Foreign policy straitjacket

Updated May 27, 2017

Email

ANYWAY you spin it, what happened at the Riyadh summit was troubling if not outright outrageous and the explanation offered for what looked like a snub to Pakistan, or its elected civilian leader, would normally be unacceptable.

Friday morning’s newspapers quoted the Foreign Office spokesman as saying that the Saudi monarch apologised to ‘all’ the Muslim leaders who were scheduled to speak but were unable to do so because of time constraints.

Do you find this explanation plausible? I don’t. These sort of meetings are choreographed and rehearsed for weeks, even months, in advance, with the details worked out with military precision. Only an emergency can throw the schedule off the rails and none was reported here.

Why then will it be business as usual for the government? Well, simply because the way the foreign policy is crafted and implemented leaves the leadership more or less bereft of options. Had the prime minister not been accompanied by the media, the news may not even have become public.

But the media had reported how Mr Sharif had given final touches to his address on the flight to Riyadh and journalists were told they’d be given copies once the text had incorporated any changes the prime minister made while giving the actual speech.

Relatively independent journalists among the prime minister’s media party reported the shock and horror as the Pakistani leader was not called to the podium. In fact, the Saudi-controlled footage/live feed from the summit venue barely showed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, one journalist, who remains possibly closer to the prime minister than his own shadow, in his newspaper quoted usually informed sources who said that Nawaz Sharif decided not deliver his address when he realised that the whole summit was turning out to be an Iran-bashing exercise.

If this was the case, the Pakistan Foreign Office must be utterly incompetent; if it could not see what the summit agenda was and kept the leader in the dark it should simply be wound up. No excuse will be good enough for forcing such an embarrassment on the prime minister.

However, the clarification by the Foreign Office spokesman showed matters in a different light, as the decision not to speak was clearly not taken by Pakistan. How else can one interpret the decision other than see it as a snub to the civilian leadership?

The way our foreign policy is crafted and implemented leaves the leadership more or less bereft of options.

Whatever one says of Nawaz Sharif’s close relations with Arab rulers, when his country’s parliament decided against sending Pakistani troops to join the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, he honoured that advice and said no.

This did indeed created a chasm between Pakistan and its close allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where a UAE minister went public expressing his unhappiness with Islamabad’s decision and even assumed a threatening, non-diplomatic tone.

After the change of command in the Pakistan Army and visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, during his addresses to the officers in different garrisons, the incumbent chief of staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa reportedly suggested that he had been able to reset relations with the two countries.

Around this time it was announced that the former army chief retired Gen Raheel Sharif had been given permission by the government to take up the post offered by the Saudis of military coalition head in Riyadh. Some Pakistani troops are already stationed there.

And by August this year, the Pakistani troop presence on Saudi soil may reach levels not seen since the Gulf War. Sources say all approvals are in place. These troops, one is sure, will remain in a defensive role until the ‘territorial integrity’ of the Saudi Kingdom is breached or the holy sites are imperilled.

What one needs to understand is that so far the Yemen war has been fought on Yemeni soil with heavy use of Saudi-UAE airpower and a crippling blockade where, according to human rights organisations, even humanitarian supplies have been targeted.

The Houthi rebels don’t seem to have the capability to launch counter-attacks on Saudi soil, apart from the odd opportunistic hit-and-run raid at border posts and reportedly a handful of short-range missiles; they have also never threatened holy sites and those are at least 500 kilometres from the border anyway.

One Riyadh banquet photo that generated interest on social media showed Jared Kushner (President Trump’s son-in-law-adviser, who is also his point man on Israel)sharing a table with the Saudi king’s powerful son Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman and the latter’s prize hire, retired Gen Raheel Sharif.

Trump-led US, Israelis, the Saudis and other Gulf Arab States are actively supporting and supplying armed Syrian opposition groups, most comprising hard-line fanatical jihadis, who are battling the brutal, dictatorial regime of Iran-backed and Russia-bolstered President Bashar al-Assad.

One of the most potent military forces in the Middle East that has even inflicted humiliation on the formidable Israel Defence Forces is Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia which is, in this tragic and bloody conflict, fighting alongside its long-term ally, the Alawite-led Syrian Baathist regime.

Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and Israel, and now that view enjoys broad support among the Arab Gulf regimes too. The Saudi-led coalition may not take on the Yemen rebels as part of its mandate, but targeting terrorist groups is its raison d’être.

What if tomorrow the coalition commander and the forces under his command are tasked with taking on Hezbollah in some sector? I concede that this question is way too hypothetical to warrant an answer from any official.

But aren’t such scenarios gamed by the country’s civil and military leaders so all possible eventualities can be considered even if one or more looks highly improbable at this stage? Or does the foreign policy straitjacket leave no room for this?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2017