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The Saudi temptation

Updated Apr 21, 2017 03:36pm


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Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017

THERE has, as yet, not been any denial of Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s mumbled comments during a TV interview last week about retired Gen Raheel Sharif being appointed the chief of a Saudi-led military alliance. Considering that clear articulation has never been his strong point, one may take the minister’s mutterings as confirmation.

But the minister has left many questions unanswered, adding to the confusion over the government’s position on the issue and whether the appointment of the former chief of army staff indicates a shift in our policy of staying away from the power tussle in the Middle East. It is apparent that the former general’s selection to head a multinational force would hardly be possible without the approval of the prime minister.

It seems that the government is maintaining deliberate ambiguity on this matter as happened when it was first reported that Pakistan had joined the so-called Islamic military coalition. Then there are valid questions too about Raheel Sharif’s own decision to accept the controversial job that may adversely impact the fine legacy that he left as the best-remembered army chief.

He is certainly not a freewheeling retired general who would accept such a politically sensitive position at his own discretion without the consent of the government. There is no precedence in Pakistan of a retired army chief seeking a job and that too outside the country.

Surely the Saudi offer was on the table long before Gen Sharif’s retirement. Is there any strategic reason behind the government’s decision to loan a recently retired army chief, or is it Saudi pressure that we could not afford to resist? Whatever the justification, such a decision can have serious foreign and domestic fallout.

There is no clarity on how the forces of different Muslim countries, with divergent interests, can work together.

It has been more than a year since the young Saudi deputy crown prince, who has been responsible for the kingdom’s disastrous military adventure in Yemen, announced the formation of a military alliance of 34 Muslim-majority nations. This unilateral Saudi declaration took not only Pakistan, but also several other nations on the list, by surprise. Although the coalition was formed to jointly fight terrorism, its very composition branded it as a ‘Sunni coalition’.

There has been widespread scepticism of whether it is really meant to be a coalition against terrorism or just a Saudi pawn in the power tussle in the Middle East. The lukewarm response from many member countries makes it extremely doubtful that such a military alliance can really take off. The exclusion of some Muslim countries including Iran and Iraq makes it all the more divisive.

There are few countries that are willing to commit troops to the alliance. So what is there for the former army chief to lead? Moreover, to fight terrorism, there is a need for closer cooperation among the intelligence and security agencies of these Muslim countries rather than a joint military force.

Interestingly, the idea of a military alliance was floated after Pakistan and some other countries refused to send their troops to fight along the Saudi forces in Yemen. A joint session of parliament had rejected the Saudi request, provoking indignation in the kingdom. It was certainly not in the country’s interest to be a party in the sectarian divide and the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi military adventure has only exacerbated the civil war in Yemen and blocked any move to reach a political solution to the conflict.

Over the past one year, there have been some significant changes in the Middle East’s power dynamics with the heavy losses inflicted on the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, many countries that are listed in the Saudi-led coalition are part of the US-sponsored anti-IS alliance including Iran. In fact, Iran has played a key role in pushing out the global terrorist group from its stronghold in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Russia is also asserting its military and diplomatic power in the Middle East forming a separate trilateral alliance that includes Iran and Turkey to counter IS in Syria. The new nexus has the tacit support of Washington and other Western countries in enforcing a ceasefire among various warring sides in Syria. Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting Sunni militant groups, now seems to be out of the equation in the Syrian crisis.

Interestingly, Egypt, that has been receiving massive Saudi financial aid, has also been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government against the Saudi-backed opposition. So with all these divergent interests and shifting alliances, the idea of a new Saudi-led coalition does not seem to make much sense. Most observers agree that the formation of a new alliance reflects Saudi Arabia’s growing concern about its own security and internal stability as it no longer sees the US as a reliable ally.

Washington’s nuclear deal with Iran and its reluctance to commit ground troops to overthrow the Assad government in Syria has exacerbated the kingdom’s anxiety. Although the US had welcomed the proposed alliance there are serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s seriousness in fighting violent extremism.

