The two day workshop held in Pakistan focused on the emerging trends in strategic relations between Pakistan and the Gulf States. The workshop was divided into three sessions focusing on the political, economic and security aspects of the long standing and deep-rooted relations between Pakistan and the Gulf region. The workshop brought together eminent speakers and analysts from the Gulf States as well as Pakistan and this enabled fruitful discussions both during and after each session. Many misperceptions were brought to the forefront and dealt with, including issues of misperception relating to expatriate workers from Pakistan as well as the monopolization of certain key sectors like IT and media by other states besides the preferential treatment being meted to them in the Gulf.
Pakistan sees itself as an extension of the Middle East and Gulf States and is deeply concerned about the issues that are currently of grave concern to the Gulf. Some major issues that were extensively discussed were the continued repression in and occupation of Palestine, the crisis in Iraq that has spiralled towards sectarian strife and civil war, the regional repercussions of the war on terror, and the fallout of the US policies and intervention in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the looming crisis in Iran that threatens to escalate into a military confrontation. The need to strengthen the strategic partnership to collectively resolve political problems facing the region and address other vital issues such as poverty, water scarcity, energy shortages, global warming, and natural disasters was discussed by both sides.
Pakistan, in the face of the changing geo strategic environment, would have to reappraise and evolve a package of political, economic, security and cultural policies to safeguard its interests in the Gulf region. These policies would have to aim at strengthening peace and stability in the region, extending cooperation to check sectarian strife, developing close cooperation in the security field and in the fight against terrorism, enhancing Pakistan’s competitiveness in the Gulf markets and responding in a pro-active fashion to the process of economic integration taking place in the GCC. It was felt that the effort today is to exploit political and sectarian differences in the Muslim states and to bring about conflicts such as in Palestine. Pakistan appreciates the efforts of Saudi Arabia to bridge the sectarian divide and bring together a unity government in Palestine. The Palestine issue is one that is keenly felt in Pakistan where the general perception is that the US missed a big opportunity by not taking up the King Abdullah Peace Plan for a two state solution for Palestine. The fact that the US instead of settling and stabilizing Afghanistan in 2002 shifted its focus towards the invasion of Iraq has led to the current crisis in both states. The security crisis in Afghanistan is of grave import to Pakistan that faces a multitude of problems at present including an ongoing conflict in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the genesis and spread of suicide bombings, the security threat posed by nearly 3 million Afghan refugees and targeting of its political and military leadership by terrorist networks. A significant point that was noted by the Gulf participants was that Pakistan ought to be actively involved by the international community in bringing about stability within Afghanistan.
The concern expressed was that the war on terror was being increasingly described as a war against Islam turning it into a civilization conflict. A point reiterated throughout discussion was that certain terrorist groups having affiliations with Islam were using terror as an effective instrument to gain their political objectives. However this does not justify wide scale vilification against the entire Muslim world. In response what Pakistan and Gulf States could do was to contribute collectively to a better understanding of moderate Islam and devise a comprehensive curriculum to deal with issues of extremism. This extremist trend has also been exacerbated by the western policies that have begun to marginalize mainstream Muslims. The fact that the US was now trying to make expedient use of “Islamic terrorism” as an instrument of policy besides the continuous abuse of their religion were among the major reasons Muslims felt victimized.
To enhance the existing cooperation on counter terrorism, steps should be taken to facilitate direct, one to one cooperation between the states, develop a legal framework and establish a direct link between the intelligence communities of both Pakistan and the Gulf States. Establishment of a permanent committee on counter terrorism under the GCC auspices would be crucial for the free exchange of information regarding terrorist activities as well as cooperation in monitoring them. Such exchange of information is necessitated by the fact that approx 1.7 million Pakistanis are at present working in the Gulf and that this group could be infiltrated and exploited by terrorist organizations.
