WHEN Imran Khan returned home last week with a handout of $6 billion from Saudi Arabia, he boasted that he would mediate (between the latter country and Iran) to end the war in Yemen. A tall claim indeed by the prime minister, who had publicly expressed his ‘desperation’ for a financial bailout on the eve of the visit.
Khan went to ‘Davos in the Desert’ ignoring the international outcry over the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi hitmen in Turkey, allegedly on the orders of the powerful crown prince. The prime minister was rewarded. There are no strings attached to this generosity, we are told. But does it give any leverage to an indebted nation to push its benefactor to end a brutal war?
Yemen is a victim of Saudi aggression. The tragic war has killed thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. It is not that the Iranians are completely disconnected from the conflict, but Tehran is not the instigator. So the prime minister’s desire to play arbiter in the conflict is nothing more than wishful thinking.
It is hard to believe that such a generous Saudi financial package has no costs.
It is hard to believe that such a generous Saudi financial package has no costs. Surely, it is not for the first time that Riyadh has given us financial support. One of our closest allies, the kingdom has come to our rescue a number of times in the past. But the munificence this time has been extraordinary, raising questions about such bounty.
Surely, it has not been a payoff for the Pakistani prime minister’s attendance at the controversial Saudi investment conference, boycotted by many countries in protest against the gruesome killing of the Saudi journalist. Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanon were the countries represented at the conference at the highest official level. The package may have come after some hard, secret negotiations preceding the prime minister’s second visit to the kingdom in less than one month.
It is not clear what have we offered in return. It cannot be Pakistan’s offer for arbitration in the Yemen conflict as the prime minister wants us to believe. There is no reason to believe that the new Pakistani government has backtracked on its pledge not to send troops to Yemen. Yet, that does not rule out Pakistan’s military presence in the kingdom. There is more to the bargain than the government is prepared to disclose.
Since the start of the Yemen conflict, the oft-repeated phrase used in official statements is that any threat to Saudi territorial integrity would provoke strong action from Pakistan. But there is no clear answer as to where the threat lies. The kingdom is certainly not facing any foreign aggression. In fact, Saudi Arabia has a long history of military involvement in Yemen, which Riyadh considers its soft underbelly.
It is the Saudi-led military involvement in the Yemeni civil war that has created greater security problems for the region. According to some reports, the Yemen war has been costing the Saudis more than $50bn a year. The conflict has created one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has witnessed in recent times. The US and other Western countries had either implicitly supported the Saudi aggression or looked away — mainly because of the Iranian factor.
But the situation seems to have changed after the Khashoggi murder case. The Trump administration, that has cultivated close relations with the monarchy, has now called for an end to Saudi aggression in Yemen. Once touted as a reformer who would transform the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman now is in the eye of the storm.
Against this backdrop, the huge Saudi bailout package assumes greater significance. Although Pakistan has pledged to stay neutral in the Middle East civil conflict that is also manifested in the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its policies are heavily tilted towards Riyadh. Not to forget that Pakistan is also a key member of a Saudi-led Islamic force — whose role is not clearly defined and which is headed by former Pakistani army chief Gen Raheel Sharif. That may have been a strong factor in the Saudis bankrolling Pakistan.
Pakistan’s support is also considered by Riyadh as extremely important as a new regional alliance takes shape. The only Muslim nuclear-armed nation is pivotal to the Saudis’ regional power matrix as tension with Iran has escalated. Although Islamabad may not engage militarily in the Middle East, it is committed to coming to the defence of the House of Saud when needed.
The Saudi bailout package may help Pakistan sail through one of the most serious financial crises in the country’s history, but such dependence could also push Pakistan into the Middle East conflict. Instead of claiming diplomatic success, the government must take parliament into confidence about the deal.
Surely, Saudi Arabia is an important ally and it has stood by Pakistan in difficult times, but the relationship must not be at the cost of our national interest. Our relations with Riyadh plunged to a low when parliament voted against sending troops to Yemen some years ago. Now, strategic relations with the kingdom are back on track.
But still, one has to tread a cautious path given fast-changing regional geopolitics, particularly in view of the growing tensions between the US and Iran following the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Tehran. Saudi Arabia is closely aligned with Washington on sanctions against Iran. The US hard-line position on Khashoggi’s killing is not likely to affect the Saudi position on this issue.
These developments present a very serious challenge to the country. Imran Khan must not harbour any illusions of playing the role of arbiter. It is a regional power game and not some territorial dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran that can be resolved through third-party mediation. It is time for us to maintain a low profile on the external front and not become a party to the conflict in any way.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2018