Analysis: Quiet and dangerous engagement

Published March 20, 2014
Minister for Finance Ishaq Dar  in a meeting with King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. — Photo by INP
Minister for Finance Ishaq Dar in a meeting with King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. — Photo by INP

Notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding the king of Bahrain’s meeting on Wednesday with the top commanders of Pakistan’s armed forces at the joint staff headquarters in Rawalpindi, an increasingly baffling question refused to go away.

Beyond the limelight following a growing engagement recently between Pakistan’s ruling structure and the Saudi-led Arab world, exactly who gains what remains unclear in the public eye.

Three years after a popular uprising rocked Bahrain, Pakistan’s role in quelling that popular unrest remains an actively discussed subject. At best, Pakistani officials have confirmed knowledge of retired uniformed personnel having been engaged by Bahrain’s security establishment for training purposes. But the numbers are far from clear.

Meanwhile, the arrival in Pakistan of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, has coincided with a widely talked about controversy emanating from the mysterious case of the $1.5 billion which according to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were given by a ‘friendly country’ to bolster Pakistan’s depleting foreign reserves.

Though still not confirmed officially, Pakistan remains abuzz with suggestions that the funds were given by Saudi Arabia following last month’s high-profile visit to Islamabad by Saudi crown prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

For members of Pakistan’s pro-Saudi lobby, the support is a repeat of Riyadh’s past benevolence showered in forms like the practically free-of-charge oil given for three years to Pakistan after Islamabad’s 1998 nuclear tests. Without the previous Saudi largesse, the economic sanctions following Pakistan’s entry to the global nuclear club could have had a significantly more crippling effect on the country, goes the argument.

Yet, the stakes are much higher for Pakistan at a time when its increasingly challenged internal security environment has thrown up possibly the worst challenge in the nation’s history.

The danger of Pakistan getting sucked into the considerable security challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain while its internal conditions remain deeply unsettled will likely continue to evoke controversy.

In a powerful reminder of the uncertainty surrounding Bahrain, a Bahraini court on Wednesday sentenced 11 defendants each to a 15 year prison term. They were convicted of “manufacturing bombs for terror purposes”.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s growing engagement with Islamabad has prompted suggestions of the ruling establishment in Riyadh seeking Islamabad’s support to bolster itself on two fronts — the southern frontline along the border with Yemen and to the north to face internal security challenges as well as tackling any possible spillover from conflict-stricken Syria.

Media reports have gone further to claim that the Saudis have asked Pakistan to help arm and train Syrian dissidents facing president Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Not surprising though, these reports have prompted concerns from a range of well-positioned critics among Pakistan’s political representatives and policy watchers.

According to Farhatullah Babar, a senator of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), “Serious questions need to be answered by the government. It is inconceivable that somebody gives you $1.5 billion and there is no quid pro quo. That has never happened before”.

Senator Babar further warned of the wider regional consequences for Pakistan’s security if the country is proven to have taken sides in active Middle-East conflicts. “If Pakistan supports any one side in the Syrian conflict that will exacerbate sectarian tensions within Pakistan and keep the border with Iran on the boil,” he added, echoing an oft-repeated concern over the fallout for Pakistan from becoming entangled in a sharpened Shia-Sunni divide in its surrounding region.

For long-term observers of Pakistan’s military engagement with Saudi Arabia, the recently reported requests are not without precedent. “In the 1980s our troops were there at a time when the Saudis faced an external threat from a spillover of the Gulf war,” said retired Brigadier Farooq Hameed Khan, a commentator on Pakistan’s defence affairs.

Brigadier Khan however warned that suggestions of “Pakistan getting sucked in to a wider conflict especially a sectarian conflict” has significantly raised the stakes for Islamabad. “Pakistani weapons in no way should be used anywhere in the Gulf in a conflict situation,” he added, referring to unconfirmed reports of a Saudi request for light arms to be provided by Pakistan to the Syrian opposition.

While the debate rages across Islamabad on the pros and cons of Pakistan’s deeper involvement in Middle East tensions, western diplomatic observers are struck by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government’s failure to become more transparent as it pursues potentially significant policy choices.

“It is mind boggling that you have a government with a majority in parliament but little faith in the parliamentary processes. There is so much secrecy,” said one senior western diplomat on Wednesday. “A political government ought to go to parliament, put the matter on the table and prove that it has the backing of the majority. Pakistan’s tragedy is ultimately you have a democracy but not a [democratic] character,” he concluded.

Farhan Bokhari is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on politics, economy and security issues.



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