PM Imran Khan made headlines recently when he revealed Islamabad has been under pressure from some “friendly” nations to recognize Israel.
Although he stopped short of naming them, many believe he was referring to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Leave this [question]. There are things we cannot say. We have good relations with them,” Khan told the interviewer.
The UAE and Bahrain recently established diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. Some other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also weighing options to normalize relations.
“Let us stand on our own feet in terms of the economy, then you may ask these questions,” PM added. He was referring to Islamabad’s longstanding economic dependence on the oil-rich Gulf states.
Some local and international media took PM as hinting at the US, a contention quickly rejected by Islamabad.
Terming the reports “fabricated,” a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said PM was “misquoted”. He added there was no such pressure on Islamabad to recognize Tel Aviv.
PM clearly articulated Pakistan’s position that unless a just settlement of the Palestine issue was found, Pakistan could not recognize Israel. However, Islamabad is abuzz with rumors about a possible Saudi role.
Saudi Arabia has not yet recognized Israel. It is widely believed that the UAE and Bahrain could not have crossed the “red line” without Riyadh’s approval.
No official confirmation
Mohammad Ali Siddiqi is a Karachi-based analyst. He often writes on the Middle East. He does not eliminate the possibility of Riyadh putting pressure on Islamabad to normalize relations with Tel Aviv.
“As for Saudi pressure, yes, it cannot be ruled out,” Siddiqi told Anadolu Agency, saying if Pakistan recognizes the Jewish state, credit will go to Riyadh.
“The MBS could be quite calculating,” he said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “If one were to believe what [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, MBS threatened to expel all Pakistani workers in the kingdom if Imran Khan attended the Kuala Lumpur Summit last December.”
According to Siddiqi, Pakistani officials, even former officials, however, would not confirm or deny if there is any pressure on Pakistan to recognize Israel.
But if countries are exerting pressure, is Saudi Arabia among them?
No Saudi pressure
Lt. Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, said Riyadh is not persuading Pakistan to recognize Israel.
“There could be a little Saudi role to woo Pakistan in this regard, but by and large, I don’t think there is any pressure,” said Masood, who served in the Pakistani army till 1990.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Shahid Amin shared a similar opinion. “Why would Saudi Arabia do that… after the Foreign Ministry’s clarification, it should be cleared. Pakistan does not fit in this picture,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia spearheads the Muslim world, its recognition will invite too many problems for itself,” he explained.
“Saudi Arabia commands a unique position in the Islamic fraternity. Its kings call themselves servants of the two holy places [of Mecca and Medina]. For that reason, it cannot afford to shock the Muslim world to take a decision that many Muslims could regard as a betrayal of not just the Palestinian cause but of the Islamic cause.”
Masood, however, said it is just a matter of time that the kingdom follows in the footsteps of UAE and Bahrain, saying that it let both the countries get on with it to test the waters. “This was to prepare the Saudi public to digest the huge move.”
Islamabad not to bow to pressure
But even if there is pressure, Pakistan will not bow to that, according to Masood.
“Imran Khan fully understands that Pakistanis will never accept any decision which aims to recognize or normalize ties with Israel. That’s what he has made it clear that time and again,” he said. “Saudi Arabia too knows this very well.”
Supporting his view, Siddiqi said “a hasty recognition could unleash a wave of extremist backlash, which the weak and beleaguered Imran Khan government cannot afford.”
Pakistan’s relationships with Gulf states have a strong economic basis. Huge amounts of remittances are sent by expatriate Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, among others.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE jointly host over three million Pakistanis.
Some 1.9 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia. It tops the list of countries with the highest amount of remittances sent to Pakistan – over $4.5 billion annually. The UAE follows it with over $3.47 billion, according to Pakistan’s central bank.
The kingdom and the emirates are also Pakistan’s largest regional trading partners. They have together exported goods and services, mainly crude oil, worth over $7 billion to Pakistan in the current fiscal year.
Islamabad’s exports to these countries stood at $852 million and $300 million, respectively, in 2019/2020.
In recent years, however, Pakistan’s ties with the traditional Gulf allies have taken a toll due to its “neutrality” on several issues. This included the war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led Arab alliance.
Riyadh also seems irked by criticism from Islamabad that it has been lukewarm on the long-standing Kashmir dispute.
What do you think of this story? Let us know in the comments section below.