Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's First Week in Office

Pakistan's newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan has completed his first week in office. He has named his cabinet and key advisors to run his government. What key challenges does he face going forward?

Pakistan graduated from low-income (level 1) to lower-middle-income (level 2) status at the end of Musharraf years in 2008, according to the United Nations.  Can Prime Minister Imran Khan lead his nation to upper-middle-income (level 3) ranks by the end of his first term in office? What are his chances of accomplishing this ambitious goal?

Successive Pakistani governments have failed to manage the nation's external accounts and foreign exchange reserves, forcing incoming governments to seek IMF bailouts. IMF bailouts come with strings attached, strings that impact Pakistan's sovereignty. One of the key reasons is that Pakistan's exports have halved from about 16% of GDP in 2003 to 8% of GDP in 2017. India's exports have increased from 15% to 19% of GDP in the same period, according to the World Bank

US-Pakistan relations have been deteriorating for the last decade with  new geopolitical realities and new alignments. This fact came into sharp focus and US and Pakistan disagreed on the readout of US Secretary of State Pompeo's first call to Prime Minister Imran Khan.  The US continues to forge close alliance with Pakistan's archenemy India. Given  US control of international financial system and Pakistan's dependence on IMF, Pakistan faces the challenge of managing the crucial US-Pakistan relationship. What must Pakistan do to avoid a complete rupture of this relationship. 

A recent  Pew Research report confirms that the level of hostility against religious minorities in India is "very high", giving India a score of 9.5 on a scale from 0 to 10.   Though the trend is in the direct direction for Pakistan, the country continues to see significant religious hostility toward minorities, particularly toward the small Ahmadi minority.  Pakistan's score on this scale is 7 while Bangladesh's is 7.5.  What must Imran Khan do to further improve the situation?

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Riaz Haq said…
#SaudiArabia, #Iran battle for influence in #Pakistan with #ImranKhan's new government. Pakistan’s position is crucially important to both #Riyadh and #Tehran via @AlMonitor
Saudi Arabia and Iran are beginning a competition for influence with the new government led by Imran Khan in Pakistan. Both have big stakes involved. The Saudi position is much weakened by the war in Yemen, which is unpopular in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s position is crucially important to both Riyadh and Tehran. Pakistan is the second-most populous country in the Muslim world and the only Muslim state with a nuclear arsenal. Over 1.5 million Pakistanis live in the kingdom. Pakistan and Iran share a 900-kilometer (559-mile) border in Baluchistan. Pakistan’s population includes a significant Shiite minority, perhaps as much as 30% of the country. In the Saudi-Iranian competition for influence in the Islamic world, Pakistan is crucial.

Prime Minister Khan says he wants Pakistan to play a “positive and constructive role” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He has spoken by phone with the leadership in both countries since his election and is expected to travel to both early in his term. He has expressed interest in reducing tensions between the two and lowering sectarian violence. Khan visited the kingdom earlier this year, after his marriage, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have traditionally been close allies. Most famously they worked together with the CIA to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistani army had stationed a reinforced brigade group in Saudi Arabia to defend the royal family from threats external and internal. Saudi Arabia’s economic assistance to Pakistan has been extensive and could be crucial for Khan’s government as it deals with major economic challenges.

But relations have cooled considerably in the last four years due to the Yemeni war. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted Pakistan to join the war effort against the Houthi Zaydi Shiite rebels. The kingdom wanted Pakistan’s army to join Operation Decisive Storm. Senior Pakistani officials told me that the Saudis wanted a major Pakistani army contingent.

Then-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif was summoned to Riyadh. He turned the issue over to the parliament at home, which voted unanimously against sending any troops. Khan’s Justice Party was at the forefront of the opposition. Last year, when Pakistan agreed to send a much smaller number of trainers to Saudi Arabia, Khan’s party was again opposed and demanded assurances that no troops would go to fight in Yemen. The party has also opposed Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-sponsored Islamic coalition against terrorism, the brainchild of Crown Prince Salman, because it is perceived with good reason to really be an anti-Iran alliance.

The most visible critic of ties to the kingdom in the Justice Party is Shireen Mazari. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Columbia University, she is now minister for human rights in Khan’s Cabinet. She had been rumored to be his choice for defense minister, but that job is largely powerless in Pakistan because the army makes all the decisions on defense issues. Khan owes his election in large part to the army and its intimidation of his political enemies.

Mazari has led the criticism of the Saudi war in Yemen and the opposition to aligning Pakistan with the kingdom, calling the previous government “dishonest” about sending trainers. She is also an advocate for completing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and for engaging with Iran to help end the war in Afghanistan.

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