The bells of receiving billions of dollars start tolling in Pakistan, the moment a high-level visit to or from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is envisaged. Hopes of deferment of oil payments or additional concessional grants or filling spaces in forex pipes are automatically attached with such visits along with hopes that Riyadh would show some understanding on Kashmir. It goes without saying that offering Umra during the visit remains a cherished goal.

Besides bringing a bad name to Pakistan by the unexpected sloganeering, ‘violating the regulations’ and ‘disrespecting’ the sanctity of the holy mosque, PM Sharif’s first ever visit abroad to KSA last week apparently produced two positive results. The visit was able to commence the process of removing ‘misgivings’ lurking in bilateral ties for the past few years. Whether or not there was some cash promised by KSA would be known in the coming days. However, an unscheduled quick detour to UAE indicated the need to look for ‘additional sources’ to provide oxygen to Pakistan’s economy.

The consistent and unwavering commitment made by Pakistan on the security of KSA’s holy places; the bilateral defence agreements; and, provision of timely ‘security’ to the Kingdom by a nuclear Muslim state seem to be balancing the bilateral equation. The question is: is that enough to sustain bilateral ties on equal footings when many of the GCC countries particularly KSA and UAE are looking for new friends. The seemingly waning role of the US in the oil-rich region; the rising influence of Russia and China; India’s growing interest in the region; and Turkey’s desire to mend ways simultaneously with KSA, UAE, Israel and Egypt indicate a visible change in Middle Eastern geo-politics. Add into it the UAE’s recognition of Israel; techno-politics taking over geo-politics; and, the unprecedented concerns over the continuation of dynasties and one would see a possible paradigm shift in the region.

Perhaps, it was time to evaluate Pakistan’s importance and relevance to KSA, UAE and other Muslim states of the region.

Pakistan’s National Security Policy (NSP) emphasises the fraternal, religious and economic ties with the GCC countries. It also singles out KSA and its ‘multifaceted’ relations with Pakistan in trade, investment, energy, defence and cultural domains while reiterating Islamabad’s ‘full commitment’ to the security of the two holy sites of Islam, terming the Gulf as a ‘home to millions of Pakistanis.’ Hopefully, with the change of horses in Islamabad and in view of rapidly mutating ground realities, the NSP would be revised to make it pragmatic. With the Indo-Israel nexus flourishing across the region; the eternal ineffectiveness of OIC; and, the diminishing role of religion on geo-politics, Pakistan’s matters of national interest like Kashmir would be difficult to pursue in the coming years in the Middle East.

Is the Middle East Pakistan’s next critical challenge? The answer is in affirmative. In addressing this challenge, Pakistan needs to look at ‘their’ concerns more carefully in order to utilise its importance effectively. The hurried withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan had confirmed worries of GCC countries over the US’ intent to provide security to their governments. Exhausted by decades of conflicts, at least KSA and UAE have decided to look for new and viable options. The GCC states, having weak security structures, are looking for a reliable partner to provide adequate security to their regimes and counter external terror threats from ISIS, Al-Qaida or Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, the emerging scenario in the Middle East necessitates a revamping of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy with regard to this important region.

The question is: can Pakistan safeguard its strategic, economic and trade interests particularly in the changing geo-political environment and still be able to become a reliable security partner particularly in the context of its declining politico-economic and security relations with the GCC countries?

Pakistan’s traditional security relations with the Gulf region are fading. The Indo-Israel nexus and formation of the Quartet comprising the US, India, Israel and UAE have changed the Middle Eastern security dynamics to a great extent. Pakistan needs to appreciate that focus on geo-economics does not mean ignoring the geo-political realities. Economic and trade activities can hardly be pursued effectively in an uncertain geo-political or geo-strategic environment.

So, what should Pakistan do?

Soon after the dust of ‘selected’ and ‘imported’ governments in the country settles and God knows when will that happen, Pakistan may reflect on re-introducing its real potential in economic, trade and security domains to the GCC countries. As techno-politics is slowly taking over geo-politics in the region, Islamabad may utilise its prowess in the IT sector along with other promising areas like tourism and sports.

To begin with, the country needs to have a certain level of political stability to clearly see and then grab the opportunity to deepen its defence and security relations with the Middle East and try to be the ‘reliable partner’ the security-conscious Gulf is eagerly looking for. Surely, beggars can’t be choosers. However, at least the beggars could start understanding the ‘choosers’ and use this information to one’s own advantage. To achieve this end, one needs the requisite vision, sincerity of purpose and the skills to commence the process of turning the tables.