Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is set to visit Saudi Arabia in an effort to end the recent tiff between the partner countries. Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had brought disagreements between Riyadh and Islamabad out in the open by issuing an ultimatum demanding the Saudis call a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on the Kashmir issue.
Pakistan has been dependent on Saudi Arabia for years, seeking economic bailouts and jobs for unskilled workers whose remittances help Islamabad’s perennial balance of payments difficulties. But now, miffed Saudis are asking for the immediate return of short-term loans and have dragged their feet over completing an oil deal that ensures flow of oil to Pakistan on concessional terms.
General Bajwa’s intervention to stop the drift in ties affirms the realisation that Pakistan simply can’t afford to alienate the Saudis. Why, then, did Qureshi engage in anti-Saudi rhetoric that was unsustainable? To understand that requires an examination of the overly simplistic populism of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his backers, and the fantasy of many Pakistanis about an altered global order, with Pakistan at its centre.
Another Great Game
For decades, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, retired Pakistani generals and civilian writers on strategic issues have spoken about a ‘new Great Game’ in South and Central Asia that would make Pakistan a geopolitical ‘pivot’.
This was an adaptation of British geographer Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory, submitted in 1904 when Pakistan did not exist, the United States was not yet a superpower, and airpower or the military applications of satellite and cyber technologies could not be imagined.
Pakistan’s pre-9/11 involvement in Afghanistan, its support for jihadi militants as an instrument of asymmetric warfare, and its close ties with China were all explained as part of the grand strategy to capitalise on Pakistan’s strategic location and make it a bigger player on the world stage.
Some Americans dismissed it as ‘a grand illusion’, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which forced Pakistan to seek an alliance with the United States once again. But the theory of Pakistan’s inevitable greatness, notwithstanding its economic problems and its constant dependence on outside powers, has persisted among Pakistanis.
Pakistan at the centre
The impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the prospect of a return to power of the Taliban, and the commitment of an economically stronger China, have all played a role in cementing the view that Pakistan would emerge as a key player in a new global order.
According to this outlook, Pakistan benefits from the impending decline of the United States and the rise of China as a global superpower. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might add to Pakistan’s debt but it also attaches Pakistan and China at the hip. And the two countries share hostility towards India, a country the US and other Western nations see as an ally in their imminent confrontation with an aggressive, totalitarian China.
Believers in Pakistan’s inevitable strategic salience expect that after Afghanistan, the US will also withdraw gradually from the Middle East. In their imagination, Pakistan would then be China’s link to the Middle East, making it Beijing’s go-to satrap in tapping Middle East oil and securing Gulf shipping lanes.
The hope is that Pakistan can then fulfil its old dreams of exercising paramountcy over Afghanistan, resolving disputes with India (including Kashmir) on its terms, and finding its rightful place as the Muslim world’s natural leader and sole nuclear weapons power.
Such fanciful thinking is championed by several influential voices, including Prime Minister Imran Khan and his followers. Their allies in Pakistan’s deep state and permanent establishment see value in these ideas for building a more positive national narrative. But they are probably a little more pragmatic in understanding the gap between hopes and reality.
A new Ertugrul
These days, Pakistan’s television commentators frequently talk about the country’s forthcoming grand role in a China-Russia-Turkey-Iran-Pakistan alliance that is destined to defeat the US-Israel-India partnership. Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan has encouraged discussions about this five-country alliance, ignoring the various issues that might hinder cooperation among this diverse grouping.
It is not unusual to read in a Pakistani newspaper about the post-Covid world order that would be based on the dreams of Pakistani Islamo-nationalists.
Pakistan has long embraced pan-Islamism, but it was more a device to address the identity crisis of a nation that was carved out only 73 years ago and conceived just shortly before that. Most Pakistani leaders understood the limits of Islamic unity and allied with the West for economic and security reasons. But Imran Khan seems to believe his own rhetoric.
The cricketer-turned-politician has encouraged Pakistanis to watch a Turkish drama serial Ertugrul, supposedly based on the life of the father of the Ottoman dynasty’s founder, Osman.
Historic records about Ertugrul are scant but the show’s producers and story writers have stretched the few sketchy historic references into a 150-episode period drama.
The show portrays its hero as a great Muslim warrior who overcomes external enemies and domestic traitors to emerge victorious in an early phase of what Erdogan once described as the ongoing “struggle between the crescent and the cross.”
It seems that Imran Khan shares Erdogan’s vision, with the additional twist of putting Pakistan in a more important role in bringing down the West in addition to winning its own battles against Hindu India.
A make-believe world
No one should be fooled by Imran Khan’s external Westernisation to think that his description in parliament of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a ‘martyr’ was a slip of tongue. It reflects a worldview that has significant support among Pakistanis.
In this backdrop, Imran Khan and his followers do not see Saudi Arabia’s current leader crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as an ally in their Islamist Neo-Ottoman fantasy world, which they hope to create with China’s help.
The Saudis now oppose the Islamist ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, maintain good relations with India, and are not willing to engage in knee-jerk opposition of Israel. That upsets Imran Khan as much as it offends Erdogan.
Khan engaged with the Kingdom because of Pakistan’s transactional needs, just as he temporarily took off his anti-American cloak to befriend President Donald Trump. But in his heart, and that of most of his supporters, lies the desire for a make-believe global order in which China dominates the world but allows Muslims to remain ascendant in their heartland.
The Uyghurs of China may have a thing or two to teach Pakistan’s armchair jihadis about China’s tolerance for Islam and Muslims. But for now, Khan’s eyes are closed and his foreign minister’s grandiloquence at its peak.
Meanwhile, reality requires that General Bajwa continue to engage in damage control missions like the one he is undertaking to Riyadh now.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,’ ‘India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’ Views are personal.