Sharif and the Saudis

Updated 12 Apr 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

A couple of things we’ve learned this week. Parliament did a great job, but it was the government that allowed parliament to do the job to begin with.

Depending on which side of the fence you are, the government either passed the buck to parliament or the N-League used parliament as a shield.

Whatever the stories that may emanate about opposition-led changes and tweaks to the resolution, this much was known from the beginning: there is no closer ally of the Saudis in politics — mainstream politics, anyway — than the PML-N.

The PML-N owned the reluctance to respond swiftly to the Saudi demands.

And the Saudis had been clear: give us what we want and we need it now.

For the N-League to send this matter to parliament — instead of, say, convening the Cabinet Committee on National Security to debate it internally — was for the PML-N to say at the outset, guys, help us out here, we’re caught in a bind.

And parliament obliged. Probably more than the PML-N had hoped. PPP, ANP, MQM — those kinds you always expected them to say, stay out of the Middle East, fix the problems at home first.

But when PTI, JI, JUI-F piled on too it was a bit of a godsend. The PML-N had the consensus it could hide behind. Sorry, Saudis, but look, that’s what the collective will of our country is saying. Our hands are tied.

Don’t for a minute be fooled by any of that talk of a watered-down resolution or the strong, pro-Saudi language the government wanted being tempered by stuff about neutrality or diplomacy.

This happened because the king here, Nawaz, wanted this to happen. Which leaves us with trying to figure out why they wanted this.

From the beginning, if you trace the statements, public and private, of N-Leaguers, there was always a sense that the preference was to not send troops to Yemen, to not participate militarily in operations inside Yemen and, at most, as a measure of last resort, to placate the Saudis by sending token support to be based inside Saudi.

Which leaves us with the question of why Nawaz would so publicly resist his greatest ally in its self-determined hour of need?

It’s not even true that this was forced upon the PML-N by the other players here, by the army, for example, which just said no to participating in Yemen and left the government with having to do the explanations.

The PML-N owned this decision. It owned the reluctance to respond swiftly to the Saudi demands and it owned the shuttle diplomacy and concerted action by Turkey and Pakistan.

Had the PML-N wanted it could have sent the opposite signal, suggesting that it was racing to do whatever the Saudis asked for and then letting the blame for inaction here fall on the obvious quarters.

So what gives?

Resistance has been put down to Pakistani resolve. To Pakistan doing the right thing. To statesmanship at last making an appearance. To developing a spine.

But could it be that the N-League, Nawaz in particular, familiar with the Saudis for decades now understand the Saudis better than most of us here and immediately sensed that the new Saudi leadership has bitten off more than it can chew?

That the Saudis have made a strategic error, led by an untested leadership panicked by events of recent years around them, and that they have not thought Yemen through?

Inside Pakistan, the argument being advanced is that Pakistan has at last understood its core national interests and wants to stay out of proxy wars and the like. That Pakistan first is the rule going forward.

Whereas, the more you look at this, given all else that has been happening here — NAP progress, anyone? — it may be less about Pakistan and more about Nawaz understanding Saudi and the royals and sensing they’ve waded into a conflict with no winners, at best. Why does any of that matter? Whether we’re not going because of reasons internal or because Nawaz may have figured out the Saudis have waded into something they won’t be able to walk away from easily?

Because it would put into context this historic turning point that the parliamentary resolution is being cast as. A wise rejection of an ally because of the proxy-war, Saudi-Iran angle and the need to focus on the fight against militancy domestically.

It is a good decision. But knowing whether it is born of wise statecraft and Pakistan’s position in the Muslim world or a shrewd but narrower estimate of a wrong-headed war matters.

There is though one caveat. Through much of the debate in parliament and in the media you could sense the heavy theme hanging over it: Peshawar.

Had the convulsion that was Peshawar not happened, would the tenor of the debate on participating in Yemen been the same? Hard to know counter-factuals, but you can guess the debate would have been at least slightly different. The memory of Peshawar has made it harder to take ugly decisions.

The automatic disbelief that Pakistan would try and wade into a sectarian conflict was less about people being sure Yemen is a sectarian conflict or knowing that Saudi-Iran proxies war would re-ignite inside Pakistan and more, you could sense, a revulsion at the thought of fresh horrors being unleashed here, however remote.

Peshawar does live in the memory and, for a horror of that magnitude, in a good way. But not to the extent of the government taking the fight against militancy seriously.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2015

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