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Do signs point to an Israel-Saudi normalisation deal?

RIYADH: The United States has hinted that more Arab nations could take steps to improve ties with Israel, ahead of President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East.

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia, which Biden will visit in mid-July after he once vowed to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state over the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

However, despite the recent signs of a US-Saudi rapprochement, analysts say it is improbable Riyadh will agree to diplomatic ties with Israel — not during Biden’s visit or while King Salman, 86, still reigns.

The king’s official policy is that there should be no peace with Israel until it withdraws from occupied territories and accepts Palestinian statehood.

Biden’s visit will likely focus on convincing the world’s biggest crude exporter to boost its oil output.

Here are some questions and answers about the possibility of a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel:

What are the signs?

Saudi’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said Israel was a “potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together”, state media reported in March, attributing the statement to an interview with The Atlantic.

Additionally, the kingdom never showed any opposition when its regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, followed by Bahrain and Morocco under the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

In January 2021, Sudan’s transitional government also agreed to do so but the northeast African country has yet to finalise the deal.

Saudi Arabia also at the time allowed direct flights from the Emirates to Israel to travel through its airspace, in another implicit sign of approval.

Biden, who will also visit Israel, is to travel directly from the Jewish state to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first US president to fly from there to an Arab nation that does not recognise Israel.

In 2017 his predecessor, Donald Trump, made the journey in reverse.

In recent months, Saudis have taken to social media — which is tightly controlled in the kingdom — to express their support for normalisation, which would be a shift from the kingdom’s long-standing pan-Arab policy to isolate Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

Esawi Frej, Israel’s minister of regional cooperation, told Saudi newspaper Arab News earlier in June that Riyadh would be “central” to any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Axios news website reported, also this month, that the United States was working on a “road map” for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, while The Wall Street Journal said the region’s two most influential nations were engaging in secret economic and security talks.

In both countries’ interests?

Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said a relationship with Israel will contribute to greater acceptance of Saudi Arabia.

“It will open doors for the crown prince, with Western people and parliaments accepting the kingdom, and granting Saudi Arabia a greater role,” she said.

“It will make a change, whether just in regards to the image of Saudi Arabia...especially since (Prince Mohammed) sees it as a global power, not just an Arab and Islamic one.”

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022


Civilian supremacy?

  Published June 27, 2022

[tanturm غصے اور جھنجھلاہٹ کا دورہ][stringent سخت] [entrenched جو اچھی  طرح قدم جما چکا ہو][brinkmanship خطرناک راست پر چیلے کی پالیسی]

AN interesting consequence of the change of government in April is public displays of anger against the military leadership from PTI supporters. While most of this anger remains online, placards and slogans were also raised in a number of public demonstrations held in the preceding three months. This anger has found further encouragement through fairly pointed remarks on the (feigned) neutrality of the establishment by former PM Imran Khan.

For observers of Pakistani politics, this reaction poses a couple of interesting questions. Does the bitter complaint of being ‘left stranded’ by the establishment suggest a turn in the PTI’s political platform? In other words, will it now rethink its strategy to become more self-sufficient as a political actor, rather than relying on the military’s political influence as a useful crutch in and outside of office?

Read more: The importance of being neutral

A second related question is that since every mainstream party has experienced a very public falling out with the military (at some point); will we see a correction in the civil-military imbalance? This is based on the fact that there are no easily trustworthy options available to play their role as a ‘junior partner’ for an extended period of time.

Less charitable observers say that PTI’s current resentment and the anger of its supporters amount to a tantrum that is probably limited to the current military leadership. Such sceptics argue that there is no ideological opposition to the establishment’s extra-constitutional role in politics, and that if given the option, they would be more than happy to cede governing space to the military in exchange for being back in power — as was the case prior to this current phadda (fight).

The establishment is an entrenched political actor and is unlikely to lose influence in key matters of the state overnight.

On the face of it, this sounds very similar to what other parties have done at various points in the past. So while the critique that says PTI’s anger is a post break-up tantrum may be valid, it applies to nearly every other party’s approach towards civil-military issues as well. Either everyone has ‘anti-establishment potential’ or no one passes a stringent purity test given how bargains are struck so frequently.

Another oversight that we often make while thinking about the civil-military imbalance is assuming it to be a switch that can flip from one end to another. That there will be a day when suddenly — and I seek forgiveness in advance for this pun — the boot will be on the other foot. That a single moment in time will mark the rectification of this long-standing hurdle in Pakistan becoming a constitutional state.

