Despite peaks and valleys in their ties, Pakistan remains closely linked to Gulf states, which have proven a source of major foreign exchange earnings because of the Pakistani manpower working there. Pakistan’s armed forces also provide arms training to all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries; are deployed in various sensitive locations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar; and some Saudi military battalions even count Pakistani troops among their ranks. Pakistan also provided troops to ensure security during the football World Cup in Qatar.
After Imran Khan assumed the Prime Minister’s Office in 2018, however, these ties were tested. Saudi Arabia had lost a reliable ally in Nawaz Sharif, who never concealed his affection for Gulf states in general—and Riyadh in particular—for both personal and strategic reasons. Khan’s political mobilization to encourage the National Assembly to maintain neutrality in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen in 2015, meanwhile, facilitated otherwise-frosty ties with Iran.
Pakistan’s withdrawal from unrestrained support of the Gulf allowed India—already an important country for the region thanks to historical ties—to make significant inroads. This was facilitated by Khan’s reported careless remarks, which were not received well in a region where personal contacts carry a premium.
India’s growing influence in the Gulf can be gauged by around 8.9 million Indians currently residing in the Gulf, including 3.4 million in the U.A.E. and 2.5 million in Saudi Arabia. Roughly half of India’s annual remittances of more than $80 billion come from the Gulf, and trade and investment between Delhi and the Middle East has grown exponentially over the last decade. Pakistanis, meanwhile, comprise the second largest foreign national group in the U.A.E., with a population of over 1.5 million, constituting 12.5 percent of the country’s total population.
There is no doubt about the long-term viability of the strategic partnership between India and the U.A.E. Saudi Arabia is also expanding its trading ties with India, investing in infrastructure, manufacturing and digital sectors. None of this impacts their ties with Pakistan because they realize that this isn’t a zero-sum game and trade trumps ties of “Muslim brotherhood”; a lesson Islamabad—whose past policies have often driven by a rigid ideology—would do well to learn if it hopes to attract foreign direct investment and economically prosper.