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IS IT TIME FOR PAKISTAN TO PIVOT?

Updated July 16, 2017
Nawaz Sharif with Emir Al-Thani in Qatar on a two-day visit
Nawaz Sharif with Emir Al-Thani in Qatar on a two-day visit

Tucked away in a corner of the old PECHS Block 6 lies a remnant of Karachi’s more recent history.

Long before General Ziaul Haq mandated the study of Arabic in state schools, a private language school, the Society for the Promotion of Arabic (SPA), was busy preparing Saudi-bound Pakistanis in the rudiments of the sacred tongue.

For years, Arabic teachers, often themselves students studying at Karachi University, from the Middle East, would run intensive courses for skilled workers, such as General Raheel Sharif, holding lucrative job offers in the Gulf states.

The SPA, along with the Gulshan-i-Iqbal offices of the original 1940s-era World Muslim Congress (Motamar Al-Alam Al-Islami) are small reminders of the longstanding links between the oldest Islamic republic and one of the newest.

Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s original “all weather” ally but that relationship needs reassessing in light of the Qatar crisis

A much more visible presence is the estimated nine million Pakistanis who have worked in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the early 1970s. Their numbers today are surging and the International Labour Organisation thinks there were as many as a million migrant workers in the GCC, sending back nearly 19 billion dollars in remittances.

There’s little doubt that the Pak-Saudi encounter is the original “all weather” relationship. But this relationship is now coming under strain. Indeed, we may well be at a moment of what Barack Obama termed a ‘pivot’ — a subtle, but strategic reassessment of foreign policy.

The overarching reason for reassessment is the change in Saudi Arabia’s top leadership and in particular the elevation of the 32-year-old defence minister Mohammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is called) as crown prince.

Salman is sometimes portrayed as the great moderniser and has made headlines with eye-catching policies to diversify the economy, sell off state-owned assets and open up Saudi society to outside influences. A declared fan of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, he seeks fame and has been the subject of flattering profiles in leading English language publications. “I’ve met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He’s a revolutionary,” gushed one writer in The Daily Telegraph only last month. In January 2016, The Economist published the transcript of no less than a five-hour interview. To some he is indeed the rock-star leader.

But the Saudi Churchillian has a wider agenda. For the past two generations, the ibn Saud family rulers have been content to see their nation prosper via the twin exports of petroleum and the radical Islamic ideology that has come to be known as Wahhabism.

Pakistan and its democratic allies must know that there are risks associated with unequivocally backing Mohammad bin Salman against Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbour.

But for Salman that isn’t enough. He is setting about establishing Saudi Arabia as the dominant military power in a face-off with Iran — and playing off the Western powers in the process, just as the dynasty’s founder, the first Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, did.

So much for the macro-picture, more precise reasons for a foreign policy pivot lie in Salman’s frighteningly patchy record of policy interventions.

Take his signature defence policy. Salman is said to be the architect of the campaign against Yemen (though he denies this). Except that what was promised as a short, surgical war isn’t quite going to plan. Moreover, two years of relentless aerial bombardment has caused large-scale civilian death and a public health emergency unseen in modern times, according to the World Health Organisation.

Then there’s the supposed diplomatic coup with the United States. Salman is credited in part with persuading the Trump administration that Saudi Arabia should be the incoming president’s first overseas visit, which it was. But in so doing, he has simultaneously helped reverse the thawing of US relations with Iran, and opened up a potential fissure in the nuclear deal.

Salman is also the principal figure in the creation of the 41-member “anti-terror” Islamic Military Alliance. This is an alliance without Iran, which begs the question of who exactly the alliance is against. Salman didn’t mince his words in his Economist interview. Asked if he considers Iran to be his biggest enemy, he replied: “We hope not.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Then there’s the hiring of Gen Sharif as the alliance’s commander-in-chief.

If this alliance succeeds in eliminating extremism, then that will surely go down in the annals of minor miracles. Ironically, its leader Saudi Arabia has arguably done more than any state to propagate a form of Islamic practice that has intolerance at its core.

The kingdom’s brand of religion has been promoted actively over 30 years.

We’re not talking about a few harmless pamphlets, scholarships to study at Madinah or the occasional visiting imam. We are talking about a seemingly endless line of funds that donors — both public and private — used to bankroll one single ideology through building mosques, funding schools, running conferences and more. This is the same ideology that says, using violent and non-violent means, that other forms of Islam are bankrupt.

And now we have the latest crisis: a blockade against Qatar on the grounds of, wait for it, Doha’s support for extremism. It’s the kind of scenario worthy of the best Monty Python sketches.

That is the reality now confronting Pakistan’s (and the world’s) foreign affairs establishment. Alongside the leaders of the US, China and Russia, the world has a new muscular actor in the (soon to be) Saudi monarch. The Qatar crisis will not be the last. MBS is working to a plan, and has an agenda.

New realities demand a different order of response, but before that let’s examine the response so far. The reaction in Pakistan, along with Britain and the US, is understandably being shaped with an eye both to economic risks but also to economic opportunities. In Pakistan’s case, half a million migrant workers are in Saudi Arabia, a significant increase on previous years (there are also 300,000 in the UAE). The UK and the US meanwhile are the globe’s top two arms exporters to Saudi Arabia. Between 2010 and 2015 they sold around 10 billion dollars in weaponry. Businesses from these and other countries are also looking to capture a slice of the impending Saudi state sell-offs.

But it is worth stopping for a moment and considering how the Qatar blockade may appear if self-interest wasn’t the overriding factor.

We have here a situation in which the leading power in one of the world’s richest trading blocs is telling one of its smallest members to sever or reduce its links to neighbours; to repatriate citizens; to extradite named individuals without judicial process; to shut down independent media; to pay unspecified costs; and to agree to a compliance regime probably unheard of in the history of contemporary international relations.

One of the few things in Qatar’s favour is the presence of the main US military base for its Middle East operations, Centcom, which happens to be in Qatar. If the GCC states can persuade Donald Trump that its base is safer on their soil, then Qatar will lose one of the few cards it has on the table.

Were this happening in a different part of the world, to different countries, the key demands would be seen as an infringement of that most basic right of nations, which is to be able to make sovereign decisions. It is as if South Asian Association for Regional cooperation (SAARC) ganged up on Bhutan; or if China told Pakistan to close down its independent media. Given that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are members of the World Trade Organisation, the blockade may well be an infringement of WTO rules.

Pakistan (along many other nations) has offered to mediate, but Salman knows well that such offers will ring hollow for as long as these nations continue to believe that they need Saudi Arabia more than it needs them.

Perhaps what Islamabad and other capital cities should consider is a scenario in which the anti-Qatar coalition was allowed to further ratchet up the crisis.

What would happen, and what would be the consequences are fundamental in considering how to respond more effectively.

Pakistan and its democratic allies must know that there are risks associated with unequivocally backing Mohammad bin Salman against Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbour; or giving a blank cheque to an OIC military alliance in which Iran appears to be the enemy.

They would also be wise to remember how the world greeted the arrival of another great moderniser. Bashar Al-Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, was positively celebrated as a great modernising force, if not a democratising one. But world powers made the fatal mistake of confusing Assad’s youthfulness with the idea that he was ready to share power. They mistook his willingness to do media interviews with an acceptance of the need for accountability — which of course he had no intention to do.

Modernising absolute monarchs will always be monarchs first and modernisers second. That is the lesson we must learn in dealing with Mohammed bin Salman.

We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.

Ehsan Masood is editor of Research Fortnight, a UK-based research policy magazine

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017