The worrisome news for the Middle East is not the fact that Iran possesses the largest arsenal of missiles in the region. It is Iran’s military preparedness mainly against Israel and the development of Khaybarshikan, a surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,450 kilometers that could easily target Israel situated around a thousand kilometers away. According to a statement made in early February by Iran’s Army Chief Bagheri, his country might become one of the world’s largest arms exporters if US sanctions were lifted. Earlier, Iran had fired 16 ballistic missiles in Dec 2021 to conclude military drills described as ‘a warning to Israel.’ The speculation on whether this warning was directed to Israel or to all and sundry aside, it is time the Middle Eastern dynamics were reviewed to see if at all Pakistan should be worried particularly in the context of its declining politico-economic and security relations with the GCC countries.

The conflict prone lands around the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabia Peninsula are still in the process of absorbing shocks of the stunning Arab Spring of 2011. New internal and external security concerns, shared fear of Iran and inability to diversify economic resources have perhaps compelled the Middle Eastern region to re-think its intra-state and inter-state policies and relations.

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 & Egypt indicate a visible change inMiddle Eastern geo-politics. UAE’s recognition of Israel; NSA and its Pegasus creating worrisome stirs in the market; and, techno-politics slowly taking over geo-politics have made the Middle Eastern landscape politically colorful. In addition, the diminishing role of religion; talk of women rights; social & cultural changes in some of the traditional countries; and, the unprecedented concerns over the continuation of dynasties clearly point toward a possible paradigm shift in the region.

The Biden administration looked to follow the desire of the previous two administrations to limit the US’ role in the region. As axiomatic as it sounds, other important events in 2021 like the eleven-day war in Gaza or revival of Washington’s policy on Iran’s nuclear programme and JCPO have somehow drawn the US back in Middle East. Attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria; assassination of Iraq’s PM; continued war in Yemen and Syria; and the additional footprints of China and Russia further necessitated the US to re-focus its attention to the region. Nevertheless, as compared to its focus on the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific region, the Middle East doesn’t seem to be the top most priority for the US any more. On the other hand, the hurried withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan 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.

India’s growing interest in the Middle Eastern political and economic domains is welcomed by many a countries of the region including KSA and UAE. New eco-investment proposals and increasing two-way trade are the results of New Delhi’s recent contacts with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, two erstwhile strongholds of Pakistan. Acting as a big brother, India is gradually gaining political space which was not available to it a few years ago. Saudi Army Chief’s first ever ‘historic and landmark’ visit to India last week might be the beginning of a new era of bilateral defence and security relations. India’s cultural and entertainment centric approach is also working for all sides. Besides providing politico-economic benefits to each other, the Indo-Israel nexus along with their disinfo-campaigns act as a deterrent for common adversaries including Pakistan. Drawing parallels between Palestine and Kashmir particularly with reference to the right of self-determination, both countries are happily placed on the bilateral chessboard. Looking after US interests in the region is an added commonality.

It is widely believed that chronic issues like the religious divide between Shias and Sunnis or the sectarian violence or the Palestinian issue or the common fear of Iran are not going to disappear any time soon.

On the other hand, positive vibes coming from Riyadh and Tehran for each other and Israel having a Prime Minister other than Netanyahu could make optimists smile about some real rapprochement in inter-state relations. Fortunately, better sense seems to be prevailing insofar as the intra-GCC states’ issues are concerned. The recent meeting between the rulers of Qatar and UAE coupled with efforts of KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to put Qatar’s boycott of 2017 behind indicate an emerging understanding in these states to finally give diplomacy a chance.The appointment of envoys by KSA and Egypt to Qatar and the possibility of a revival of UAE’s diplomatic relations with Qatar can be seen in the same context. Except for Bahrain, all ‘angry’ states have restored travel and trade links with Qatar. Taking interest in global issues and reaching out to hitherto distant partners is also a new phenomenon. UAE and KSA are taking interest in Climate Change issues; both have set no-emission targets for 2050 and 2060 respectively; and, the former has graciously offered to host the COP 28.

Except for Israel, all Middle Eastern countries particularly 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. Besides countering the assumed or real threats from ISIS, Al-Qaida or Muslim Brotherhood, the GCC countries are looking to diversify their source of income particularly in view of diminishing oil resources, fluctuating global oil prices, budgetary pressures and lack of viable development plans.

Clearly, the emerging scenario in the Middle East necessitates a revamping of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy with regard to this important region. Undoubtedly, the Middle East is Pakistan’s next critical challenge. The question is: Can Pakistan safeguard its strategic, economic and trade interests particularly in the changing geo-political environment?

To be concluded