The Pakistani prime minister made headlines last week 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 and Bahrain recently established diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. Some other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also weighing options to normalize relations.
“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.
Terming the reports “fabricated,” a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said Khan was “misquoted” as there is no such pressure on Islamabad to recognize Tel Aviv.
Though Khan clearly articulated Pakistan’s position that unless a just settlement of the Palestine issue — satisfactory to Palestinians — was found, Pakistan could not recognize Israel, Islamabad is abuzz with rumors about a possible Saudi role.
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 Anadolu Agency, 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.
But if countries are exerting pressure, is Saudi Arabia among them?
No Saudi pressure
Lt. Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, said Riyadh is not persuading Pakistan to recognize Israel.
“The Arab states are normalizing their ties with Israel under a narrow approach purely based on political and economic gains at the cost of values. They no longer care much about the Palestine cause,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“There could be a little Saudi role to woo Pakistan in this regard, but by and large, I don’t think there is any pressure,” said Masood, who served in the Pakistani army till 1990.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Shahid Amin shared a similar opinion. “Why would Saudi Arabia do that… after the Foreign Ministry’s clarification, it should be cleared. Pakistan does not fit in this picture,” he said.
Amin, nonetheless, acknowledged that Abu Dhabi and Manama have normalized ties with Tel Aviv with Riyadh’s consent.
But, he said, it would be difficult for Riyadh to do so, given the internal and external issues it could face. “Saudi Arabia spearheads the Muslim world, its recognition will invite too many problems for itself,” he explained.
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 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.”
Islamabad not to bow to pressure
But even if there is pressure, Pakistan will not bow to that, according to Masood.
“Imran Khan fully understands that Pakistanis will never accept any decision which aims to recognize or normalize ties with Israel. That’s what he has made it clear that time and again,” he said. “Saudi Arabia too knows this very well.”
Supporting his view, Siddiqi said “a hasty recognition could unleash a wave of extremist backlash, which the weak and beleaguered Imran Khan government cannot afford.”
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.