This is unlikely to be the case. The establishment is an entrenched political actor, which has institutional experience of operating in the political domain. It is unlikely to lose influence in key matters of the state overnight. A more accurate analogy for the imbalance would be that of a sliding scale that can move in either direction. Progress towards greater civilian control can be made, but it can also be undone to some extent. A quarrel today may be patched over tomorrow, while resentment may linger on for a while longer.

The audacious Twitter trends and acidic remarks by the ex-PM should be seen in light of this sliding scale. In the current moment, the military leadership is experiencing a downturn in its public image and its options have narrowed because of some vocal opposition to its role in politics, regardless of how personalised the opposition may be to the current leadership.

More importantly, all three mainstream parties and segments of their core support now know that the issue is not about their performance in office that puts them on a collision course with the establishment, but rather about the degree to which they can exercise constitutionally granted power.

This realisation may be voiced as a personalised tantrum, or as fancy ideological rhetoric, but it is a substantial one and its widespread presence among politicians and supporters from all parties raises the cost of external meddling and interference. The fact that there is some resentment among upper middle-class urbanites who have historically been aligned with the military’s vision of the country and far more accepting of its political interference in the past also opens up new possibilities for political evolution.

Read more: 'Why did country's defenders not stop conspiracy?' asks Imran

Regardless though, it is probably inaccurate to treat this as a moment of great constitutional awakening, this time being spearheaded by a new party. While being clear on who should call the shots in power is a major component of it, constitutionalism also involves a commitment to parliamentary supremacy, acceptance of the role of the opposition, and adherence to what’s actually written in the Constitution. All parties fail to uphold these to varying degrees, and the PTI proved itself to be no different.

The party’s populist approach undermines the principles set out under which a multiparty parliamentary democracy is supposed to function. This is reflected in the zero-sum attitude of its members and supporters. Either you are with Khan unreservedly or you deserve to be politically vanquished. Such brinkmanship ends up being counterproductive, and opens up space for other actors — namely the judiciary and the military — to intervene and decide political conflicts. We have seen this happen multiple times in the past decade already.

Being clear about the civil-military question is of utmost importance given Pakistan’s political history, but it needs to be supplemented with a recognition and acceptance of other constitutional norms among both politicians and the electorate. The tragedy is that while we occasionally get great clarity on the first aspect, the second bit is often left unaddressed. This leads to destabilising conflict among politicians and partisan supporters, which opens the door for murky deals and interventions, bringing us back to square one.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022

Electorate’s youth bulge

  Published June 27, 2022

PAKISTAN’S electorate of over 124 million voters reflects the youthful demographic profile of the country, among the youngest in the world. Sixty-four per cent of the population is under 30 years. Around 47pc of the electorate is between the ages of 18 and 35. A third of total registered voters is under 30. This pronounced youth bulge among voters has transformed the electoral landscape with important implications for politics, political parties and elections.

But this has mostly been an understudied factor in recent years, save for Pildat’s ongoing work on youth and Gallup Pakistan’s 2021 report, which assesses exit polls over the years. UNDP’s Pakistan National Human Development Report of 2017 was the most comprehensive examination of the role of youth in human development, that captured the aspirations and expectations of young people. For Adil Najam, co-author of the report, its main political conclusion was that Pakistan’s political culture will be defined in future by the young, and not its elites.

Read more: 'Only 25pc youth cast votes in general elections'

Young voters are a potential game changer who can transform the country’s traditional voting patterns. Elections in coming years can be decided by young voters, who are a sizeable constituency — almost 58m in the 18-35 age group. This benefits parties that appeal to the young. PTI is ahead in this game. PML-N and PPP lag behind, even though the latter, in its earlier decades, enjoyed strong support among students. Both parties seem complacent about their ‘stable’ vote banks, which may explain their lack of outreach to the young. They need to rise above the weight of traditional politics and dial their clocks to 2022 to attract young voters.

A big unknown is whether the young would vote differently than older voters, which is presumed to be largely on the basis of traditional loyalties, personalities, dynastic politics, patronage considerations, ethnicity, biradari alignments or religious reasons. Evidence from other countries shows that voting patterns of youth are different. If they vote differently here, that could be a real game changer. Successive opinion surveys show inflation and unemployment to be young people’s top concerns. So is the quality of education, honest and responsive government and religious extremism. In a recent survey, Voice of Youth, Pildat asked members of a nationally representative ‘youth parliament’ it regularly convenes what inspired them to support a political party. Thirty-eight per cent cited a party’s past performance, 36pc party platform and 17pc charismatic party leadership.

