Turner's Tenure as High Commissioner and Lessons for Modern Diplomacy

Dr Christian Turner, who has served as the British High Commissioner to Pakistan since December 2019, will be leaving Pakistan in January 2023 for London, where he will be taking up the position of Director General Geopolitical, one of the most senior diplomatic posts in the UK. Turner tweeted this news to his 237,000 followers, saying, “Pakistan, I will miss you,” a sentiment reciprocated by many of his Pakistani followers.

While it should be acknowledged that Turner could not have advanced UK-Pakistan ties alone without a host of key figures in both Pakistan and the UK, there have been a lot of significant developments in that relationship during his tenure, many of which have aptly fallen in this the 75th year since Pakistan’s independence. Useful lessons for modern-day diplomacy can also be gleaned from Turner’s example, having built strong trust and relationships with the people through soft power.

Turner has succeeded in balancing professionalism with a sense of relatability, mainly through his use of social media, which is key to the multi-faceted diplomacy of today. The best example of this is perhaps Turner’s promotion of “sports diplomacy”, particularly in helping to secure the return of English Test cricket to Pakistan after a 17-year hiatus. He has appeared on TV to discuss England-Pakistan cricket matches, as well as presiding over a coin toss at the inaugural game at Gwadar stadium.

Aware of the power that cricket has to further the wider UK-Pakistan relationship, Turner has said how it is about “so much more” than sports diplomacy. The two countries vary in many ways, but the love of cricket brings them close together, or “aik saath” as popularised by the diplomatic team, best galvanised by England’s Barmy Army and the famous “mehman nawazi” of Pakistan. There is sincerity in Turner’s diplomacy, having expressed his own disappointment when the England Cricket Board (ECB) chose to postpone the England cricket tour of Pakistan back in September 2021. In affirming that his role does not involve being a “cheerleader” for Pakistan, he was acknowledging the “quantifiable” improvement in Pakistan’s security situation that made the tour feasible.

Turner has succeeded in balancing professionalism with a sense of relatability, mainly through his use of social media, which is key to the multi-faceted diplomacy of today.

Many people say they are sick of hearing about cricket on account of there being more pressing issues in Pakistan, but sports diplomacy is one of the most effective forms of soft power at the diplomat’s disposal, which can help to secure trust and build relationships so as to achieve other shared interests. Beyond this, UK-Pakistan ties have gone from strength to strength during Turner’s tenure, though it should be acknowledged here how his Pakistani diplomatic counterparts in the UK have also played a very significant role in this vein, as well as the diasporas themselves.

Besides, Pakistan has faced not only the challenges of COVID-19 during this time but also the destructive realities of climate change, both of which the UK government has sought to help ameliorate. In July 2021, the UK shared genomic sequencing support with Pakistan through the New Variant Assessment Platform and provided free vaccines that helped protect 8.5 million people in Pakistan, in addition to giving 18 million GBP to help save lives and mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Then, in the wake of COP26, the UK pledged over 55 million GBP in partnering with Pakistan to tackle climate change and to make provisions for climate resilience, water governance and climate investment.

But, as the “loss and damage” climate negotiations of COP27 have intended to show, the sheer force of this year’s floods could not be mitigated by existing human systems. Notwithstanding the important development of a loss and damage deal in the run-up to COP28 and the implications it might have for issues such as climate reparations, the UK government has contributed 26.5 million GBP to support flood relief efforts across Pakistan. Turner himself visited the camp of Islamic Relief in District Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in September, and he has consistently supported climate initiatives in Pakistan.

In conversation with Ian Talbot, Emeritus Professor in History of Modern South Asia at the University of Southampton and author of the book, The History of British Diplomacy in Pakistan, he described how attention has “invariably focused on the British High Commission’s role in providing assistance to Pakistan during the recent devastating floods,” though he emphasised that this should not “obscure longer-term environmental assistance and initiatives. These include ongoing support for helping Pakistan achieve Paris Agreement climate targets.

Talbot also highlighted UK-Pakistan partnerships in the context of this year’s significant anniversary for Pakistan. “The achievements of British Pakistanis in the UK during the last 75 years have been celebrated alongside Pakistani organisations in the “Legacy Project” which has seen 7,500 trees planted in the UK. In August, 75 years of UK-Pakistan relations were symbolically celebrated by High Commission Staff and Chevening alumni planting 75 native species of trees in the Shakarparian National Park in Islamabad.”

Likewise, the first major update to the UK government’s travel advice for Pakistan since 2015 came in January 2020 due to the improved security situation, which has facilitated the increase in British Airways flights and the return of English Test cricket to Pakistan. British Airways resumed flights between the UK and Pakistan after ten years in June 2019, but it was during Turner’s tenure that flights increased further, and he has been credited with lobbying for and securing direct flights. Virgin Atlantic started flights from Heathrow and Manchester to Islamabad and Heathrow to Lahore in August 2020. British Airways doubled its flights the following month, announcing four direct flights from Lahore to Heathrow per week. This would facilitate not only greater UK-Pakistan tourist exchange but also key familial connectivity for the Pakistani and British diasporas.

Turner also initiated the goal of doubling bilateral trade between the UK and Pakistan by 2025, with total trade currently standing at 2.9 billion GBP per year. Coming into force in early 2023, Pakistan has been named among 65 countries for which tariffs will be reduced, and trade made more simple as part of the Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS). 94 per cent of goods exported from Pakistan to the UK will be eligible for duty-free access, and a projected 120 million GBP to be saved on export tariffs through the DCTS. Earlier in September 2020, the financing limit for UK businesses exporting to and investing in Pakistan increased to 1.5 billion GBP, which was especially beneficial for Pakistan at the time to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

Organisations in Pakistan have acknowledged Turner and the British High Commission for championing quality education for all children in Pakistan. Girls’ education has been another key issue central to the UK government’s efforts in Pakistan, with up to 130 milliom GBP pledged for girls’ education in Pakistan as part of the UK’s “Girls and Out of School: Action for Learning” (GOAL) programme. In collaboration with the British Council, the British High Commission announced 75 scholarships in September for Pakistani students wishing to study in the UK to mark 75 years since independence, giving 50% of these to women.

Christian Turner’s tenure as the British High Commissioner to Pakistan has been marked by a number of significant developments in ties between the two countries, a testament to the commitment of both Brits and Pakistanis in furthering it. Turner’s brand of diplomacy, exemplified by his sports diplomacy and his accessibility via social media, provides useful lessons in how to be a successful modern-day ambassador, so his successor will have big shoes to fill and a strengthened UK-Pakistan relationship to maintain, which is not without its own unique challenges.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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