The participants from the Gulf felt that Pakistan should understand that Iran was perceived as a major threat within the Gulf and hoped that Pakistan should play a stronger role in pressing Iran to not pursue a militarized nuclear program. Pakistan’s position was clear that there should be a Middle East nuclear free zone which included both Iran and Israel. However it feels that the Iranians have to address the security concerns of the Gulf States and the region and lower their belligerent rhetoric. The danger was in allowing the crisis to escalate into a military confrontation that will be highly destabilizing in a region that already faces many such crises in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Pakistan itself has concerns about the Iranian problem and is hoping that the bridges will be built in the GCC-Iran relationship. Another major apprehension on the Pakistan side was the heavy US military presence in the Gulf within close proximity and easy reach to Pakistan’s commercial shipping lines. It was felt that there was an immediate need to initiate a strategic dialogue between regional states whereby increased communication with Iran should be established. In case of conflict Pakistan would act as a mediator with both the Gulf States and Iran and will try its best to resolve the crisis. It was hoped that such an eventuality might be averted and there should be an effort to bring Iran back into the mainstream of the international community rather than isolating it further.
An interesting proposition that was put forward in regard to the security concerns in the region was that a Regional Security Architecture be established where Pakistan could play an effective role in the collective security of the region, including maritime security. This would enable the regional states to be included in a broad framework with a checklist of issues that need urgent resolutions, starting with Iraq. It may also look at the creation of an Islamic Peacekeeping force under US auspices including troops from those countries that do not have direct borders with Iraq. The security architecture may also provide a mechanism for the resolution of any regional disputes and deal with the presence of extra regional powers in the region that are perceived by some as support and some as a threat by minimizing the need for such powers in the region.
Pakistan and Gulf states have had a long history of cooperation in the military sphere in four different areas; training, intelligence sharing and exchange, maintenance of weapons systems and military hardware, and use of forces where Pakistan has sent its troops to the Gulf to help in conflict situations on several occasions. However it is felt that this cooperation that could have been much stronger has lessened over time due to the following factor: Pakistan’s lack of a clear cut military policy or concrete agreements on the military side has led to a vacuum that is now being used by other countries and is responsible for it losing ground with the Gulf States.
Another proposal that was put forward was for a collective defense body based on the OSCE model for the Gulf region. Though such a body would not have a force at its command and only a mandate to intervene in member countries’ internal affairs if these had the potential to threaten regional stability, it would be well suited to mediate between warring factions in Iraq and create a regional consensus on Iran’s nuclear program as well on its perceived expanding influence. Pakistan’s sincerity towards the Gulf States has been proven over time; it could continue to play a supporting role being a populous country in geographical proximity to the Gulf region. With a reasonably developed defense infrastructure and some critical R & D projects it could offer a good deal besides the best training facilities.
In terms of soft security issues such as narcotics and human trafficking, there is a marked need to develop stronger regional cooperation to counter the two illicit organized crime activities. Afghanistan’s proximity to the Gulf States and Pakistan, besides Iran being used as one of the main conduits for narcotics trafficking, has had a major impact in the Gulf region. A growing drug abuse problem, sharp increase in transit trafficking and related security problems together have become a major security threat. Besides narcotics, human trafficking has seen a big increase in the region. For many low income and unemployed groups in Pakistan, the Gulf is considered a key destination for migration. Criminal syndicates present in Pakistan and the Middle East facilitate this illegal smuggling that is not just confined to male labor force but also to women and children. Oman is a chief transit zone for such illegal immigrants who are then trafficked across the Gulf States and onwards to Europe. It was noted that a new phenomenon has emerged where human smugglers have moved their hub from Pakistan to Dubai for onwards destinations to Africa and Europe. Pakistan is looking at regional and international partnerships to counter and prevent human trafficking. Currently it has partnerships with UAE and Oman besides UK, and it is looking to further establish a specific group partnership with UAE, Oman, Iran and Afghanistan.
