Pakistan’s long serving Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has resigned after the Supreme Court in Islamabad ruled to disqualify him from public office over alleged corruption relating to a Panamanian tax shelter.
Sharif has long been a household name in Pakistan holding the powerful office of Prime Minister between 1990-1993, then again between 1997-1999 and most recent between 2013 up to his present resignation in the summer of 2017.
Sharif lived in exile in Saudi Arabia between 2000 and 2007 after being ousted by strongman President Pervez Musharraf, before returning to Pakistan where he re-assumed his role as leader of the opposition party PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz).
His close relationship with Saudi Arabia had always been a matter of both intrigue and consternation to many, but his final (at this time) term as Prime Minister witnessed some peculiar developments that showed a shift in Sharif’s previously predictably Saudi friendly policies.
The most important development of Sharif’s last term in power and undoubtedly the most important achievement for Pakistan as a whole in that time was the creation of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is a project integral to China’s One Belt–One Road project which seeks to modernise Pakistan’s trade and logistics infrastructure in order to make the movement of goods across the China/Pakistan border more efficient as well as expanding the capacity of goods which will flow across the border. Furthermore, Pakistan continues to develop ever closer military ties with China. This has all happened during the most recent term of Sharif’s time in power.
As India continues to prove somewhat reluctant under Prime Minister Modi to engage in transparent cooperation with China on the One Belt–One Road project, the importance of the CPEC has if anything been greatly magnified.
Pakistan along with India both joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this year, in a move which has drawn Islamabad closer to its traditional Chinese partner as well as being emblematic of Islamabad–Moscow relations being at an all time high.
Whilst during the Cold War, India was Russia’s undisputed number one South Asian ally, while India and Russia retain historic ties, Russia’s modern multi-polar foreign policy has seen relations with Pakistan accelerate at a healthy pace. This has all happened during what one could call Nawaz Sharif’s ‘Indian summer’ if one would pardon the term which is ironic in the context of Pakistan.
Throughout this period Sharif tried his best to mend fences with India over the long running Kashmir dispute. The fact that relations with New Delhi ended up deteriorating over this issue can largely be attributed to India’s position in this specific context.
Throughout all of this period, Pakistan retained its good relations with Saudi Arabia while relations with Iran appeared to improve. Pakistan–Iran cooperation is crucially a key component of the One Belt–One Road initiative, whilst the same cannot be said for Pakistan–Saudi cooperation.
And herein lies the rub. Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly displeased with its traditionally close ally because Sharif has opened Pakistan up to fully-fledged multi-polarity. At this point it is fair to say that while strengthening traditional bonds with China, opening up new opportunities to China’s biggest ally Russia, improving relations with Iran while retaining other old alliances in the Arab and western world, Pakistan’s foreign policy multi-polarity, something which could also be called increasing foreign policy independence, has deeply frightened Saudi Arabia whose exclusive position in Sharif’s political world has not so much been threatened as it has been distracted by lucrative future opportunities.
Things got worse in respect of Saudi-Pakistan relations over the last several years when Sharif declined to send Pakistani troops to aid Saudi in its aggressive position in Yemen and furthermore, Pakistan has refused to sever ties with Qatar as Saudi wanted Islamabad to do.
While the Saudis see this as a ‘pro-Iran betrayal’, the reality is that Sharif wanted to keep Pakistan’s options open and this displeased Saudi which at a cultural level is known to look down upon South Asians.
In spite of his considerable foreign policy and commerce related achievements in his final term, Sharif was certainly a flawed politician, but increasingly, the Supreme Court ruling which has led to his resignation appears to be an act of vengeance for a politician who was if anything too successful. Certainly Sharif was omnipresent, something which was a source of consternation even to those who otherwise supported or benefited from his multi-polar foreign policy moves.
While it cannot be said that Saudi and its western allies had a direct hand in forcing Sharif’s resignation, there will be many people happy in Riyadh today, not least because his successor who is most likely to be pulled from the same Pakistan Muslim League party, may not have as ambitious foreign policy goals for Pakistan as Sharif ended up having.
That being said, as geo-political expert Andrew Korybko points out, the happiness in places like Saudi may be short lived. He states,
“In order to distract the masses from this politically unpopular fact, some of the Prime Minister’s proponents have taken the disingenuous approach of fear mongering that the Pakistani leader’s removal from office will somehow lead to the disruption of the game-changing CPEC project, pointing out how he symbolically presided over the state ever since the crucial time of this initiative’s announcement and thus speculating that this makes him some kind of irreplaceable figure whose political future is inextricably linked with that of CPEC’s. As their unsubstantiated and groundless “logic” goes, Sharif’s disqualification would therefore somehow also disqualify CPEC and negatively impact on its future prospects. Nothing could be further from the truth, since CPEC isn’t about one man, nor about one country, but about constructing the Zipper of Pan-Eurasian Integration and catalyzing the Convergence of Civilizations in order to build the emerging Multipolar World Order.
To suggest that Sharif is, or ever has been, the cornerstone of this globally transformative project is to either deliberately mislead the masses or display unthinkable ignorance about CPEC”.
While objectively it is true that in 2017 Pakistan’s internal and external politics are not dependent on the fate of one man (whoever big a figure this man is), the fact that Sharif was the captain of the ship that was clearly sailing towards multi-polarity which necessarily meant a less dependant relationship on Saudi money and US geo-political influence, many will still see the resignation as a worrying sign in respect of Pakistan’s foreign policy independence. It is now up to Pakistan to prove both internal and external detractors wrong. When the choice is between the open road, in this case the open Silk Road and an old stagnant relationship with Saudi, objectivity ought to outweigh both fear and cynicism.