This widespread scepticism is largely due to the allegation that some Saudi charities continue to provide financial support to radical Sunni sectarian groups in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries in order to impose their own intolerant and retrogressive concept of Sharia laws.

In the past year, there have not been any discussions and consultations among the member countries on what the alliance might do. There is also no clarity on how the forces of different Muslim countries, with divergent interests, can work together. In such a situation, Pakistan’s participation in the controversial alliance, with its former army chief heading the joint military force, has serious political repercussions.

The government must take into confidence parliament and the nation on the issue. It must not allow the former chief to rent himself out to a controversial alliance with a divisive agenda. It is in our national security interest that we keep out of the power struggle in the Middle East.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (81) Closed

Jamil Soomro, NEW YORK CITY Jan 11, 2017 07:26am

Looking at the title of Mr.Zahid Hussain's article I had the impression that he had once again done his home work and indeed he has. An honest,bold and critical analysis of a highly volatile tense situation in the Middle East.The Writer is absolutely right with his quite a sensible observation as a Journalist when he says, "It is in our national security interest that we keep out of the power struggle in the Middle East".

Hassan Jan 11, 2017 08:00am

Good article. Total in agreement with the analysis

ALI Jan 11, 2017 08:21am

Well written article.

IFTIKHAR KHAN Jan 11, 2017 09:52am

What exactly is the point? What else is expected of an individual belonging to a nation built upon spitting on the proud memories of hardworking, honor and valor of forefathers?

Saim Jan 11, 2017 10:41am

Good overview of the current situation.

Shalone Jan 11, 2017 10:59am

Agree with the opinion of the author. I would like to add that somebody running the countrty's defense cannot take up a position in an another country. There should be at least a three year lapse before going to a foreign job as this might force him to reversal secrets of his last job. I believe the world is a global village and dividing into Muslim and non Muslims does not fit in this world. Millions of Muslims are moving to non Muslim countries and if others only allow their own fella believers, we would be annoyed and accuse them of narrow minded meanness.

Blue Saffron Jan 11, 2017 12:24pm

Enough is enough. Pakistani leaders must stand up to being mature enough or prepare for their departure from the political landscape.

Mansha Sherazi Jan 11, 2017 12:24pm

It is not yet clear the intended purpose of such articles, if it is an independent and personal opinion then it does not matter at all, on the other hand, if it is motivated and emphasised then it has some far-reaching purposes of finding an opportunity to overshadow the greatest ever achievements of General Raheel Sharif. Let us see, what is the best for Pakistan.

brighton rodeo Jan 11, 2017 12:39pm

Bold thoughts expressed in very clear manner. Truth will prevail.

Haider Jan 11, 2017 12:56pm

Military cooperation between countries in a normal thing. Pakistan can not live in isolation. Pakistan needs to form such Alliances with USA, China, Saudi Arabic etc.

mumtaz shah Jan 11, 2017 01:11pm

Agreed With analysis, Gen Raheel must be carefull with such controversial alliance. Saudi agenda must be read carefully.

SGH Jan 11, 2017 01:38pm

Agree with the analysis and the conclusion. We are learning a difficult lesson from the history of our recent military involvement in Afghanistan, we are still bleeding. The resolution of the Pakistan Parliament about Saudi Yemen Conflict must be respected by the Government of Pakistan.

Ahmed Jan 11, 2017 02:31pm

What is wrong in taking the assignment post-retirement? It is his life and carrier and let him decide where to go. He is not representing Pak govt, why this noise then?

Naxalite Jan 11, 2017 02:32pm

I agree with the writer, there was no need to accept this role

saddu Jan 11, 2017 03:16pm

Agree with the opinion of author. we have to keep our interest first

haiderali79 Jan 11, 2017 03:34pm

@Mansha Sherazi what are Mr. Raheel Sharif's achievements?

Houlbelat Jan 11, 2017 03:51pm

One thing that kept perplexing has been cleared. That was the decision taken by Gen. Raheel long before his retirement about not seeking or accepting extensionin his tenure as COAS. Being an honest and practical man who produced results in his performances, he also needs some money to make through his professional competence and that is what he is doing at the best possible place. Besides, he would be a good source for us as well, to make things easy for us also.

