pakistan bloc

Written by Faruzan Anwer Butt 1:13 pm

Pakistan’s Search For its New Bloc: Shifting Ideological Imaginaries

With astringent estrangement reigning over Pak-Saudi relations, Pakistan must now search for its own kindred bloc, and it is probable that it looks to China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey for the creation of such.

The Possible Dawn of a New Bloc

The formation of a state “bloc” entails an interpretive exercise in reimagining dominant paradigms, even as it follows a state-centric, cost-benefit analysis geared at securing the national interest. The creation of one such bloc may be witnessed in the increasingly overt reorientation of Pakistan towards Turkey and Iran in West Asia, in marked counterpoint to the UAE-led rapprochement between certain dynasties in the Gulf and the state of Israel.

Such an interpretive struggle is geared at presenting a certain image of the regional and international order as both just and inevitable, thereby allowing states to carve the space of maneuver necessary for accommodating changing geopolitical landscapes.

The Situation with Iran

Thus, the tentative emergence of a “golden ring” in the region heralds the realignment of alliance networks carried over from the 20th century Cold War politics, with the effects of a hitherto unprecedented American presidential term allowing new actors opportunities for establishing a more effective presence.

In lieu of this, we may witness the emergence of stronger Sino-Iranian ties geared at circumventing the effects of both U.S. sanctions against Iran, as well as the protracted trade war against China. As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) establishes greater strategic reach in the region, its presence in the Middle East has powerful implications for broader South Asia.

Iranian inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative, under the ambit of “developmental” peace, holds the potential for securing a Gwadar-Chabahar “twin-port” operationalization, thereby checking Indian designs vis-à-vis a potential encirclement of Pakistan.

Added to this is the failure of American diplomacy to institute snapback sanctions against Iran at the UNSC, with potential for enhanced Russian-Iranian military cooperation once the Iran arms embargo expires come October 18th. Such a development would complement the possibility of enhanced Pak-Russia ties, as Russian investment, particularly in pipeline-based energy projects, is poised to escalate under OBOR.

The Kingdom’s Dilemma

The reverse image of this nascent “golden circle” features a Gulf region led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and UAE on a crusade against the Iranian “other” – with the Trump administration’s enthusiastic support. Thus, the UAE entering into official diplomatic ties with Israel, under the tacit understanding of being supplied with American-built F-35s into the bargain, heralds an era of Arab-Israeli “normalization” with ominous implications for the Palestinian question.

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The KSA crying nay in the face of such normalization, barring a return by Israel to the 1967 boundary lines, does little to detract from an established pattern of covert Saudi-Israeli relations, rendered all the more fruitful by a joint hatred of Iran. Commentators have dissected vociferous Saudi protests on behalf of the beleaguered Palestinians as a front allowing the UAE to act as a proxy between the GCC states and Israel, a tactic which further allows the Kingdom to wait out the results of the 2020 American presidential elections.

The Islamic Identity

In light of this, improving Iran-Turkey ties, with the holding of the 6th Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council meeting aimed at “defeating foreign plots”, is bound to chafe the House of Saud, particularly given the Kingdom’s concerns surrounding Turkey and the “triangle of evil”. As the deck is shuffled and dealt, Pakistan is faced with an opportunity to call a few bluffs, pending its ability to play a tricky hand with a good poker face.

An intriguing variant of this ability is the state’s attempt to reimagine its ideological frontiers, as illustrated by an active promotion of popular culture media exploring the historicity of Islamic empires targeting a broad Muslim identity. The resistance of select Arab states to the discourse presented in such series as Ertugrul, with Egypt going so far as to issue a fatwa against the franchise, hints at the underlying conflict of ideological imaginaries at play, as states struggle to align state interests with a select identity perception both inside, and outside, bloc formations.

The idea of a quintessential “islamic” identity is falsely presented by some as the sole province of the KSA alone. Iran and Turkey are among the key challengers to this proprietary claim, particularly as Saudi policies, both domestic and foreign, have spelled disaster for Muslim populations in areas such as Yemen and Libya.

Global Power Shifts

As the human cost of wars in theaters such as Yemen and Syria progressively escalates, actors such as the KSA and UAE continue to display a lack of sincere initiative towards the establishment of lasting peace. In contrast, these same actors are remarkably proactive in addressing the possibility of an Arab-Israeli rapprochement against the purported machinations of the key non-Arab (albeit Islamic) actor in the region.

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In light of this, Turkey’s embrace of the Ottoman project, contravening its Kemalist legacy, may be taken as a discursive challenge to Saudi leadership of the Muslim world. Thus, Erdogan’s recent decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of a wider political project, which reimagines the nature of the ideological mapping of West Asia.

Pakistan, in this context, stands to explore a deeper, richer vein of Islamic history and identity hitherto absent from its sociopolitical imaginary. Public engagement with the historicity of the Ottoman and Safavid empires allows for a better understanding of the Timurid or Mughal project, with attendant implications for situating the modern Pakistani “nation-state” as a progressive “Islamic” Republic.

The 2019 Kuala Lumpur debacle highlights the fractures underlying the conceptualization of the KSA-led Gulf region as the sole spokesman of the Muslim world, with alternative regional formations perceived as an instinctive threat to the Islamic behemoth. This follows the intractable inertia plaguing the OIC as a body lacking both the capacity and the will to pursue the interests of the Muslim “Ummah” at large, especially given the exclusionary understanding of “Muslimness” upheld by lead actors such as the UAE and KSA.

Shifting Ideological Imaginaries

The confluence between dynastic and sectarian interests, geared towards upholding regime stability within rentier states by means of vilifying Iran as the quintessential other, has been rendered increasingly obvious under the offices of agents such as Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). While the possibility of a proactive alternative to the OIC, capable of representing the interests of a truly pan-Islamic Ummah unlimited to the Gulf kingdoms, is still in the realm of conjecture, it is increasingly perceived as the need of the hour.

Thus, as Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran envisage enhanced economic and diplomatic ties which may trigger a revitalization of the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the politics of pipelines catalyze greater cooperation in the energy sector between states ranging from West, to Central, to South Asia and beyond, the materials for a “new normal” in terms of an Islamic geopolitical imaginary are set to align.

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The sociopolitical and economic aspects of this reorientation encompass the role of Russia and the PRC as actors set to capitalize on the fracturing of a post-War on Terror Western “front”, with the actions of the U.S. allowing for the creation of vital space for a maneuver. The interests of these two actors may provide the ideal canvas for states such as Pakistan to reimagine an Islamic geopolitical project, which addresses the fallout from the 20th century’s model of a neoliberal international political economy championed by the United States.

To conclude, one may refer to the brewing maelstrom in the Middle East as the fitting embodiment of a purportedly ancient curse – it is proof that we live in interesting times. Of course, “interesting”, in and of itself, is a non-descriptor, signifying little by way of the nature of the phenomenon. Thus, it is what states such as Pakistan choose to make of it, and how the reimagining of an ideological imaginary pertaining to “Ummah” and “Islam” may play into the exercise, that remains the key point of focus for those invested in regional developments.

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About the Author(s)

Ms. Faruzan holds a MSc in International Relations from National Defence University. She is a staunch advocate for the power of ideas.

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