As a result of the strict measures taken by some Gulf States, trafficking in children to be used as camel jockeys has been successfully eliminated. It is hoped that measures such as protecting workers’ rights and preventing them from trafficking situations, besides the passing of anti human trafficking laws in UAE to be followed by other Gulf states will further improve the situation.
In the economic sphere, despite large scale investments by the Gulf States in Pakistan there is a sense of complacency that governs the economic relationship between Pakistan and the Gulf States. It is felt that much more progress could be made because of the commonalities the states share. Similar agreements or initiatives undertaken with other countries for example some South American countries including Brazil, China and Japan, have progressed much quicker due to the persistent efforts by those states as well as the constant engagement between the business communities.
In this regard, Pakistan needs to do a lot because firstly, it faces increased competition in the era of globalization and needs to improve its economic efficiency. The GCC states are undergoing a process of economic integration with the removal of tariff barriers in trade among member states and there are plans to move towards economic union.
Pakistan should take advantage of the GCC integration which could be very beneficial to it. The GCC offers a single market with common laws and a unified procedure for import and export will make it easier for Pakistani companies to operate within GCC. Setting up an industrial unit or factory in any one GCC state could bring large benefits for Pakistani businesses. Being treated as a national product, the goods will enjoy free movement across the borders and be exempt from tariff. Under the foreign liberal investment laws in the GCC, Pakistani companies could avail of financing from government and even private financial capitol which though more expensive is abundantly available. Besides these advantages, the GCC offers a much more liberal business environment than many other states. Another good economic investment opportunity would be to set up businesses or make investments in the financial, IT or industrial sectors outside the GCC that will complement businesses inside the region. Though ample opportunities exist they need to be activated by exchange visits of trade and business delegations and holding regular trade exhibits, seminars and discussions.
As for Gulf investments in Pakistan there are vast areas of cooperation in sectors such as energy and minerals. Pakistan has 16 major minerals in the world and there is vast untapped potential in the energy sector. To initiate and facilitate such cooperation it was proposed that an Arab-Pakistan Energy & Mineral Infrastructure Development Fund be created. The objective of the fund would be to achieve long term capital appreciation for investment in energy and mineral projects and infrastructure related companies in the Muslim world. Other areas for cooperation could include petrochemical development, strategic storage, environmental services, waste management, water storage and treatment, water transportation and distribution, power generation, transmission and distribution related services, transportation in inter urban areas and shipping.
As regards the labor market, though Pakistan continues to send large numbers of its labor force to the Gulf States – for example 180,000 people were sent in 2006 – there is a difference in the quality of manpower in terms of their skills and qualifications. As this labor force is a valuable source of remittances, Pakistan should sit down with the Gulf States and try to develop a strategy that looks into the number of complementarities existing between the two. There is a need to explore these to open further channels of manpower resources development and use in development projects in the Gulf States.
The workshop concluded with both sides having agreed on further institutional collaboration by holding meetings and conducting research on key issues of concern. The need to evolve a collective regional mechanism where security and defense issues are jointly addressed was spelt out. Developing the capacity to deal effectively with security concerns of terrorism, narcotics and human trafficking, based on the existing strong relations between the two regional partners was an integral step towards strengthening those ties and taking them to another level. It was agreed on both sides that the complacency in economic relations must be done away with and both sides should facilitate a more pro active approach in terms of opening channels of investment and economic development. Further cooperation in the key areas of energy and mineral development, agriculture production and distribution, the development of Gwadar port as the energy and trade hub for Gulf products to China and Central Asia were also highlighted. More importantly, both sides felt the need to establish a regional security architecture that will, in the long term, minimize the need for outside military presence in the region. This is something the leadership in both Pakistan and the Gulf States could possibly explore as a viable supporting security mechanism could work well for the regional states. It was hoped that the discussions would lead to holding more such seminars where frank and open discussions on common concerns could help resolve differences besides promoting people to people contact on the academia and intelligentsia level.