Anjum Jalal Jan 11, 2017 04:22pm

Pakistan interests should be Raheel Shareef first priority. The writer has rightly said "It is in our national security interest that we keep out of the power struggle in the Middle East". Don't forget the Afghanistan Folly. Every time we should not be deceived by our so called friends.

Anjum Jalal Jan 11, 2017 04:27pm

We should not fall in the trap.The King and the crown princes will do their own will.

Ali Jan 11, 2017 04:34pm

But remember that Nawaz Sharif has very good relation with Saudis and I believe what ever has been done in this regard is with Nawaz Sharif consent. Who give a damn to the country when there is a personal interest involved. Don't we know our system and politicians?

American Jan 11, 2017 05:00pm

The author is right. The so called Saudi led alliance is bound to fail. As Pakistan aligns with Saudi sectarian interests, it gets away from Iran and its own Shia minority. Of course, it will make General Sharif rich in the short run without doing anything but destroy Pakistan's image in the long run

UKumar Jan 11, 2017 05:07pm

Very well described the situation in middle east. Pakistan has enough problems with terrorism and should not be party to any undefined coalition.

Goga Nalaik Jan 11, 2017 05:13pm

@Mansha Sherazi Why don't you read this article again...

exclaibur Jan 11, 2017 05:27pm

Another attempt by the likes of Khwaja and PML N government to malign the General

Shameful to say the least

saira Jan 11, 2017 05:30pm

it is just a ceremonial position and will have no power over the forces. Consider it as an advisory role. Iran will be welcome to join it.

Iftikhar Husain Jan 11, 2017 05:51pm

The parliament must be taken inti confidence before the permission given to retired army general. It seems this is not a workable alliance.

Alam Jan 11, 2017 06:13pm

I am surprised why writer has impression that this 39 nation force is against Iran or any particular sect? Even a lot of work has to be done, if this is going to happen...

Even all Christian countries are not part of NATO force but it exists....What is the point if all Muslim countries are not part of the 39 nation alliance.

Moreover, Iran or any particular sect should not be worried if they are not involved in doing wrong in Yemen etc....

In my opinion there should be detailed discussion b/w all sects of Muslims and such discussion can be done and Mr. Raheel Sharif sb can do such job as he has capacity of doing this as well as having sound interaction with Chinese/ Russina/ Turkish etc govts...

Muhammad zahid Jan 11, 2017 06:21pm

As usual, hitting the nail on the head sir.

ahmad Jan 11, 2017 06:27pm

if Raheel Sharif new job is not inthe intrest of muslim then why US & westren world worried about this decision...if divergent intrest westren countries united then why not muslim countries..Raheel sharif & pak inteligences better know the middle east situation than you...only wait &observe..

khanm Jan 11, 2017 06:38pm

@Alam ..i wonder what this alliance is based on, what value it stands for, have we define who the enemy is??, what is the sole purpose, it is supposed to opposed what is morally right or wrong, who decides what is right or wrong. there are millions question running through my mind.. If as we see nightfall, we become capable of accepting love, let’s celebrate an alliance with our unbroken delusions. Who ever knew we would say goodbye to oblivion? Who ever knew we would accept hope...folks remember..Today's opponents can be your allies tomorrow. And today's allies can be tomorrow's opponents... it is just a matter of time ..

Dawn Jan 11, 2017 06:46pm

This I believe is a very inappropriate decision by Raheel Sharif. He should withdraw.

Masood Hussain Jan 11, 2017 06:52pm

I don't think our former Chief gave much thought to the fall out of his decision to take up his new job.

S.R.H. Hashmi Jan 11, 2017 07:10pm

I think with General's conditions that he would not work under any commander, Iran should also be invited to join, and that he be given powers to mediate between states, should remove all significant reservations.

