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Imran Khan’s Populism Clashes with Pakistan’s Economic Realities

  • Husain Haqqani
  • Sep, 2020
  • 95
  • Political Debate

All politicians have to adjust or tweak policies, but the rate at which Imran Khan makes U-turns is dizzying

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi may have jeopardized otherwise cordial relations with Saudi Arabia with his unusual ultimatum to Riyadh demanding an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) on Kashmir. Qureshi threatened that if the Saudi-led OIC failed to summon a meeting, “Pakistan would be ready to go for a session outside OIC.”

The Saudis do not look kindly upon ultimatums and will be especially offended when it comes from a country that has frequently sought economic bailouts from the Kingdom. From helping pay for Pakistan’s first batch of F-16 fighter aircraft in the 1980s to the $6 billion loan that helped Pakistan tide over its balance of payments crisis just two years ago, the Saudis have stood by Pakistan in times of need.

Saudi Arabia is also a significant employer of expatriate Pakistani labor and a major source of remittances. Some Pakistani leaders blame the Saudis for promoting radical Islamism in the country through their funding of mosques and madrassas. More recently, burgeoning Saudi economic ties with India have irked Pakistanis who see world affairs as a zero-sum game between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan seems to be having difficulty with understanding some fundamental realities of international relations. The traditional bond between the two countries led current Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al Jubeir to remark in 2007 (according to a leaked WikiLeaks cable) that “We in Saudi Arabia are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants.”

But due to Pakistan’s inability to transform itself into a productive economy, the country’s bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia stands at a meager $3.6 billion. Saudi trade with India, on the other hand, has risen to $27 billion and is expanding further. Saudis look at Pakistan as a recipient of their assistance, including direct budget support, oil supplied on deferred payment basis, and several hundred thousand jobs for unskilled workers; for them India is a major trading partner.

Given that asymmetric reality, successive Pakistani governments have acted humbly with the Kingdom’s leadership. But humility or gratitude run contrary to the core narrative of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s populist government. This narrative portrays Pakistan as the world’s only Muslim nuclear weapons power, destined to lead the Muslim world and, therefore, entitled to the support of other Muslim countries.

Khan tells Pakistanis that, notwithstanding their low literacy and school enrollment rates, they are a great people who have been held back only by poor leadership. Now that they have found an “honest leader” in Khan, Pakistan can settle its scores with India, “liberate Kashmir,” and occupy its rightful position at the global high table.

That rhetoric implies that Pakistan does not need to make compromises with other countries based on mutual interests. The world needs Pakistan and Pakistan, under its great leader Imran Khan, will set the agenda for how others interact with Pakistan.

Such grandiloquence might appeal to many Pakistanis, but it counts for little outside Pakistan. As a result, over the last two years, Pakistan’s diplomats have had to grovel before world leaders while Khan and his ministers cause outrage and misgivings in the world’s capitals.

For now, the fall out of Qureshi’s public insult to the Saudis has been a demand to return the $3 billion Riyadh lent on a short-term basis and a delay in the renewal of the agreement to defer payment on oil supplies. Pakistan borrowed $1 billion from China to start returning the Saudi loan, a classic case of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

But it is only a matter of time before Pakistani officials remind Khan and Qureshi of Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and the pitfalls of owing even more money to China. While China can lend Pakistan ever more cash and tighten its stranglehold on the country, it still lacks the ability to help maintain oil supplies.

It would not be surprising if Khan walks back his foreign minister’s tough talk about Saudi Arabia. He is already known by many epithets including “U-Turn Khan,” attributed to his propensity to overturn earlier decisions on politics, economy, foreign relations, public health, and even sports. He once described the ability to make U-turns as the “hallmark of great leadership.”

Unfortunately, this shifting of positions has more to do with Khan being egocentric, weak, and untrustworthy, rather than an inability to comprehend changing circumstances.

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