August 21, 2018
Pakistanis are celebrating Eid and a new prime minister. Imran Khan was a famous cricketer and a well-liked figure, but politics requires different skills than sport.
Religion is a winning game for some, and here he has been trying to play it, despite his liberal and secular background. In public speeches, he attacks the West and the Western model, while he has two sons from his marriage to his British Jewish former wife. Before his swearing-in ceremony, Khan asked his two sons not to attend out of fear for their lives. Indeed, everything in his first career was Western, as he played for English teams and graduated from Oxford University.
Like a number of Third World leaders, his supporters also promote popular news and images about him. Furthermore, he canceled the lavish lunch at the inauguration ceremony, saying he wanted to help reduce the budget deficit, and promised to sell the state cars of government officials. Such an image gives a positive impression that is commensurate with his electoral promises, and contrasts with the image of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption.
Today, Pakistan remains an important country. It is the second most populous Muslim country after Indonesia, a nuclear power, and possesses the eighth largest army in the world. Pakistan is also important in regional calculations, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fiercely competing to win it over. Globally, too, Pakistan has been an object of ongoing competition between China and the US.
Although there has been recurrent talk of a close relationship between Khan and Iran, based on his previous statements, we cannot judge politicians out of power. Whatever is said, Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states remains deep and firm, regardless of who governs it. Let us not forget that the same thing was said about the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but she proved that she never sided with Iran. Saudi Arabia, besides being the heart of the Muslim world, has the largest Pakistani community abroad, and its trade balance with it is greater.
Moreover, we should not forget that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan share a special relationship with the US; while the relationship with Iran is no longer an option, because the PM cannot override US sanctions.
Regardless of the internal considerations that were pushing the new PM to give such statements, it is hoped that the relationship with Pakistan will be further developed, and given a greater role in resolving regional issues, such as Afghanistan, and putting pressure to bear on Iran to stop its interference in Pakistan itself, as well as in the region.
The constant competition over the state’s leadership has led most competing leaders either to prison or the grave. This factor undoubtedly weakened Pakistan’s status abroad, preoccupied it internally, and exhausted it economically.
Khan, coming from a different background to the former prime ministers, has an opportunity to develop his country’s position in the Gulf; improve its balance of payments and economy by implementing a genuine reform program in cooperation with countries like his allies in the Gulf; and engage in mutually beneficial and sustainable projects.
In fact, we are not worried about Iran now. It cannot even get enough gasoline for its markets, despite being an oil producer. Tehran’s rulers today have enough problems to keep them busy, and the future looks even graver. In these changing circumstances, Pakistan has to play a more important role, as it is already a major regional player and must double the pressure on Iran to change its foreign policy. This will enhance Pakistan’s role in the Middle East and South Asia; but, if it does not, it will not be able to play the opposite role.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed