How Pakistan’s military offers the Gulf much more than boots on the ground

The UAE has the most advanced Arab military and defence sector, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia have further to go in terms of the capacity of their forces and their domestic defence industries – both areas where Pakistan can play an important role, writes Taimur Khan

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman receiving Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif who arrived in Riyadh on March 9, 2016 to attend the Northern Thunder joint military exercises. Saudi Press Agency via AFP
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Abu Dhabi // The deployment of Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia would cap a diplomatic push by Islamabad’s army chief and prime minister, who have visited the kingdom, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE in recent months. ​

A number of economic and security interests have aligned to underscore the strategic importance of the relationship for both sides.

The GCC is the world’s largest importer of arms, but as budgets are set to remain tightened in an era of low oil prices, its members are also looking for cheaper alternatives. This imperative comes in parallel to a longer-term goal of diversifying strategic relationships away from a dependence on the United States.

“You can’t afford having these very expensive contracts with western companies and contractors, so what [the GCC] will do is go toward cheaper contractors, so that’s why they are looking towards China, towards Pakistan, towards Turkey – it’s just the natural move,” said Andreas Krieg, a professor at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom’s Joint Command and Staff College.

“Over the last two years the Qataris have really turned their backs towards the West and looked toward the East, as all the Gulf countries are doing right now”

The UAE has the most advanced Arab military and defence sector, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia have further to go in terms of the capacity of their forces and their domestic defence industries – both areas where Pakistan can play an important role.

Qatar in particular is working closely with Pakistan and Turkey in this field, and the three countries are in the early stages of talks aimed at joint production of new defence systems. Qatar has also expressed interest in the fifth generation JF-17 fighter jet which Pakistan developed with China.

“In the past Pakistan was just seen as a supply of manpower but now I think the Qataris have realised there’s a lot more to get out of Pakistan than just manpower,” Mr Krieg said.

A demonstration by Pakistani pilots of the JF-17 last year in Qatar was intended by Islamabad to show Qatari officials that “‘Yes we have a lot of manpower but we’re not a backwards country, we have great technology and we have a military-industrial complex that you can use’,” Mr Krieg added.

Pakistanis provide training to GCC armed forces and thousands serve in Gulf uniforms in most of the GCC’s militaries, including entire battalions of Pakistanis in the Saudi military. “So there is a very intimate relationship already that goes beyond any relationship ... with western countries”, Mr Krieg said. “There is a dependency on Pakistan anyway.”

For Pakistan, the expansion of the export-orientated aspects of its defence industry is an important part of its economic growth, with the government setting a target of expanding the trade to US$1billion (Dh3.67bn) in the next two years, defence production minister Rana Tanveer Hussain told Bloomberg News last week.

Islamabad sees the GCC as a key market for this expansion. The Pakistan Ordnance Factory recently opened an office in Dubai, which covers the entire Middle East.

During Gen Qamar Bajwa’s talks in Doha earlier this month, the Pakistani military said it agreed to provide troops to help Qatar secure the 2022 World Cup. Qatar’s armed forces are too small, and also do not have the counter-terrorism and infrastructure security capacity that is crucial for any country hosting the world’s largest sporting event.

While the Pakistani troops may not provide the same quality service as western private contractors, they are cheaper and never overcharge the Qataris, Mr Krieg said.

After prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit last week, Kuwait has reportedly agreed to build a refinery in Balochistan as well as a pipeline that would take energy products from Karachi to industrial hubs in Punjab province.

Last summer Pakistan also signed a US$22 billion (Dh80.8bn) deal for Qatar to supply it with liquefied natural gas (LNG) for two decades. And officials in Doha have been in discussion with Islamabad to at some point build an LNG pipeline connecting Karachi – where Qatar has already agreed to build a new LNG terminal – to western China.

“All the GCC countries are looking towards China, and Pakistan is a great gateway,” Mr Krieg said.

At the same time, Pakistan is also looking to increase economic and political ties with Iran, however, to pursue shared interests and to maintain its policy of balancing Riyadh and its rival Tehran.

“That is more to do with ... Iran’s potential role in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s effort to develop a regional consensus involving Iran, Russia, China, the Central Asian states to seek a solution” to the conflict and stymie the rise of ISIL there, Mr Hussain said.

Pakistan also does not want Iran to ally more closely with its arch-rival India, whose ties with Tehran are growing, he added.