Crescents and stars

Published April 12, 2015
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

ANWAR Gargash is not happy. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs took to his Twitter account within hours of the parliamentary resolution desiring neutrality in Yemen to upbraid both Pakistan and Turkey for their ambivalence.

From Libya to Yemen, the Cambridge-educated minister lamented, the Arab world will now have to take care of its own security. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen will be without the brace of non-Arab, democratic countries with sometimes coup-making armies, crescents and stars on their flags, large non-Sunni populations, and, crucially, borders with Iran.

The Turks are scarcely close to the Saudis. Some of that history can be traced back to the early 19th century, when Ottoman forces executed the Saudi emir of the time and dispatched its Egyptian soldiery to steamroll the first Saudi state.

Turkey and Pakistan have reason to fear a regional proxy war.

Two centuries on, they are still rivals. Across North Africa, the Islamist-leaning government of Recep Tayyep Erdogan has backed like-minded groups in Egypt, Tunisia, and the country Gargash tellingly mentioned, Libya.

The Saudis meanwhile prefer ‘stability’ and ‘continuity’ to experiments with popular rule. They helped rehabilitate survivors of the old orders, backing former Bourguiba aide President Essebsi in Tunis, Gen Al-Sisi in Cairo, and the roguish one-time Qadhafi enforcer Gen Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya.

But on Iran and its expanding influence, the Turks and the Saudis have been closely aligned. The Syrian example is the most salient, with both Ankara and Riyadh seeing the Assad regime as ultimately a bigger threat than even the barbarous hordes of the Islamic State. Now, there’s also some convergence on Yemen.

Last month, Erdogan denounced Iran’s “annoying” power plays in the region. The Turks and the Saudis see Tehran as intruding across an arc, from Gaza city to Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and now Sana’a. The Saudis fear encirclement, and their proposed coalition in Yemen hoped to throw a rope of influence around Iran, with Pakistan to its east and Turkey to its north.

On his visit to Tehran, however, Erdogan took a more conciliatory approach — one reminiscent of the days, before the Syrian conflict, when Turkey would boast of a “zero problems with neighbours” policy. Amid displays of geniality, the Turkish president urged his Iranian counterpart and the Supreme Leader to relax their regional ambitions and pursue a diplomatic solution.

At the same time, Nawaz Sharif urged the visiting Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif to revisit his policy in Yemen, where they are alleged to be backing the Houthis.

Both Erdogan and Sharif have good reasons to fear an all-out regional proxy war, from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea, that pits the Saudis and Iranians against each other and could become sectarian.

Around a fifth of Pakistan’s population is Shia, and a comparable proportion of Turks belong to the heterodox Alevi sect. The Alevis have also faced much violence. They feel alienated from public life, complain the state denies recognition to their places of worship, and fear the spread of IS as the flames of the Syrian conflict lick the Turkish border.

The AKP and PML-N are both pro-business parties with socially conservative bases and a marked aversion to military rule. But, as parties chiefly of Anatolia and Punjab, they have a poor record of reaching out beyond those large bases to the point of appearing hostile to minorities. They narrowly rely on the votes of a pious Sunni majority in exchange for promises of prosperity.

In Turkey, the Alevis were at the forefront of the Gezi protests that opposed Erdogan’s majoritarian tendencies. The Turkish president is no longer regarded as a force for inclusive reform as he was a decade ago.

In Pakistan, there had been hopes Sharif’s third term might emulate Erdogan’s first, with a tolerant atmosphere of reform spurring economic growth. Instead, Erdogan’s autocratic style today often resembles Sharif’s in his discredited second term. Just as Sharif was likened to a Mughal ruler back then, Erdogan is often accused of acting like an Ottoman sultan.

Both Turkey and Pakistan have their own reasons to be wary of an intervention. During the civil war in the late 1960s, Pakistan opportunistically hawked rifles to Saudi-backed royalist Zaydi fighters. The irony of the Saudis now turning to the Pakistanis to help tame a Zaydi revolt shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

The Ottomans learned their own lessons long before. On the eve of his departure in 1918, the last pasha lamented, “We never knew Yemen, nor did we understand it or learn about it, nor were we, for that matter, able to administer it.”

Erdogan and Sharif now have a chance to relieve their own regional isolation, act as moderating influences on the Saudis and the Iranians, perhaps satisfy energy needs in the process, and offer Dr Gargash and other critics examples of how Muslim-majority democracies can be inclusive, non-sectarian promoters of peace. Will they seize it?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2015

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