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‘Pakistan should not lean on one side in the Saudi-Iran spat’

January 09, 2016

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AMBASSADOR Karamatullah Khan Ghori delivering a talk on ‘The Middle East in Turmoil’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs on Friday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
AMBASSADOR Karamatullah Khan Ghori delivering a talk on ‘The Middle East in Turmoil’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs on Friday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: With reference to the current Saudi Arabia-Iran crisis, Pakistan should play the role of a conciliator, peacemaker. We do not have to lean on one side. It would be a worrying indicator if we tried to take sides. This was said by Ambassador Karamatullah Khan Ghori in response to a question after delivering a talk on ‘The Middle East in Turmoil’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) on Friday evening.

Mr Ghori, who worked in many countries in the ambassadorial capacity for Pakistan, said while dealing with the Saudi Arabia and Iran conflict, we should follow the precedent set by Gen Ziaul Haq. He said when the Ka’aba was occupied by Salafi militants, Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for assistance. As a result Pakistan sent two of its brigades to Saudi Arabia, primarily for the protection of the royal family. When Iran began to have an upper hand during the Iran-Iraq war of the ’80s Saddam Hussein looked to Saudi Arabia for help, because of which Saudi Arabia asked Gen Ziaul Haq to send the two brigades to war. Gen Zia said no, our people were not mercenaries, and that we didn’t have any problem either with Iran or Iraq. Besides, Mr Ghori said, there were 1.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Ghori began his address by acknowledging the PIIA as his alma mater where he learned to research and analyse in the early 1960s. On the subject of the Middle East, he said it was a “complex situation”. The region’s history went back to thousands of years, but, he said, he would like to start from the 20th century. He said one could never discuss the Middle East without “appending” other actors, areas and factors to it. He said there were certain internal and external dynamics which needed to be taken into consideration before analysing the region.

Mr Ghori attached importance to two factors: one, the mode of governance in Arab countries; two, the conditions in which the people were forced to live in those countries. About the former, he said the countries were ruled by autocratic regimes, by rulers who had not been elected. The absence of democracy was one of the factors that came as a surprise in the form of the Arab Spring, though it was not entirely a product of such an absence. Another factor was the denial of fundamental rights to the people, something taken for granted in the western world. There’s no country in the Arab world where the people had the freedom to express themselves, he said.

Speaking on the external dynamics, Mr Ghori pointed out two things. The Arab world had three-fourths of proven oil reserves of the world and Israel. He said oil was discovered in the Middle East in 1908. In 1917 following the Balfour Declaration the role of oil in the future of the world signified the imperial interest of the British Empire. Israel also created a nexus of commercial and strategic interests of the West in the Middle East, he said. In 1973, when King Faisal took the first oil embargo decision, it prompted a tough response from Henry Kissinger who said “if necessary, we will land our forces on oil fields of Arabia”.

Mr Ghori said at the time Iran was the policeman for the West in the Gulf. In 1975, King Faisal was killed and the Islamic Revolution in Iran came as an unexpected development for western strategists who, in order to neutralise its effect, goaded Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. Consequently, in the eight-year war, three million people lost their lives. It then triggered tensions between Iraq and Kuwait which led to the first Gulf War. Basically, the idea was to make Israel a powerful country to ensure western interests, he said.

The second surprise for western strategists, Mr Ghori said, came in the shape of the Arab Spring. He, however, said the first democratic movement took place in Algeria in 1988 (the movement for Islamic Salvation Front inspired by Maulana Maududi’s ideas) which was “snuffed out” by the Algerian army in collaboration with France and the US. The 2010 movement that started from Tunisia, too, surprised western strategists, he said. As to why the Arab Spring wilted before it could reach its blossom, he said, the autocratic regimes were not prepared for it and feared they would get toppled, and also because external powers found it easy to talk to one person than to an entire assembly.

After that Mr Ghori shifted his attention to the conflict in Syria, which he claimed was nowhere near a settlement. He termed it the proverbial case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, as there were quite a few actors involved in it. He gave a detailed background to the whole situation, including the fact that the Saudi and other potentates of the Gulf had been unhappy with the Baathist regime considering them as secular. To counter that they financed the rightist elements, which also included the “rightist of rightist” Salafis. Later on, Turkey got involved in the conflict because Tayyip Erdogan was unhappy with Assad, whereas Iran had a soft spot for the Baathist in Syria, he said. This created a total impasse in Syria, he said, with the following human cost: 250,000 people killed, six million internally displaced and four million becoming refugees in outside world.

Mr Ghori called the Saudi Arabia-Iran spat “a hot potato”. Again, going back in time to describe the friction between the two countries, he said, after the Iranian revolution, Iran was blamed for ideological expansionism. Saudi Arabia also thought that Iran had a plan to produce an atomic bomb, therefore both Israel and Saudi Arabia did not approve of the idea of any deal for a nuclear programme with Iran. He cautioned that we should be concerned about the sectarian element as well. Alluding to the Saudi foreign minister’s recent visit to Pakistan, he said it would not be hard to put two and two together as to what Pakistan was likely to do. He said Saudi Arabia and Iran had been fighting their proxy wars on our soil for a long time, making the sectarian fault lines obvious.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2016