THIS is one of my worst nightmares, and it is getting perilously close. Now that the young prince of Saudi Arabia has decided to settle all family business, to borrow a phrase, and his government has formally accused Iran of an “act of war” against his kingdom on account of the missile fired from Yemen intercepted above Riyadh, the tensions that were bubbling beneath the surface are now boiling up.
Start with the fact that Pakistan has a history of getting sucked into other people’s wars, usually in return for a pittance of help with our chronic balance of payments deficit. At the moment though, Pakistan has managed to walk the fine line and stay out of the conflicts growing in the Middle East, and the latest visit of the current army chief to Tehran appears to be cementing the country’s neutrality in the whole affair. But the forces pushing and pulling Pakistan into the regional conflicts there are powerful, and should be carefully considered.
Ever since Pakistan accepted that ‘gift’ of $1.5 billion from “a friendly country that does not want to be named”, but was later identified as Saudi Arabia, there has been a lurking danger that we are being courted to join the multi-front conflicts that are sweeping across the Middle East. The obvious question that was raised when we learned of this ‘gift’ was: what is the quid pro quo? What are we expected to give in return? There were grounds to be incredulous when we were told that nothing was expected in return. That is not how things work in this world, and surely the bill will become due at some point.
The second point on the timeline was the visit to Pakistan by the then crown prince of the kingdom, the father of the young prince today, in early 2014. Our government’s dealings with the kingdom are always shrouded in mystery, but the joint communiqué issued at the end of that meeting carried murmurs of something deeper. Where the last communiqué issued after the visit by a royal carried largely bland language about Saudi support for Kashmir, the mutual support by both countries for Palestine, and “solidarity in the service of their respective peoples and the entire Muslim ummah”, the communiqué of 2014 mentioned “promotion of the causes of the Muslim ummah” with two whole paragraphs on Syria.
The forces pushing and pulling Pakistan into regional conflict are powerful, and should be carefully considered.
Pakistan was already feeling the tug in the fray opening up in the Middle East in 2014, it appears.
The next point on the timeline was the creation of the military alliance, led by the kingdom. Pakistan learned from the news conference announcing the creation of the alliance that it was a member. That raised another important question: have we secretly agreed to deploy ground troops in Yemen? The answer was no, going by strenuous government denials in the wake of that news conference, not yet, but the pressure was on.
Then came the hectic diplomacy, with Nawaz Sharif and then army chief Raheel Sharif taking turns to visit the kingdom, with no attendant announcement on the substance of the conversations held there. A commitment was issued that Pakistan will defend the two holy mosques, but nothing further.
The next point on the timeline was the announcement that former army chief, Raheel Sharif, will be heading the alliance and will be based in Saudi Arabia. Some politics revolved around that issue, but the appointment was finally approved.
Then the king died in 2015 and the crown prince was elevated to the throne. His successor to the crown prince was Mohammad bin Nayef, who was suddenly relieved of his charge in June of this year and replaced with the son of the king, the present young prince Mohammad bin Salman.
And then comes the night of the long knives, Nov 4, when Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri landed in the kingdom and announces his resignation, a large section of the royal family is rounded up on charges of corruption and placed under arrest, and Riyadh comes under attack from long-range missiles fired from Yemen, that it later alleges were supplied by Iran and constituted an “act of war”.
Things are heating up to boiling point now. The royal family is in a tumult, war drums between Saudi Arabia and Iran are sounding, and Lebanon appears to be moving towards becoming the next Syria. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s former army chief still sits as the commander of the alliance, while media reports say Pakistan has signed three separate short-term loan agreements worth $700 million from the Islamic Development Bank, in which Saudi Arabia holds the largest shareholding of 23.5 per cent shares (the second largest shareholder is Libya, with 9.43pc). Of that, according to the same reports, almost half has already been availed of for oil imports, also from the kingdom.
It is a pattern for Pakistan now that every government leaves the treasury dry, and every incoming government reaches out to its friends abroad for a bailout. The PPP government famously asked for a $100bn Marshall Plan-style bailout from the Americans in 2008, and the Nawaz Sharif government asked for a bailout of up to $4bn from the Saudis. The former got an IMF loan of $7bn instead, while the latter got a ‘gift’ of $1.5bn. Now we are once again moving towards a repeat of that cycle, except Trump is sitting in D.C. and the kingdom has issues of its own.
Both are eyeing Pakistan’s army, and have some demands of it. The Chinese have no history of bailing anyone out, with the closest example being the Sri Lankans, who had to surrender territory in return for a debt-equity swap on Hambantota Port.
The chips are not falling nicely. It is more vital than ever that the hard-fought stability that Pakistan has acquired in the past few years not be bargained away in return for a bailout since we are moving towards a depletion of the foreign exchange reserves one more time. Staying out of the regional conflicts that are breaking out to our west ought to be foreign policy priority number one for us. The push-and-pull factors dragging us into that quagmire are powerful, but it is difficult to overstate the importance of transcending them this time round.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2017
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