Over the course of many decades, Pakistan has maintained a special relationship with Turkey. As two non-Arab Sunni Muslim-majority countries that have aligned on many international issues and which enjoy deep cultural, religious, and economic links, Turkey and Pakistan have developed strong and enduring ties which predate Pakistan’s independence in 1947.
The two nations have a unique bond that remains rooted in the support and mobilization by Indian Muslims for the Ottoman Empire during World War I and for the Turkish Republic during Turkey’s war of independence. Because Pakistan became the ultimate outcome of Indian Muslims’ struggle against British rule, it also inherited these historical linkages with Turkey.
The roads named after the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which exist across Pakistan’s major cities are a reminder of the support which Ankara lent Pakistan shortly after its partition from India. Likewise, in Ankara there is a major road named after Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who saw a need for Pakistan to follow Turkey’s lead when it came to secularism and modernism.
Turkey and Pakistan have long maintained close ties militarily, as two Cold War era allies of Washington which saw the spread of communism in the Muslim world as a grave threat.
The two countries have long maintained close ties militarily. As two Cold War era allies of Washington which saw the spread of communism in the Muslim world as a grave threat, both joined the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and signed an agreement of friendship and cooperation in 1954.
A mutual perception of the Soviet threat paved the way for a strengthening of the Turkish-Pakistani relationship during the last century. Since 1997, Pakistan has been the only Muslim-majority country to possess nuclear weapons which has given Islamabad a special status. Similarly, Turkey with its NATO membership and conventional military capabilities also has its own distinct status.
With the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the traditionally secular and Europe-focused outlook of Turkish foreign policy changed, bringing Ankara even closer to Islamabad. Today, as Turkey seeks to become more autonomous from the West without allowing Russia to tie its hands, the Turkish leadership is constantly seeking to diversify its defense relations, making Pakistan an increasingly important partner for Turkey. Within this context, over a period of time, state institutions from both sides have developed a degree of trust which neither side shares with too many other partners.
Both located in sensitive regions that have experienced high levels of turmoil and violence, officials in Ankara and Islamabad have welcomed each other’s contributions in the domain of counterterrorism.
When addressing Pakistanis, Erdogan once said: “My government and the Turkish people stand by their Pakistani brothers as has always been the case and are ready to help address all needs to the best of their abilities.”
In terms of foreign policy positioning, the two countries have worked together to prevent global isolation. Regarding Northern Cyprus, Pakistan has stood by Turkey. Similarly, last year, Turkey challenged India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the government in New Delhi abrogated Article 370 – which gave autonomous status to the Jammu and Kashmir region, leading to a crisis in the Kashmir Valley.
Turkish support for Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis Indian-administered Kashmir was significant, particularly when virtually no Arab government stood against Modi’s agenda. In turn, Pakistan joined a tiny group of countries that sided with Ankara during “Operation Peace Spring” in northeastern Syria in October 2019 and most recently reiterated its support for Turkey in the Syrian theater in 2020.
Yet there have been some issues in recent times where Ankara and Islamabad were not on the same page. For example, while Turkey’s leadership was adamant about the need to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of Syria’s ongoing conflict, Pakistan took a rather passive stance on the Syrian crisis and has kept diplomatic ties with the government in Damascus albeit without taking active steps to defend Assad’s regime.
Nonetheless, Islamabad and Ankara’s different perspectives on Syria and its Ba’athist government have not weakened the Pakistani-Turkish ties. To the contrary, the strength of their relationship was on display last month when Erdogan made a two-day trip to Islamabad, which was the first visit paid to Pakistan by a foreign head-of-state in 2020.
The highlight of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit to Islamabad was the signing of a Strategic Economic Framework, which would enable boosting the bilateral trade from 800 million USD to eventually 5 billion USD.
The main highlight of the visit was the signing of a Strategic Economic Framework between the two sides, which would enable boosting the bilateral trade from a current volume of 800 million USD to eventually 5 billion USD. Both sides held extensive deliberations and signed Protocols and Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) in the fields of trade, energy, tourism, defense, and infrastructure development.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic was the 450 Business-2-Business (B2B) meetings between the business communities of both sides on domains such as engineering, energy, tourism, construction, defense, automotive, chemicals, and information technology. Both governments have decided to facilitate and push their respective business collaboration to explore further investment opportunities.
Still both sides failed to reach a conclusion on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and although Khan invited Turkey to be part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, such initiatives require well-defined and mandated bilateral mechanisms in order to materialize.
Within the defense domain, the warm meeting between Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was representative of the depth of the strategic partnership.
General Bajwa highlighted the “unique” nature of Pakistan’s relationship, an adjective usually reserved for Pakistan’s ties with China and Saudi Arabia. This type of statement suggests that in addition to cooperation in the defense production sphere, both sides are supportive of each other wherever their forces are active.
Another avenue of possible collaboration will be Pakistan’s interest in understanding the operational dynamics of the Russian S400 missile defense system, which Turkey purchased. Because India is also buying this system and would be positioning it to undermine Pakistan’s air and missile force’s capabilities, it is extremely significant for Pakistan to understand its operational framework and map out a strategy to counter it.
Most likely, Turkey and Pakistan’s partnership will strengthen further as a result of Erdogan’s visit to Islamabad last month. Yet there are complicated factors in the relationship that may create some uncertainty.
The main issues have to do with Pakistan’s relations with certain Arab states that see Turkey as a major threat. With Abu Dhabi and Riyadh seeking to push back against the expansion of Turkish influence in the wider Islamic world—seen from the Emirati or Saudi perspective as “neo-Ottomanism”—the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia are uneasy about Pakistan’s close relationship with Turkey.
The pressure which Pakistan has been under from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to avoid aligning closer with the Turkish-Qatari bloc was on display late last year in relation to the mini-Islamic summit held in Kuala Lumpur. Despite being invited and originally planning on going, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan did not.
According to numerous sources, including Erdogan, the main reason had to do with the Saudi perceptions of the summit as a challenge to the legitimacy of the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Given the extent to which Pakistan’s economic troubles have left the country increasingly reliant on financial support from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, it was not too much of a surprise that Khan ended up not attending.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia do not want Pakistan to align closely with the Ankara-Doha axis, complicating Islamabad’s strategy of maintaining cordial ties with all major players in the Middle East.
Clearly, the Emiratis and Saudis do not want Pakistan to align closely with the Ankara-Doha axis, complicating Islamabad’s strategy of maintaining cordial ties with all major players in the Middle East.
Notwithstanding the pressure that some Gulf states are placing on Islamabad, it would be difficult to imagine Pakistan and Turkey not looking to make their bilateral partnership stronger.
As a country that has been supportive of Turkey for many decades and which has a common understanding with Ankara on a host of transregional issues, Pakistan’s embrace of Erdogan last month sent an important message that Islamabad stands by Turkey.