Relations between Pakistan and Bahrain are developing in the direction of overall revitalization and further diversification, by the current administration in Islamabad, of relations with the capitals of the Persian Gulf. First of all, the countries are interested in, as it was indicated in the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan’s statement, “the transformation of the political goodwill that exists between the two countries, into effective and mutually beneficial economic relations, with a focus on trade and investments.” However, the monarch’s visit of the headquarters of Pakistani land forces and his direct talks with the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, General R. Sharif, on enhancing cooperation in the field of defense and security, is described as unprecedented, on the background of regional changes – according to world media.
The state visit of His Majesty King of Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (IRP) on March 18-20, 2014, at the invitation of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, had several denominators. For the first time in the last four decades, the monarch has set foot on Pakistani soil. However, his stay in Islamabad occurred against the background of a powerful terrorist attack in his own capital Manama in early March 2014, when several members of local law enforcement agencies and a citizen of Pakistan were killed. While condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, the parties refused to postpone the visit. Upon returning home, the monarch shared his belief that Pakistan would bring moderation and peace to the Muslim Ummah, referring to Islamabad’s intermediary role in setting relations in the region, together with Iran.
Pakistan and the Gulf states, represented first of all by Bahrain, then followed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, continued their discussion on three key areas: the development of trade and economic ties, enhancement of cooperation in the field of defense and security and regional dimensions, with each of the parties defending its national priorities.
Pakistan’s turnover in 2014 reached $6 billion with the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). Its members are currently working on the completion of a Free Trade Agreement with Islamabad. Bahrain, according to the Pakistani side, is the “ideal gateway for entering their markets”.
The GCC initiated, and during the Bahrain King’s stay in Islamabad, there was announced the establishment of Pakistan Energy Fund. Its main purpose is to encourage investors, both in public and private sectors of the GCC countries to invest into energy and other projects of the country.
Pakistan has taken various measures to improve the investment climate, and therefore welcomed Bahraini investments into mega-projects in the fields of energy, oil refining, ports development, mining, mineral extraction, infrastructure, banking and financial sectors. Following the visit, the sides signed six memorandums of understanding and agreements on the establishment of a joint ministerial commission, investment protection, and cooperation between the interior ministries of the two countries. Moreover, they agreed on the issues of food security, energy, water, aviation services, etc.
One of the main export items of Islamabad to the Gulf countries is labor. Pakistani community in Bahrain, for instance, is the third largest in the region, accounting for 100,000 people. Their annual remittances contribute to the national economy. Having its own resources, the kingdom is not against the migration of Pakistanis to work in various sectors of its economy. Many experts, in their turn, see in this a political motivation.
When all the formalities of trade and economic protocol during the three-day visit of the monarch had been met, The Bahrain government announced its priorities – early strengthening of cooperation in the field of defense and security. Local media reported that: “Pakistan considered the visit as an opportunity to expand trade and investments, but Bahrain seemed to have been more interested in the military talks.”
Rapidly changing regional scenario in the Middle East, dictated by events of the “Arab Spring”, had an impact on the monarchy as well. In March 2011, it faced large-scale protests (mostly by Shiites) against the ruling dynasty. In response, the government hint of razing the Shia Muslim mosque from the face of the earth. However, this only made the protesters more furious. The local law enforcement agencies were ineffective, and the king appealed for support to member countries of GCC and Pakistan.
Pakistan and Bahrain cooperation in the field of defense and security began in 1971, which mainly concerned the preparation of Bahrain Defense Forces (BDF). Pakistani army servicemen were sent to BDF in 1977, and according to a Protocol Agreement; from 1985, the cooperation developed under the Joint Program Review Group, which operated on an annual basis. It should be emphasized that in those years, the monarchy maintained relations with senior military administrators in Pakistan during all periods of military regimes in the country. Up to 10,000 Pakistani soldiers, along with other foreigners under contract, successfully served in the security services of Bahrain: Police, National Guard and armed forces. In those years, Islamabad assisted in the establishment of the monarchy’s naval forces. This in turn, led to resentment among the local soldiers, who were demanding the cancellation of contracts with the Pakistani military (this was partly due to the fact that some of them were Shiites).
The events of spring 2011, forced the monarchy to again appeal to Pakistan for more armed support to control the situation. At that time, the commander of the National Guard of Bahrain Lieutenant General, Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, without an announced reason, twice visited Rawalpindi (headquarters of the Pakistani Army) in December 2010 and June 2011, with a request for support of the monarchy, fearing mass protests.
Pakistan supported Saudi-led GCC intervention into the internal affairs of Manama. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, reiterated the readiness of law enforcement agencies to send personnel to serve in the armed forces of Bahrain, on a contract basis, through known recruitment companies such as the Fauji Foundation and Bahria Foundation. Thus, Pakistan indirectly helped Bahrain to suppress street protests.
In March 2014, Manama opened a new page of cooperation in the field of defense and security with Islamabad. It implies: intelligence sharing, military purchases, joint defense enterprises, training of military specialists, the sending of retired Pakistani military personnel to Bahrain, etc.
“The two sides stressed the importance of increasing defense and security cooperation between the two countries. It was agreed that the security dialogue would take place annually between the two countries, at mutually agreed and appropriate levels. It was also decided to strengthen the sharing of information, intelligence and assessments.” Moreover, the monarchy has taken the initiative for engaging in political dialogue on a regular basis, keeping in mind the past protests in the country and, accordingly, the needs of military support from Pakistan.
Nevertheless, the current political situation in Pakistan is different from that in 2011. That time, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) faced no pressure from parties of the ruling alliance on the issue of sending troops to Bahrain. In 2014, the PPP, heading the opposition forces in the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) opposed the sending of soldiers to resolve any conflicts in foreign countries. The question remains open, and hence commitments remain unfulfilled at the moment.
The question of Pakistan’s mediation role, in the settlement of Gulf countries’ relations with Iran, is not being raised. Border conflict between Pakistan and Iran, which Teheran blames on Pakistani militants, due to the capture of several Iranian border guards, once again worsened the relations between the two countries.
This new vector diplomacy of Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif towards the Gulf countries faces challenges both in the foreign and domestic spheres.
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Pakistan Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.