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Saudi-Iran

January 17, 2016

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

INTERVENE! Stay neutral! Mediate! Think pipeline. Think oil. Don’t get involved. We’re already involved. Stay united. They’ve fractured us already.

Everyone’s got an opinion on Saudi-Iran. Most think Nawaz would sell us down the river to the Saudis in a heartbeat. He owes them his life; he’s spiritually close to them; his business empire is at stake; yada yada.

Some think it’s the boys who are set on the Saudis. They financed the bomb; they got us out of a financial hole when we tested the bomb. They have the money, we have the talent and manpower. It’s win-win.


What happens later, happens later; for now, all that matters is that we didn’t have to seem defiant.


On Iran, there’s less speculation — and more uncertainty. Do we like them? Do they like us? Basically, a shrug more than a hug. Except for that Zardari chap. He tried to gin up the relationship. But he got nowhere and pissed off the other camp.

Beyond that, there’s very little known — or said. You can see why. Saudi-Iran is about as toxic a binary as you can come up with. Tread carefully; talk in code; don’t get in trouble.

With that in mind, let’s gingerly try and unpack this — because it matters much.

Start with the latest. The boy-prince came and there was some trepidation in the highest circles. What was he going to demand? How furious would he be? How much trouble were we in?

But he was all smiles, both in front of the cameras and behind closed doors. Turns out he also wanted to talk about investment and the like. There was a collective sigh of relief.

The Saudis either wield a stick or toss around fistfuls of dollars. Usually, the stick means immediate demands; dollars means they’ll ask for their pound of flesh later.

Given the choice, the boys and the civilians were relieved it was the latter — what happens later, happens later; for now, all that matters is that we didn’t have to seem defiant.

Expect soon to hear about big new Saudi money coming our way. And then the worried speculation about what the pay-off is really for.

On the boys’ front, there’s interest here in the stuff the crown prince has pioneered and innovated in — counterterrorism and counter-extremism. Expect NAP to emulate some of the stuff Saudi has attempted.

Maybe turning an internment centre or two into one of those Saudi rehabilitation prisons and turning to families and stipends to wean young men off jihad.

With Iran it’s a little more complicated. Everyone wants to believe it’s all Saudi all the time, but the Americans have their say too.

From overruling the gas pipeline to turning the screws on a bank for playing footsie with the Iranians, what America wants sometimes gets blamed on the Saudis.

Then there’s us too — rather, the boys’ suspicions. The space the Iranians have carved out in Afghanistan, their gaze on Balochistan and the stuff they’re building along our border with them in the name of fighting drugs — the sectarian stuff isn’t always at the top of the list, as often assumed.

But why pretend. Of course there’s the S-word — both of them. With Iran breaking out of sanctions, there’ll be a joint attempt at ratcheting up the bilateral ties. But it’ll be hard, possibly impossibly so.

Because — why risk the guaranteed munificence of the Saudis for the uncertain rewards of doing business with Iran? And does a Sunni-majority state really align with a Shia theocracy nostalgic about an empire past?

No and no. The logic is powerful. Fantasies about redefining the national interest don’t do well against powerful logic. It is what it is.

Now, on to the toxic stuff. What, really, is the possibility of the S-word exploding here? Are we really a powder keg?

Not really. Arguably, rather than fearing the demography, the demographic breakdown is a stabiliser and a brake.

First, the smaller sect is in a good zone when it comes to the percentages — it’s not small enough to be crushed and it’s not large enough to fantasise about rebellion or taking over.

Second, the sects are spatially mixed. One region versus the rest of the country is not a worry here. The populations rub up against each other everywhere. GB is the only minority-sect majority zone.

And the GB experience is interesting. For a while, there was definite tampering with the demography there. Today, it is more troubled than it ever should have been. But two factors have worked to limit the damage: the NLI and China.

By recruiting locally, the military has an interest in keeping a lid on sectarian tensions. You don’t want the communities from which troops are drawn to see you as the enemy.

And China — the powers-that-be here can’t whip up too much volatility on their best friend’s western doorstep. So, even in the place where social re-engineering was attempted, there have been limits.

Third, the state itself is mixed up. In the bureaucracy, in parliament, in the police, among the judiciary — there’s no radical marginalisation of the smaller sect. That limits loopy ideas.

Put one, two and three together and it doesn’t make for an immediate powder keg or knife edge. Clearly, there are problems and tensions. But are we a collective loony bin just one misstep away from self-immolation? No.

Understanding and accepting that is the right starting point to figuring out a role for ourselves in the unholy mess Saudi-Iran has become again. Yes, we should be concerned, deeply so. But viscerally terrified about an explosion here? We’re not there yet.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2016