PM Khan’s Handicapped Foreign Policy Ambitions

In his sixth visit since assuming office less than two years ago, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Riyadh last week to meet with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to “discuss recent developments in the regional context.”

The meeting comes on the heels of the upcoming Kuala Lumpur Summit – an initiative led by the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The summit seeks to rival the almost-defunct Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and aims to bring together the leaders of Indonesia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia and counter the anti-Islam narrative around the world.

Mahathir, while announcing the summit claimed to create a united Islamic forum to bring the plight of Muslims especially Kashmiris, Uighurs and the Rohingyas to the forefront and condemn the leaders responsible for these atrocities.

The summit, scheduled between Dec 18-21, plans to build a parallel leadership forum in the Islamic world minus the Saudi Arabia and the UAE to fill the leadership vacuum, has laid bare the simmering rift within the Islamic countries.

The attendees, especially Qatar, Iran and Turkey have publicly criticized Saudi Arabia for its indifference towards the plight of Muslims across the world. Their presence at the summit has irked the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Pakistan has caught itself in the crosshairs.

Reports claim that MBS has raised his displeasure over PM Khan’s acceptance to attend the summit. PM Khan, in a bid to persuade MBS, sent his Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to Riyadh. But Qureshi failed to convince the Saudi prince. After which, Khan himself flew to Riyadh on Saturday to meet the Crown Prince where he discussed the situation.

But media reports surrounding the meeting suggest that the Saudi leadership communicated their displeasure to Khan’s over his decision to participate in the meeting.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be allies but the two are not equal. Pakistan does not have the diplomatic bravado to challenge Saudi Arabia as it has borrowed more than $6 billion from the country and has currently availed deferred oil purchase facility as well. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has also made investments into the country’s religious institutions and holds a certain degree of sway over Pakistan’s religious affairs.

But Pakistan under Imran Khan has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy ambitions and has tried to maintain a degree of neutrality vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Khan recently visited both Tehran and Riyadh to establish a line of communication between the two arch-rivals who were on a brink of an all-out war.

But as Khan was meeting with Crown Prince MbS, Pakistan’s Army Chief was in Abu Dhabi to meet UAE’s Crown Prince Sheikh Zayed. The official announcement following the meeting did not mention the summit but sources privy to the information have claimed that the chief was there to convince the prince who has also shown his displeasure at the Kuala Lumpur initiative.

Although an official statement has not been released yet, certain Pakistani media outlets have claimed that Khan has also decided to abstain from participating in the moot.

The visit by both Khan and Bajwa amplified the degree of Saudi Arabia’s influence on Islamabad in its foreign policy ambitions, but more importantly, it showed Pakistan’s handicapped ability to pursue foreign relations given its reliance on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for financial needs.