The Pakistani prime minister made headlines when he revealed that Islamabad has been under pressure from some “friendly” nations to recognize Israel.
Although he stopped short of naming them despite being repeatedly asked whether they were Muslim or non-Muslim countries, many believe Imran Khan 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, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain recently established diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. Some other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also weighing options to normalize relations.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in the central city of Multan that his visit to the UAE, which was seen by many as crucial amid rumours that Islamabad had secretly sent a messenger to Israel.
Islamabad denied the reports, which appeared mainly in the Israeli media.
Responding to questions regarding reports about alleged pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states for recognition of Israel, Qureshi said he explained to his UAE counterpart the “depth of emotions and feelings Pakistanis have about Palestine and Kashmir”.
“Let us stand on our own feet in terms of the economy, then you may ask these questions,” Khan further said, referring to Islamabad’s longstanding economic dependence on the oil-rich Gulf states.
Some local and international media took Khan as hinting at the US, Pakistan’s longtime ally in the so-called war against terrorism, a contention quickly rejected by Islamabad.
While 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, a Karachi-based analyst who often writes on the Middle East, 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 Pakistani media, 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.”
Pakistan refused to attend the summit at the eleventh hour reportedly due to pressure from Saudi Arabia, which saw the forum as an alternative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
According to Siddiqi, Pakistani officials, even former officials, however, would not confirm or deny if there is any pressure on Pakistan to recognize Israel.
Echoing Amin’s views, Siddiqi said: “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, Morocco, Sudan 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.”
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.
Saudi Arabia, where 1.9 million Pakistanis reside, tops the list of countries with the highest amount of remittances sent to Pakistan — over $4.5 billion annually — followed by the UAE with over $3.47 billion, according to Pakistan’s central bank.
The kingdom and the emirates are also Pakistan’s largest regional trading partners, which 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, including 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.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry, in a statement on Sunday, said Qureshi also raised the issue of visa restrictions on Pakistani nationals in the meeting with his UAE counterpart.
He said Qureshi was assured the visa restrictions were “temporary” and were imposed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, the UAE stopped issuing new visas to citizens of 13 mostly-Muslim countries. The decision took effect on November 18 and included citizens from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and Iran.
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