Young voters can shape outcomes but they have to turn up at the ballot box.

This suggests that issues are more important for them than personalities. The most encouraging finding was faith in democracy of the overwhelming majority — 85pc of respondents. This, despite their mistrust and low confidence in the country’s institutions. According to the NHD report, “never has there been a generation of young people in Pakistan so invested in the future of their country, so aware that solutions to their problems will not come from above or abroad, who know that it is they who can and must be the change that must start from within”.

But here lies the paradox. For young voters to play a key if not decisive political role, their participation in elections should be significantly high. So far, turnout among younger voters has been exceedingly low. Official statistics are lacking on this. But the Gallup report, relying on exit polls conducted since 1988, finds youth turnout to be much lower than overall voter participation. It shows that usually only a quarter of young voters turned out to vote. In the past two elections, their participation was only a third compared to the average overall turnout of 52pc. This compares poorly with the turnout of female voters, which averaged 40pc in these polls, although this also affects the youth turnout number. According to Gallup, the highest turnout was among 30- to 49-year-old voters. The head of Pildat, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, has also examined this phenomenon and refers to the low turnout of youth as ‘absentee voters’, urging changes to promote greater participation.

Among reasons deemed to contribute to the low turnout is lack of voter registration and non-possession of CNICs, cynicism that elections won’t change anything, disillusionment with political leaders, and little interest in the political process. Many young voters also doubt the fairness of elections. This is another reason that swells the ranks of the large non-voting electorate.

Although youth voter turnout is low, even a modest rise can be consequential to electoral outcomes. This is due to several factors. The first is the sizeable number of marginal and tightly fought seats in general elections in a first-past-the-post system. Well over a hundred National Assembly seats were won by a plurality, not a majority of votes in the 2018 election. Eighty-seven National Assembly seats were won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes, and 26 seats by a margin of under 2,000 votes. In 51 constituencies, the winning candidate’s margin of victory was under 6,000 votes. Most of these were in Punjab — where general elections are won or lost. With the average size of Punjab’s national constituencies around 780,000, these are fragile margins of victory. Given these margins, young voters can shape outcomes if they participate in elections in greater numbers.

Read more: Majority of youth believe next general elections will be fair

A related point is the three-way nature of electoral contests now — between PML-N, PTI and PPP in most national constituencies. In 2018, vote splitting between the two traditional parties enabled PTI candidates to win several marginal seats on narrow pluralities. With the vote dividing between three parties in many constituencies and among others elsewhere, this opens up possibilities for young voters to tip the balance.

New voters are continuously added to the electoral rolls — 18.7m voters were registered in the four years since the 2018 elections. Most, though not all, are young voters. Many may not have any prior party preference. This offers opportunities to parties to reach out and win their allegiance. But the youth vote can only be consequential if more young citizens register and turn up to cast the ballot. Some surveys do indicate their eagerness to vote. Political parties should translate this eagerness into mobilising them to vote, while the ECP should facilitate higher registration of young voters.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022

Turkiye keen to expand trade with Pakistan

  Published June 27, 2022

ISLAMABAD: As Pakis­tan and Turkiye prepare to conclude the Trade in Goods Agreement (TGA) next month, Ankara is keen on increasing the number of flights from the three existing cities and adding two more destinations in Pakistan while a power distribution company wants to invest in Lahore.

Under the agreement, bil­a­teral trade will be incre­a­sed to $5 billion in three years from about $1bn in 2021.

Senior government officials told Dawn that relevant ministries and agencies were engaged in finalising a visit of the Turkish trade minister to Islamabad early next month along with a large business delegation. The guest minister may sign the TGA, an official said, adding that it was being finalised at the moment.

The two governments had agreed during the visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to Turkiye early this month to enhance bilateral trade to $5bn in three years from the present $1.1bn.

The Prime Minister Office (PMO) and the commerce ministry are currently in the process of creating a joint task force comprising relevant politicians, officials and eminent businessmen to achieve the $5bn trade target.

Simultaneously, the Planning Commission, Board of Investment (BOI) and CPEC Authority are also working closely to examine how Turkiye can benefit from CPEC for which the foreign ministry has also been asked to discuss the matter with China at the relevant forums.