For once, we should think positively and welcome this opportunity to end the unnecessary proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have devastated some Muslim states including Pakistan. As the strongest militarily, and the only nuclear power in the Muslim world, we should step forward and discharge our responsibilities by giving state support to Gen. Raheel Sharif's initiative.

As for Parliament's objections, past or present, well, put mildly, it is a body of abstract thinkers whose views bear little relevance to the needs of Pakistan and Pakistanis. After all, whether it was the question of local bodies elections, that of holding population census or stopping misuse of plea-bargain mechanism, pressure came from Supreme Court and not the Parliament.


ahsan7979 Jan 11, 2017 07:15pm

Its an honor for Pakistan to lead the Ummah and its military forces. The goal is simple to fight terrorism and who is better prepared to do that other than the armed forces of Pakistan. We understand that Iran has concerns but they should stop sending their forces in countries around SA both covert and overt. That would be a good start towards confidence building.

Naveed Jan 11, 2017 07:28pm

Good article. I hope our hopeless politicians listen to this. Pakistan should stay out of middle east politics. We have enough on our own plate.

Hyder Jan 11, 2017 07:27pm


The ship of Al-Saud dynasty is sinking and anyone who will join them now will sink with them like Saddam, Ghadaffi legacies.

I hope a seasoned General Retd Raheel Shareef with 2 holders of highest military award in his family will think and act responsibly!!!


Truth- unbiased Jan 11, 2017 07:44pm

Sure, controversial.What if, he had acccepted offer from an alliance led by Iran?

jRaza Jan 11, 2017 08:10pm

@ahmad Did you read any where US and Western Powers are Worried about Rahil 's appointment?

Agha Ata Jan 11, 2017 09:04pm

You are right. Forces of different Muslim countries cannot work together. And if they do, it will be for some ulterior motive of each country. Otherwise, this arrangement would not be there for a long time. General Raheel being a straight- Army soldier, may not have realized that aspect of the whole thing.

Adnan Jan 11, 2017 09:42pm

In current situation, Pakistan is engulfed with myriads of problem in particular, poor economy, secterian hatred, and insecurity. General Raheel know geographical position of Pak better than me. Balochistan shares porou border with Afghanistan and Iran. Pakistan is not so influtenial with neighbours as US over Mexico.

Another view Jan 11, 2017 10:36pm

Good info Husain sir. Was initially confused why there is skepticism about Rahil Sharif playing the new role. I assumed it will be good for Pakistan to play bigger role in helping stabilize and cool down middle east. Now slowly understand the considerations at play here after reading this article.

Houlbelat Jan 11, 2017 10:36pm

Raheel Sharif is well known in the world for his anti-terror initiative he named Zarb e Azb. Now, we are nobody to advise him if he takes his campaign to an international stage, to do what he knows better than all. Let him do all he wants to make this world a better place for all to live.

hassan parvez Jan 11, 2017 10:56pm

Excellent article, an eye opener, hope it also opens the eyes of the Prime Minister and the Ex-Army Chief.

hassan parvez Jan 11, 2017 11:18pm

@Ahmed Your comment seems to be very childish. We are talking about an Ex-army general not an ordinary person.

hassan parvez Jan 11, 2017 11:21pm

@Houlbelat Do you have any idea, how much an army chief gets after retirement. Agricultural land, residential plots in defence societies.

Pakistan scholar Jan 11, 2017 11:33pm

it is realistic approach great Zahid hussain sahab

Your Mohammad Ayubi Jan 12, 2017 01:39am

Evidently, it's the material incentive for the former chief of army that he possibly cannot resist the temptation to assume the starkly controversial assignment.

Dawn Jan 12, 2017 02:15am

I guess it is the financial gains that came into play?

jalaluddin s . hussain Jan 12, 2017 04:07am

The following conclusion makes a lot of sense:

"The government must take into confidence parliament and the nation on the issue. It must not allow the former chief to rent himself out to a controversial alliance with a divisive agenda. It is in our national security interest that we keep out of the power struggle in the Middle East."

salman ali Jan 12, 2017 11:42am

I hope Mr. Hussain has read the article by Ms. Naseem Zehra in another newspaper. She seems to have taken the effort to get full facts of this episode.

