Societies can be consumed by emotion. But states are only meant to have interests. It is for national leaders to ensure that the nation’s emotions are in sync with its interests. And that is where our leadership has failed us amidst the Middle East crisis.
Notwithstanding the debate in parliament and the hurried back and forth of civil-military leaders to Saudi Arabia, there hasn’t yet been an effective articulation of interests to be protected through our Saudi-Yemen policy.
Our reaction to angry, indignant statements being issued by nervous Arab rulers ought not be equally inane and driven by false pride.
In our relationship with the Arabs and in the evolving shape of the Middle East, we have a range of interests at stake that must be considered dispassionately. Our policy must guard against damage to our existing relationship with GCC states and Iran, while hedging against medium-term concerns in this region.
Our paramount immediate-term interests appear to be four-fold: our energy security and dependence on Arab oil and subsidy; our financial security and dependence on remittances from Pakistani workers in the Middle East; Arab sponsorship of and linkages with Pakistani seminaries and their ability to retard our anti-terrorism campaign; and our interest in retaining a friendly relationship with Iran (to work jointly on gas pipelines and Afghanistan) without offending the Saudis or igniting a Iran-Saudi proxy war in Pakistan.
Our medium-term interests are more complex. Middle East is changing and the stranglehold of monarchies, presently our allies, might not be sustainable for too long. Should we tie ourselves to these threatened monarchies and go down fighting with them or should we try and build broad-based relationship with Arab societies akin to our relationship with Turkey that is not contingent on who is in power at any given time? Should we support insurgents in civil wars or should we stand with de jure governments and existing state structures?
Our reaction to angry statements being issued by nervous Arab rulers should not be equally inane.
How will the fall of de jure governments impact dissidents/terrorists in Pakistan? If existing monarchical structures in the Middle East crumble, what is the best approach to protecting our energy and human resource export interests? Should we join the Saudi-led Sunni bloc, the Iran-led Shia bloc or organise a sensible, progressive third-bloc (comprising Muslim states including Turkey and Malaysia etc.), that is friends with both blocs and prevents their rivalries from coming to a boil?
There are a few misconceived ideas that seem to be shaping the Yemen debate. Speaker after speaker in parliament exalted the virtues of staying neutral in the Yemen war. Do you not expect your friends and allies to pick sides in the middle of a war, no matter how unwise the decision to start it?
Pakistan has fought wars with India and we remember who stood by us and who didn’t. Our relationship with China grew not on the basis of cultural or religious affinity, but due to shared strategic interests vis-à-vis India. Our relationship with the Turks is rooted in the support Indian Muslims (and after independence, Pakistan) offered when Turkey was struggling through its own transition to modernity. Deciding who is a friend and who is a foe is one thing. But being an unreliable friend/ally is not smart policy.
The prime minister’s statement that we don’t ditch friends in hard times is important, not for honour but to protect our interests. Let us not delude ourselves that we have similar interests in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. We don’t. Also Iran is not a strategic ally, but a competitor. This doesn’t change whether you are Shia or Sunni. Iran and Pakistan have competing interests in Afghanistan and the region. While we must strengthen a friendly relationship to work with Iran in areas of mutual benefit, we don’t want Iran to make a nuclear bomb.
So let’s not exaggerate the convergence of interests. We can’t be strictly ‘neutral’ when it comes to Iran and Saudi Arabia. We understand their rivalry and have an interest in it not degenerating into a conflict. But what happens in the backyard is of strategic significance for a country. Russia used military force to control Ukraine. We worry about Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia wishes to dominate Yemen. This should not be hard for us to understand. What is required is management of Saudi expectations and counselling them on what not to do in Yemen.
What the world initially celebrated as Arab Spring has now become a scorching, dreadful summer. Let us appreciate that the fall of the de jure government in Yemen (with airports and oil wells being taken over by Al Qaeda and private militias) is not in our interest. We know by now from Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian experience that vacuum created by the breakdown of traditional structures of governance, in the absence of a strong army as in Egypt, is filled by extremist groups.
The immediate threat posed by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State is not to the West but to badly governed Sunni-majority states where such extremist ideology finds resonance. Given our own terrorism problem, the breakdown of formal state structure in Yemen doesn’t help our interests. The solution, of course, is not to put Pakistan’s military force on ground in Yemen. And making that point requires quiet and persuasive diplomacy, which is where we seem to be failing.
As friends of Saudi Arabia, we must draw their attention to Machiavelli’s counsel: “If you are counting on mercenaries to defend your state you will never be stable … the fact is that mercenaries bring only slow, belated, unconvincing victories, then sudden, bewildering defeats”. And herein lies the Saudi dilemma: it needs a strong standing army to protect and promote its strategic and military interests, but such an army could itself become a threat for the ruling monarchy.
While we consider ways to protect our interests in a volatile Middle East, let’s acknowledge that our unequal relationship with Arabs is rooted in our financial and commodity dependence on them and insecurity about our cultural and ancestral roots. Let’s not allow our anger at our own servility define our Yemen policy.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2015