Wrong side of history

Published March 18, 2014

THE Islamic world’s power dynamics are undergoing possibly the most seismic shift in a generation. The House of Saud’s dominance over global Muslim politics, an enduring, if calamitous, reality, appears to be abating.

A divergence of interests between the Kingdom and other regional players has been gaining currency. Much has changed in the Muslim world since the public rift between Saudi Arabia and its perceived patron, the US, over the issue of nuclear engagement with Iran.

With Turkey, Qatar, and Iraq adopting divergent policy postures to the Saudis and the latter two now publicly hostile, the regional sway held by the House of Saud seems to be slipping away. Pakistan, however, appears to be on the wrong side of history once again.

The latest fracas in the Middle East has been an unprecedented cleavage within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a previous bastion of support for regional Saudi supremacy. A categorical challenge to Saudi leadership has been mounted by the resource rich, increasingly independent Emirate of Qatar. Self-confidence spurred by swelling coffers of a gas-rich economy have led the new emir and his associates to openly confront Saudi policy on Egypt and Syria.

Energy politics is also undergoing important changes, mostly precipitated by technology and environmental concerns. Gas is the new oil, deemed preferable as a fossil fuel due to its lower carbon emissions. Resultantly, historically obscure Qatar has been making waves in the last few years through its global spending spree, and high-profile international investments.

The second element set to alter the geo-strategic energy landscape is the discovery of shale gas. With US gas exports expected to commence next year, US reliance on external energy resources will dwindle, diluting its dependence on its traditional Middle Eastern allies. This process is already under way, unnerving the Saudis. For decades US criticism of the Saudis was muted, both officially and in their media outlets. This embargo on silence has been lifted in the last few months, and is likely to escalate.

Unaccustomed to the withdrawal of unqualified international support, the Saudis seem more zealous in achieving their regional ambitions, but their plans appear thwarted. Turkey and Qatar are now supporting different groups to Saudi-backed jihadi elements in Syria and both back Egypt’s elected but deposed Muslim Brotherhood government.

Intriguingly, Qatar and Iran policies are in greater consonance today than those of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Oman, a member of the GCC, played a mediating role between the US and Iran before nuclear negotiations became public, and has recently signed a slew of economic deals with Iran during President Rouhani’s visit to Oman. The GCC has never been this fractured before, with only the UAE and Bahrain standing firmly behind Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, perceived as an Iranian ally, has recently publicly chastised the Saudi and Qatari governments for their support of insurgent groups. Iraq in February this year, pumped more oil than it has in the last 35 years.

With Iraq’s oil exports rising rapidly, and Iran’s potential reintegration into the international community, the waning of Saudi power is inevitable. Qatar, Iraq, Iran and Turkey are all emerging counterweights to traditional Saudi dominance in the Islamic world. With the erosion of Saudi hegemony in the Muslim world, a new era of a more enlightened version of the faith being practised may also ensue.

Pakistan, however, seems to have the misfortune of being the single Saudi foreign policy ‘success’ of recent times. Instead of acquiring energy and long-term economic security through implementing an accord with our gas rich neighbour, we have chosen the expedient and ultimately deleterious path of continued Saudi patronage.

The direct correlation between deepening Saudi influence and an escalation in extremism in Pakistan that has disfigured the country’s socio-economic landscape over the last three decades has been ignored in our obsession for finding a quick economic fix. Rather than working on improving economic fundamentals and investing in a progressive future, we appear eager to remain on the right side of an increasingly anachronistic regime, whose financial largesse over the years has carried punitive social costs.

The rise in militancy that has witnessed tens of thousands of innocent lives sacrificed, billions in potential investment lost due to a debilitating security environment, and the mutilation of our spiritual landscape, are largely the enduring legacy of a resilient Saudi-Pak partnership.

The addition of $1.5 billion to our foreign currency reserves is therefore an insignificant and temporary palliative. A prudent and favourable foreign policy course would be sensitised to geopolitical trends which can yield long term socio-economic benefits rather than being driven by personal linkages and fleeting financial gains.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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