SaMi Jan 12, 2017 03:22pm

Mr Zahid nothing can be more honorable for our Army general to become head of this great coalition.

Sohan Jan 12, 2017 04:52pm

Such a military alliance headed by General Sharif will be viewed as a Sunni alliance and will have serious repercussions for Pakistan vis a vis Iran, Iraq, Syria etc. Pakistan must stay neutral in the whole equation and try to keep relations balanced with all muslim nations. Taking sides in today's world will be suicidal.

aminullah khkhan Jan 12, 2017 06:25pm

Making the alliance of Muslims states to fight terrorism , is a good move, but its success depend on the members' states' there is a clash of interests b/w KSA and Afghanistan,Pakistan and Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern states.besides, Muslim Ummah has lack of unity.therfore, due to disunity and no concensus in over some issues resulted OIC just a debateable forum instead of solving Muslims problems like the so called "terrorism".anyway, If general Rahil sharif made them United then it is possible to have success ,otherwise not..

Abcdf Jan 12, 2017 06:30pm

Pak should stay away from any coalition involving extremist states like saudia and iran

Sadiq Jan 12, 2017 07:04pm

@Haider Pakistan needs to first form alliances with its neighbors. Then start thinking about others. It is so sad that Pakistanis can't cross the border 'legally' to any neighboring country without a visa. Every time I drive into Canada from my home country (USA) we don't have to worry about the border controls.

Wake up and make friends with Iran, India and yes, Afghanistan Maybe China may also allow visa free entry if fanatics are controlled

MSS Jan 12, 2017 07:09pm

I think Ex Chief should be left alone to decide.

Sadiq Jan 12, 2017 07:09pm

@exclaibur how?

Ahmad Zubair Jan 12, 2017 08:21pm

Why Muslim Forces all over the world cannot join under one flag with mutual common interest of "Safety & Security of Muslim Ummah". Can you not feel that, Gen. Raheel Sharif is becoming the initiative of this task.

Pathanoo Jan 12, 2017 08:41pm

This Alliance is a Chimera just like the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) which has yet to show a single accomplishment. You can not fight terrorism by a hodge podge of 34-35 countires with no one prticularly responsible but every one capable of blaiming the other(s).

UKumar Jan 12, 2017 11:47pm

@aminullah khkhan Why call problems Muslim problems. Muslims are not unique. Terrorism is humanity problem and all countries should cooperate irrespective of religion. Why is every thing gets religious color.

UKumar Jan 12, 2017 11:53pm

@Haider Also with India and Iran

Zulfeqaar Canada. Jan 13, 2017 12:39am

With this Saudi led collation shall we all Muslims expect an independent Palestinian state and Al- Aqsa mosque in our possession? Otherwise this alliance against whom?

Arif Jamal Jan 13, 2017 08:26am

Military coalition'l bring Iran Saudia closer

Nishant Srivastva Apr 21, 2017 04:23pm

I do not understand dillema that the author represents. Of all the countries participating in the allainace, only Pakistan's history has had organised large scale military action. While Saudi or Qatari may have had some pinch of battle taste in Gulf War (its well documented that the Qatarr's armoured forces didn't knew how to engage Iraqis) the complex task of leading a multi national force is outside the scope of their generals.

That makes a Pakistani general only choice. Topped up with the fact that Pakistan has well developed Missiles forces and Nuclear doctrines, it makes an ex CnC to be the cheif of such a multi national effort.

kuNAL MAJUMDAR Apr 21, 2017 04:28pm

Have two simple questions? Why was there a need to form coalition army of ONLY Muslim countries? Secondly, how will you react if a coalition of armies from Christian countries are formed tomorrow? Possible. Can't rule it out.

Iftikhar Husain Apr 21, 2017 04:34pm

Very nice and balanced article but I am surprised that no mention has been made about the role of Israel in all this confused state of ME.

