In the second week of February, 2020, President Tayyib Erdogan of Turkey made one of his most historic visits to Pakistan. In orthodox times, such official matters are attended by the President alongwith delegates from the Foreign Ministry, but instead, Erdogan was accompanied by his wife, close political allies and a group of most influential businessmen from Turkey. It is no surprise that he has come to Pakistan with a profound agenda. Pakistan and Turkey are facing a peculiar set of challenges and each is of the view that through a strategic partnership, the impact of these challenges can be averted and turned into an advantage. It is important to note that Pakistan and Turkey are, at this point, at the entry level of bi-lateral relations, something Imran Khan and Tayyib Erdogan are set to change in the coming years.
The cultural, religious and political ties between the Muslims of the sub-continent and the people of Turkey go back to the early 1900s. During the colonial era and the dissolution of the Caliphate, the Muslims of the sub-continent adamantly fought for the rights of their Turk brethren, and upon the creation of modern Turkey, developed relations that have stood the test of time. Since early days, the ties between Pakistan and Turkey have continued on the basis of religious and cultural basis, which is transforming based on global socio-economic circumstances.
The most crucial part of the equation between Pakistan and Turkey are their common global position in the world. Both countries are Muslim countries with a reformed and contemporary view of religious and political values. Both Pakistan and Turkey are a contrast from monarchies like Saudi Arabia and other similar Middle East countries. The support for democracy runs deep. Just like Pakistan, Turkey has long struggled with military rule and intervention in politics, and has attempted to find common ground between authoritative Islamic governance and modern democracy. The struggles for human rights, liberty and freedom of expression and life have been the hallmark of political movements in both countries. Although, there is a difference in language, the tastes in foods, music, Sufism and art have remarkable similarity. By all means, there is much to gain in this communion.
The main motivation for Erdogan’s visit was on the economic frontier. Despite, long standing relations and stable foreign affairs contact, Pakistan and Turkey have barely over 900 million dollars of trade volume which can be enhanced atleast five times more with the right communication and trade negotiations. Population of Turkey is around 80 million and that of Pakistan is 212 million (approx.), so a trade balance can benefit both the nations. The products manufactured in Turkey are of same quality as European origin goods, with correct and collaborative efforts, Pakistan can reduce its import burden by shifting imports from US and Western Europe to Turkey, which will fetch the same quality goods in lesser expenditure. On the other hand, Turkey is an expanding nation and they are on the verge of economic launch, for this, they need skilled manpower and buyers of their manufactured goods, for which Pakistan is a stable market. Erdogan made sure that trade ties are expanded and talks are already underway for a Free Trade Agreement between the two nations. Pakistan is hoping that the protective Customs duty of 20% placed on Pakistan textile exports to Turkey are slashed which will be a boost to the garments and textile sector in Pakistan. Also, over 60 Turkish companies are willing to invest in Pakistan in the sectors of energy, arms and munitions, transport and telecommunications. Over 14 Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed by Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Erdogan. Another major development is the invitation from Pakistan to join China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Erdogan has shown keen interest in expansion of the CPEC and OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative, and his government is ready to become a part of it. The Special Economic Zones are of particular significance to Turkey as the future pathways of trade and commerce. This must be co-related with the fact that Turkey is already a part of the (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) initiative to form an alliance that does not include the US and Western countries in the economic independence. Erdogan held the sixth round of High-Level-Strategic-Co-Operation-Council (HLSCC) meeting in Islamabad, which is similar to a full fledged cabinet under the President, to take multi-faceted measures to enhance trade and economic partnership between the two countries. On the HR side, it is an odd fact that there are only 2000 Pakistanis stationed in Turkey and only around 200 Turkish citizens living in Pakistan. For this, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that of Human Resources and Overseas Employment have been tasked to take necessary steps to enhance the setup of human and cultural exchange programs.
Tourism is another sector in which Pakistan and Turkey can be of immense assistance to each other. Pakistan possesses an outstanding diversity of geography, flora and fauna, but due to non-performing tourism programs and lack of security, gets a small portion of its GDP from tourists. Turkey on the other hand, has a robust tourism ministry and tourists contribute a large sum total of GDP. With the right collaboration, Pakistan can learn from Turkish counterparts and make Pakistan and its tourist destinations as attractive as Turkey for tourists around the world. It must be kept in mind that the yearly income that Turkey earns from tourism is around $31.5 billion a year.
On the political side, Turkey has done for Pakistan which many allied nations have failed to do, that is, to speak in favor of suffering Kashmiris and their oppression at the hands of Indian army. India has time and again shown strong reaction to the Turkish stance on Kashmir, even facing deterioration in trade ties with India but Erdogan has proved to be a man of stature and his political allies have stood by him. Even on his visit, he mentioned the atrocities being carried out in Kashmir and bolstered the stance of the Pakistan government in front of the world. This is a rare occasion that signified that relations between Pakistan and Turkey are at their highest point. In terms of countering extremism, both countries have taken up the task of fighting Islamophobia especially the phenomena threatening the identity of Muslims living in the US and European countries. This goes hand in hand with the anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency efforts by the armies of both nations in their respective borders.
As Imran Khan received Erdogan and his wife at the airport and drove the car himself to the Prime Minister house, it seemed these two men, had much in common, both self-made, with established leaders and with a commitment to improve the lives of their people. Turkey is facing insecure borders with Syria and outright confrontation with the US on trade and stance on Palestine, similar to Pakistan’s insecure border with India and Afghanistan. There is more in common between Pakistan and Turkey than what other nations can realize. Whatever challenges are on their way in the future, Pakistan and Turkey have much better chances of surviving and thriving with each other. In his final words speaking in Islamabad, Erdogan said, “our friendship is not based on vested interests but in love”.