Pakistan’s political environment has been in the grip of uncertainty since January. The departure of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the return of the opposition alliance into power has exacerbated a state of political chaos in Pakistan as it faces an economic crisis.
Khan’s government, which had managed to dodge the opposition’s political machinations for more than three years, became vulnerable in March as the opposition filed a no-confidence motion against him in the Parliament and government lawmakers and allies defected to the opposition. In a last-ditch attempt to thwart this opposition challenge, Khan manipulated constitutional provisions and dissolved the Parliament, but an intervention by the Supreme Court reversed the government’s actions. As the Parliament was restored, the no-confidence motion succeeded, and Khan was voted out of power April 10. Khan’s ouster triggered a wave of protests across the country. Even in Gulf Arab countries, Pakistani expatriates held protests against the removal of Khan.
Pakistan’s powerful military had remained a key partner of Imran Khan since he became prime minister in 2018, and the military’s institutional support had been considered critical in Khan’s survival against the alliance of opposition parties. Khan lost this base of political support as his relationship with the country’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, deteriorated. Both men differed on the fate of the country’s powerful director general of intelligence (also an army officer) who over time had emerged as a key supporter and served as virtually the eyes and ears of the prime minister. As Bajwa tried to transfer the director general of intelligence to a different post, the prime minister didn’t approve of the move, sparking mutual distrust and a mini-political crisis. Eventually, Khan gave his assent to the change, but the episode widened the gulf of distrust between Khan’s government and the army chief. The military’s public relations spokesperson affirmed the political neutrality of the institution, sharpening hints that Khan had lost the support of a key ally.
The end of Khan’s government has led to a further fracturing in Pakistani politics, with nearly a dozen political entities hailing from different ideological, ethnic, and political poles forming the new ruling coalition. In essence, they all agreed upon nothing other than the removal of Khan. This political upheaval has also brought back into power Pakistan’s traditional political elites, particularly the Sharif and Bhutto political dynasties. The new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who held the office three times (1990-93, 1997-99, and 2013-17), and has remained the chief minister of Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan. Shehbaz Sharif has been credited with the speedy completion of megaprojects, which have improved urban transportation infrastructure and increased energy generation capacity in the province. The famed administrative skills of Shehbaz Sharif, however, still don’t make him the main face of his political party, which continues to revolve around the image of his elder brother. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the new foreign minister, is the other big player in the new political setup. The son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who held the office from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and former President Asif Ali Zardari, who served from 2008-13, Bilawal is the political face of the “Bhutto-Zardari” political dynasty.
The Sharifs have historically been close to the Saudi royal family. After Nawaz Sharif’s removal by General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, the family spent the period of its political exile in Saudi Arabia. As political turmoil in Pakistan reached new heights after Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in 2007, Sharif returned to the country. With Saudi leaders backing Sharif’s move, Musharraf begrudgingly accepted the Sharif family’s reentry into the country’s politics. After Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the third time in 2013, Saudi Arabia deposited $1.5 billion in Pakistan’s central bank to shore up the country’s foreign reserves and stabilize the Sharif government. The Sharifs have also diversified their personal relationships in the broader Middle East: They are family friends with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and have maintained business ties with former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.
In contrast, the Sharifs’ relationship with the Emirati leadership has remained rather frosty. According to a WikiLeaks cable, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan considered Nawaz Sharif “dangerous but not dirty,” and he thought Pakistan Peoples Party leader Asif Ali Zardari was “dirty but not dangerous.” Indeed, Emirati leaders have remained close to the Bhutto family. After Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party lost the 1997 elections, she and her family went into self-exile, spending the next decade in London and Dubai. In 2007 in the United Arab Emirates, she also reportedly held political negotiations with Musharraf, which eventually led to a broader power sharing accord between the duo whereby the Musharraf government offered amnesty to the former prime minister in graft cases and allowed her to return to Pakistan. The Saudi leadership, on the other hand, remained averse to Bhutto until her assassination. And the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz referred to her widowed husband, Zardari, as a “rotten” head that “affects the whole body” according to a 2010 report, suggesting he was the biggest obstacle in the country’s progress.
With this history, it was unsurprising that the new prime minister chose Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first official visit, particularly considering the country’s deteriorating economic situation. As the country’s central bank reserves have fallen to a dangerous level of $11 billion, barely enough to cover 90 days of imports, a balance of payment crisis is impending. These reserves were already debt financed, including $2 billion each from Saudi Arabia and UAE. Moreover, inflation is slated to increase by 15% by the summer. Meanwhile the country’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are not making any headway as the new government is reluctant to increase fuel prices fearing political backlash. With the economic pressures mounting, the new government is reaching out to its Gulf partners for significant economic support.
Pakistani-Saudi ties remained lukewarm over the last two years of Khan’s premiership. Khan had grown personally closer to Erdogan as Saudi-Turkish relations soured, and he had endorsed Turkey’s political discourse calling for setting up a new political platform to address the problems of the Muslim world, challenging the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation. To make a fresh start, as prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif is seemingly focusing his energy on building a personal rapport with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and leveraging his family’s historical ties with Saudi Arabia to get much-needed Saudi financial support. However, for now the Saudi leadership is seemingly being cautious in its commitments and has only rolled over an existing $3 billion financial support arrangement with Pakistan rather than initiating a new grant. Saudi Arabia may also agree to provide $1.2 billion worth of oil on deferred payments if the parties implement a deal that was finalized during the last months of Khan’s government. However, this support package was far below Sharif’s expectations.
This seemed to have compelled the prime minister to schedule an emergency visit to the UAE on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr to request monetary support from the Emirati leadership. The arrival in Pakistan of a “high-powered economic team” from the UAE on Eid as a follow-up, to implement decisions made the day prior, demonstrates Sharif’s sense of urgency and suggests that the UAE might be willing to offer Pakistan a new financial bailout. Sharif also held telephone conversations with the Qatari and Turkish leaderships in a bid to open new avenues of financial support.
Sharif’s government is facing enormous political and economic challenges. At one end, Khan’s popularity is peaking in the wake of his departure. At the other, the government is facing pressure from the IMF to reverse fuel subsidies, which may lead to an enormous increase in fuel prices, and subsequently inflation, compounding the government’s political woes. So, financial support from the Gulf Arab states could serve as a political lifeline for the new government. Without it, Pakistan’s political powers may be forced to hold new elections, perpetuating the political and economic turmoil.