HIBISCUS Apr 21, 2017 05:02pm

Pakistan is dangerously heading into another messy situation like Aghan war. It is unwise to be 'yes-master' to all the Muslim countries. By this time Pakistan should have realized there is no way out on conflicts like these.

HIBISCUS Apr 21, 2017 05:07pm

@Ahmed If he is not representing Pak govt then why would Pak govt have to issue a NOC for his new assignment. That clearly means Pakistan government doesn't have concerns on her citizen heading a military alliance and that brings the country into the equation. And this is a conflict (read war) hence everything is fair in war. In the future if the conflict comes to Pakistan, then one cannot cry foul that Pakistan never officially joined the alliance.

HIBISCUS Apr 21, 2017 05:10pm

@Houlbelat This same mentality to milk benefits has caused so much trouble for Pakistan. Remember when Pakistan assisted US in Afghan war and see what that has brought to Pakistan. Any sane person will not get into a never ending conflict like these.

Alien1 Apr 21, 2017 05:19pm

This will trigger more sectarian violence in pakistan, this was foolish from pakistan as usual fighting someone else's war.

well meaning Apr 21, 2017 05:27pm

well for one Iran is not happy .Lets see if the general can be bridge between the saudis and iranians and bring long term peace to middle east

Subodh Jain Apr 21, 2017 05:27pm

Raheel as a private citizen has a right to pursue his dream of financial security, however him being former COAS makes it politically sensitive. Nawaj relented because of his gratitude to the Saudi,s during his exile there. Unfortunately, it would not be looked upon with jaundiced eyes in Tehran, Baghdad and New Delhi to say the least and many more places. Saudi Arabia may be trying to combat the very terrorism groups, that are supported by its government . Unless it cuts off financing of such groups, its effort are going to come to naught.

Saeed Apr 21, 2017 07:51pm

Brilliant & brave article for a Pakistan Journalist

Khanm Apr 22, 2017 01:19am

Wonder what principle the alliance is based on..Who draws the guide line and who is making the charter.Freedom is a timeless value. All Muslim country should call for encouraging respect for fundamental freedoms. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions freedom more than many times. All should countries have committed to protecting individual freedoms on paper - but in practice, too many break their pledge.

Syed Chishti Apr 22, 2017 07:25am

Ask this question if you were a 4 Star General and you were In-charge (Commander) of a multilateral countries contingent in a war torn country with different troops contributing countries and they had their own command structure? Who would they listen to? Obviously not to anyone foreign to them, who doesn't speak their language and doesn't come from their ranks. A total stranger for them all.

A similar advice was given to a Brigadier General in 2003 from my countries contingent who was commanding a brigade. Later he a decent army officer made a well deserving four Star General and recently retired from his post. He followed what I suggested to him ask and inform your command structure first what you must do and mustn't do in letter in spirit-for keeping yourself and your countries contingent name clean. He came out unblemished from that assignment and kept growing in rank until he achieved the highest rank parallel to COAS.

That's what the other forces commanders will do. Bravo.

Faisal rana Apr 22, 2017 10:02am

This whole idea is a recipe for a disaster. I don't see the good general in this role for a long time. He will make his first million dollars and then be ousted or resign.

Aisha Apr 22, 2017 12:02pm

Very well written! In fact very intelligently written.

Jawad-Downunder Apr 22, 2017 02:13pm

Is there a way to consider and accept Mr. Sarif as a free, world-class expatriate executive who very sensibly chose to move on in life, and leave him alone today onward? Please! Of course, all of us still may stay proud and enjoy the simmering warmth of the fact that he is a son of a few institution of Pakistan that are world-class in the real sense.

Hemant Apr 22, 2017 03:15pm

@Blue Saffron spine is a necessity in the command you are giving..

Kumar Apr 22, 2017 05:24pm

The white man had his wars in WWI and WWII. The middle east is yet to have its history-changing confrontation. Maybe this is the beginning. Where is the need for such a coalition against poor Yemen?

Imran jafri Apr 22, 2017 05:35pm

@Haider Form alliances against whom? Russia, US, China or "terrorists"?