realising them.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani media and policymaking establishment seem to be preoccupied with domestic issues, despite the fact the region is presenting new opportunities to capitalise on. The reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a prime example of such an opportunity for Islamabad.

However, in order to take advantage of this new regional realignment, Pakistan must prioritise and strategise its foreign policy.

In conclusion, Pakistan's internal issues have had a ripple effect on the surrounding region, with India closely monitoring the Iran-Saudi reconciliation brokered by China.

While the reconciliation may provide an opportunity for improved relations with Iran, India must also contend with China's growing diplomatic influence in the region. Pakistan can position itself as a key player in the new regional realignment only by prioritising this opportunity and formulating a comprehensive strategy in its foreign policy direction.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a Balochistan politician and a former media and strategic communications advisor to GOB. He tweets @jan_Achakzai