Pakistan has a laidback policy for the Middle East, a region of vital importance to us. This region has three holiest mosques in Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem, apart from numerous other places of reverence in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. According to an official US definition, Middle East begins from Libya (inclusive) and ends at the Pak-Iran border. The Arab nations produce 30 percent of the world’s oil and have 56 percent of the proven oil reserves. However, our relations with this region were largely characterised by personal equations with the Arab rulers and had little people-to-people content. We were often confused between the States and personalities. For example, we took ages to recognise the Transition Council in Libya just because we did not want to annoy Qaddafi, who had been a close friend of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Our Middle East policy is frozen in time.

To quote President Dwight D. Eisenhover: “Strategically, Middle East is the most important part of the world.” Our leaders, however, took time to understand that importance. The Indian leaders, too, whispered to some Arab leaders, in 1947, that Pakistan was a transitory phenomenon. Consequently, some important Arab capitals took time to grant us permission for opening diplomatic missions. We added to the Arab mistrust by joining the Baghdad Pact. The infamous statement by Prime Minister Suhrawardy, during Suez crisis, was a diplomatic disaster. The only Pakistani leader, who could appreciate true importance of this region, was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Many Arabs, Palestinians in particular, remember their “Ali Bhutto” fondly till today. He took the initiative of sending Pakistani manpower to the Arab lands and that sustains us today in difficult economic times.

The Arab societies place high premium on social and political discipline. The media, both print and electronic, was strictly State-controlled. Across the Arab nations, public gatherings were either for prayers or soccer matches. The public protests that we see today is a new phenomenon. Earlier on, nobody could dare to protest even in the so-called democracies, like Iraq and Syria, which were strictly ruled by an oppressive Baath Party. Government servants, including soldiers, were allowed to become its members. Overtime it developed into a dreaded monolith, much like the Communist Party in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The multi-layered intelligence agencies were dreaded all over the Middle East. Many GCC countries do not allow political parties even today.

The lid that had been kept tightly closed for decades, burst like a volcano in 2011. Young Arab military leaders, inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, assumed power around 1970 in a number of Arab countries. They were all nationalists and vowed to liberate the occupied lands in Palestine and restore Arab honour. They also undertook to promote equality. All these promises, however, remained pipedreams. But almost all Arab countries had near perfect law and order. The oil-exporting countries undertook huge infrastructural projects, resulting in vastly improved living standards, particularly in the Gulf. The social contract in the family-ruled Gulf States was, “we’ll give you prosperity and good governance and you give us obedience.”

But man does not live by bread alone. He wants to express himself and demands a role in decision-making, more so when he is educated. The Arab youth today, which forms the bulk of the population, is better educated than their parents. Sadly, the rate of unemployment in the Arab youth is the highest in the world. The new electronic media, like Al-Jazeera, literally gave a voice to the voiceless Arab people, while the extensive use of social media tools, like Facebook, engendered a revolution of ideas.

However, the euphoria created by the Arab Spring is already waning. The Arab societies have traditionally preferred strong leaders, who could ensure unity and effective governance. About Iraq, it is often said that only two rulers were able to govern it properly, Hajjaj bin Yusuf and Saddam Hussein. But the new generation, exposed to modern ideas through education, travel and business, wants more inclusive governments that would respect difference of opinion. Well known columnist, Thomas Friedman, has used an interesting analogy for the current tussle in Arab societies. He calls it a competition between Lexus car and the olive tree. The new generation wants to move towards change at the speed of Lexus car, while the old guard - symbolised by the olive tree - is stationary. Egypt, in terms of its population and strategic location, is the foremost Arab nation, which has often led the way. However, each Arab country would follow its own dynamics in transition to democracy. And that transition would not always be smooth, as the Middle East has no established democratic tradition.

Apart from the vital spiritual bonds, Pakistan has tangible interests in the Arab world too. The Sultanate of Oman is our fifth neighbour, as our maritime boundaries meet in the sea. The Arab countries provide fruitful employment to about four million Pakistanis. Saudi Arabia and UAE are our top sources of foreign exchange remittances. The UAE is one of our leading trading partners. The Arab nations sincerely want a strong and stable Pakistan, as they consider our strength as theirs too. A strong Pakistan also ensures vital security of commercial lanes, off the Makran coast.

It is now clear that Islamic parties would have considerable say in future Arab governments. This means that the anti-US and anti-Israel content of Arab foreign policies would become more pronounced. Consequently, it may become difficult for the Gulf States to sustain the US military presence in their lands. If and when the American forces evacuate the Gulf region, they may decide to pass the baton of Gulf security to India. Indian diplomats in the Arab countries often project their country as “second largest Muslim country” after Indonesia. India has developed strategic defence ties with Israel, a fact that we have failed to highlight to the Arabs. We must do so now and produce well researched material in Arabic, to that effect.

Pakistan has had fruitful defence cooperation with a number of Arab countries, but that is a thing of the past now. We must focus on the nature of our future relationship with a changing Arab world. Our failure to recognise the Libyan Transition Council in time raises many questions. Was our Foreign Office sleeping over the proposal all this while, or was it the ruling Peoples’ Party that was a hurdle? In case our Foreign Office has lost the capacity to take such timely decisions, it should seriously review its capacity issue. And what was our media, ever ready to create storms in teacups, doing? It has done precious little to highlight our policy options in a changing Middle East.

Pakistan must take its relations with Middle East seriously. For our leadership, Middle East means either Umrah trips, or periodic escapes to retreats, like Dubai. We have not developed a strong group of Middle East experts in our Foreign Office, who could advise all ministries and our private sector. We continue to send non-career Ambassadors there. The number of Pakistani diplomats fluent in Arabic is low. Iran, Turkey and even Russia have 24/7 Arabic channels. We have none. Our future relations with the Arabs need to have more economic and commercial content. And to promote economic interaction, to our mutual benefit, we have to restore the health of our economy, make Pakistan more secure and improve our image. Foreign relations are not guided by ideological factors, or romantic perceptions. It is a pragmatic game that we must play well!

The writer is a former ambassador.