Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan recently completed a trip to Pakistan where he pledged $3 billion to help ease Pakistan’s current account deficit left by the previous PML-N government. This comes after the UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia pledged to invest over $10 billion for the construction of a new oil refinery at the port city of Gwadar. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman who has already built a healthy working relationship with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, will shortly call on Imran in Islamabad to consolidate the Gwadar deal which comes after a $6 billion economic package for Pakistan delivered by Riyadh late last year. Now it has been reported that Saudi/UAE rival Qatar is also looking to invest in Gwadar as part of a wider push to integrate the Qatari economy into CPEC related projects.
While Qatar is still subject to a diplomatic and economic boycott led by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt, Pakistan has remained neutral in respect of the inter-relational politics of the Arab world and as such, under Imran Khan, relations with Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi continue to accelerate simultaneously. Likewise, as Imran’s recent successful visit to Turkey demonstrates, Pakistan’s long standing friendship with Turkey has not been negatively impacted by Islamabad’s positive relations with Turkey’s rival Saudi Arabia.
While Pakistan continues to function as a proverbial Switzerland of the Ummah (global Islamic community) by refraining from taking sides in the grievances between various partner nations, it is noteworthy that the US has not been successful in convincing Qatar’s GCC rivals to set aside their disputes which have raged since 2017. While on his recent visits to multiple Arab allies of the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to convince the states currently boycotting Qatar to end the longstanding row. Yet in spite of Pompeo’s efforts, there is little evidence to show that he made any headway. Instead, the US is now faced with the embarrassing situation of the UAE and Bahrain restoring relations with US adversary Syria while still refusing to do so with mutual US ally Qatar.
The difference is that while America has a relationship with the wealthy Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf that involves cyclical purchases of energy followed by the sales of weapons, CPEC is able to offer cash rich Arab states with opportunities for long term sustainable investments that will help such economies to diversify their national portfolio – a strategic goal shared by Saudi Arabia and its partners along with rival Qatar.
Thus, while the GCC rivals will not talk to each other at home, their investments will soon be blossoming side-by-side in Gwadar and potentially elsewhere in Pakistan. This means that Pakistan holds the potential to smooth relations between the GCC rivals owing to the power of economic opportunity that is implicit in CPEC and in particular to Gwadar.
Geopolitical scholar Andrew Kroybko recently wrote that Iman Khan’s skilful diplomacy helped to affirm that the UAE will be a long term Pakistani partner that will help to invest in CPEC related projects, thus ending rumours that the UAE sought to rival Pakistan’s initiatives in Gwadar. Just as Imran has used CPEC’s southern maritime terminus to recast forward thinking win-win relations with Abu Dhabi, so too could Gwadar be the place where Qatar and its rivals eventually agree to de-escalate tensions in order to cooperate together on projects linking CPEC to important GCC shipping ports.
While Pakistan always held the potential to create win-win opportunities for its partners in the Arab world, prior to last year’s election which elevated Imran Khan to the position of head of government, it was not clear that Pakistan had the political leadership necessary to help its partners reach new win-win agreements. Now though, under Imran Khan’s leadership, Pakistan is at the forefront of helping its partners to de-escalate their rivalries by presenting a model of cooperation that encourages peace through prosperity. Furthermore, as all of the GCC is becoming more interested in intensifying positive relations with the economic superpower that is China, Pakistan can both geographically and more importantly, diplomatically and culturally act as the bridge between the Arab world and China.
In this sense, Gwadar specifically and CPEC more widely presents Pakistan not just with opportunities to elevate domestic living standards by following the Chinese model of sustainable long term economic growth, but CPEC is also a vital diplomatic tool that Pakistan can use to help resolve regional conflicts without firing a shot nor speaking a word in anger. This tool can consequently lead to new economic opportunities for Pakistan and in respect of Gwadar, these opportunities are already planting seeds that will soon begin to bear fruit.