Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently concluded a three-day visit to Iraq where he held talks with both the Iraqi President and Prime Minister as well as with other high-ranking officials including the country’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister. The focus of the visit centered around economy, trade and investment and issues related to promoting people-to-people linkages particularly Pakistani Zaireen (pilgrims).
Mr. Qureshi also expressed his country’s desire to meet its energy requirements with oil from Iraq. During the visit, both sides agreed that an over-arching framework that encompasses both political, as well as bilateral cooperation, needs to be formulated in order to provide much-needed impetus towards strengthening what is gradually becoming a mutually beneficial partnership between Pakistan and Iraq. The Foreign Minister also briefed Iraqi officials on the situation in South Asia particularly Indian atrocities carried out in Kashmir. Discussions also took place on the situation in Afghanistan and Palestine and the urgent need to promote solidarity and unity among the Muslim Ummah.
The Foreign Minister’s trip ties in with how the Pakistan leadership has been markedly engaging with the Gulf countries keeping economics at the forefront. Recent high-level visits include those to Qatar, the Emirates, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. During all of these appointments, apart from increasing trade links, the focus was on highlighting the role of the Pakistani diaspora as well as countering rising Islamophobia.
Pakistan and Iraq share a multifaceted relationship initially premised on religious ties. Iraq is home to two of the most important shrines for Shia Muslims and almost 200,000 Pakistani Zaireen travel to Iraq each year to perform religious rites. In recent years there has been growing cooperation in diverse fields ranging from defense to people-to-people contacts. With respect to defense ties, security dynamics in the relationship became more pronounced in the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh) in 2014. As the Iraqi state gained back its foothold in 2017, the Iraqi envoy to Pakistan revealed the support provided by the Pakistani security forces in intelligence sharing as well as training.
In recent times, Pakistan has offered to help Iraq in the development of its infrastructure through the provision of technical services and human resources. In March 2021, Pakistan’s Lucky Cement in a joint venture with Al-Shamookh started cement production in Iraq. Pakistan also sent medical supplies to Iraq to help the latter counter the Coronavirus outbreak. On people-to-people exchanges, the Pakistani Government has allocated 1000 scholarships for Iraqi students in 2021. A number of Iraqi diplomats have also been trained in the Foreign Services Academy in Pakistan.
With the purpose of furthering religious tourism between the two sides, a management policy is also being formulated.
An area of mutual interest is in the realm of energy security. 90 percent of Iraq’s revenue comes from oil. In the backdrop of falling oil prices compounded by the global crunch as a result of the Covid pandemic, Iraq is in dire need of branching out its energy exports. Pakistan with its energy shortfall provides an ideal market for Iraqi oil.
Moreover, in March 2021, the China-Iran Strategic Comprehensive Partnership was officiated thereby officially incorporating Iran into the multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It goes without saying that this deal augurs many development opportunities for Pakistan being a neighbor to both China and Iran and the base for BRI’s flagship project China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, this deal also poses opportunities for Iraq. Iraq is already a close partner of China. If the much theorized western corridor of CPEC is extended all the way to the Iran-Iraq border, it will benefit traders in both Pakistan and Iraq. Moreover, it will further help facilitate Iraq’s restructuring and rehabilitation plans.
Another area of shared interest between Pakistan and Iraq is attempting to balance their respective relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia without getting enmeshed in any cold war. Both Islamabad and Baghdad have time and again tried to facilitate backdoor engagements with the purpose of bringing about repose between Tehran and Riyadh. In recent months Iraq has been helping engaged intelligence delegations from both sides to reach a settlement.
Overall, the Foreign Minister’s trip to Iraq, as with all his previous engagements in the Gulf can be deemed a success. For a long time, the Pakistani leadership has been relying on the illusion that the Gulf’s strategic calculus would remain constant. Instead of promoting sustainable relations, the Pakistani leadership has long been banking on its sole-nuclear power status and trying to promote its Kashmir narrative on the heels of this. However, with rapidly shifting dynamics such as increasing Indian footprint in the Gulf and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s changing stance towards Israel, the space for remaining relevant is fast disappearing.
In this backdrop, Pakistan’s changed foreign policy outlook which now focuses on geo-economics as opposed to geo-politics is a welcome and wise step. Moreover, cementing mutually beneficial partnerships in the Gulf will benefit Pakistan in the long term in promoting its Kashmir narrative as well as help in its efforts towards countering Islamophobia.
Money buys ears and as the saying goes better late than never.
The author is a researcher with her prime area of focus being the Middle East and North Africa. She is LUMS and Warwick alumnus. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, and the Express Tribune. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.