Informed sources said Zorlu Energy Group, which currently operates about 55mw renewable energy project in Pakistan, had shared with Prime Minister Sharif during his recent visit that it had a power distribution company which it wanted to bring to Lahore and was interested in setting up electric vehicle (EV) charging facilities in Pakistan.

The sources further said Turkish Airlines had officially requested Islamabad to allow it to increase the frequency of flights from three existing stations – Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad – and also add two more stations – Sialkot and Faisalabad – to its flight portfolio.

Secondly, it had sought permission to ‘maintain profits earned in Pakistan in foreign exchange accounts and repatriate it to Turkiye’.

The Aviation Division, State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Ministry of Finance and BOI were looking into these matters.

Officials said the two sides were working closely on convening the 7th High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC) – led by the two prime ministers – in September this year in Islamabad to sign about seven agreements and finalise other pacts and memorandums of understanding.

Before that, the two sides have to review the implementation status of the existing agreements as well as the strategic economic framework (SEF) and identifying new areas of cooperation in the SEF.

Some of the upcoming agreements pertain to highway engineering between the Turkish ministry of transport and infrastructure and Pakistan’s ministry of communication, technical cooperation between the central banks, treasury and finance authorities in debt management and knowledge sharing, cooperation in urbanisation, climate change and environment and housing sector investment.

Pakistani authorities are seeking Turkish expertise on how to improve Pakistan’s entire business ecosystem by utilising Turkish experience with the European Union.

Meanwhile, the ministries of railways and commerce have been asked to look into the sustainability of Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (TI) train project and identification of impediments.

The upcoming business delegation would also include top Turkish companies, led by a leading businessman-cum-politician Burhan Kayaturk – a graduate of Lahore University of Technology.

As advance consideration, a leading firm Siyahkalem has proposed investments in solar, wind and hydropower sector besides low cost housing through the Naya Pakistan Housing Development Authority.

Albayrak which has been engaged in Pakistan waste management and transport sectors in some of the major cities in Punjab is also interested in expanding to other provinces while Arcelik is looking into development of the technology sector. Also, another firm, Hayat Kimya, is seeking resolution of its industrial problems in Faisalabad where it had set up a factory of paper goods and diapers a few years ago but did not go well with the provincial government during the previous setup. 

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022


India blocks Pakistan’s BRICS invitation

FO hopes future engagement will be on principles of inclusivity

Kamran YousafJune 27, 2022 [The Express Tribune]

India blocked an invitation to Pakistan for the "High level Dialogue on Global Development" held virtually on the sidelines of Brics meetings last week.

Leaders of two dozen non-member countries of the Brics format attended the meeting virtually, held on June 24.

What raised eyebrows was the absence of Pakistan from the meeting, a key strategic partner of China and part of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative.

There was no explanation from either China or Pakistan on the exclusion of Islamabad, but on Monday the Foreign Office finally issued the official version.

Without naming any country, FO spokesperson Asim Iftikhar said a member country of Brics was behind blocking an invitation to Pakistan.

"Pakistan congratulates China on the successful hosting of the BRICS meetings."

"We have noted that this year a ‘High-level Dialogue on Global Development' was held as a Brics side event in which a number of developing/emerging economies were invited," read a FO statement.

"China being the host country engaged with Pakistan prior to the BRICS meetings, where decisions are taken after consultations with all Brics members, including extending an invitation to non-members. Regrettably, one member blocked Pakistan’s participation," the spokesperson added.

Read: Sanctions 'a boomerang and double-edged sword,' says China's Xi

"However, we do hope that future engagement of the organisation would be based on the principles of inclusivity keeping in view the overall interests of the developing world and in a manner that is devoid of narrow geopolitical considerations," Iftikhar said.

The spokesperson said Islamabad appreciated Beijing’s role in promoting the interests of the developing countries. Together with China, Pakistan had been a strong voice for global peace, shared prosperity and inclusive development.

"Pakistan is the current chair of G77+China and also part of a group of friends of the Global Development Initiative (GDI)."
"Pakistan and China are all-weather strategic partners and our iron brotherhood remains rock solid. The two countries are fully committed to take our all-round cooperation to higher levels both bilaterally and multilaterally."

"Pakistan stands ready to work with all developing countries, including the BRICS members for addressing the challenges faced by the global community."

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