Pakistan must not only side with Saudi Arabia and the coalition but must also play a leading role in the Middle East conflict.
By Nasir Chaudhry
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of countries against the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Operation Decisive Storm is intended at forcing the Shiite rebels to surrender and restore the legitimate Government of President Abd Rubbuh Mansour Hadi who earlier fled the capital Sanaa for the safer shores of Aden, and has now ended up in Saudi exile. Pakistan’s name, too, figures amongst the countries that are part of the coalition. The news has generated polarizing opinions and views amongst the Pakistani population but the merit, rationale and strategic implications have largely been dwarfed by an ill informed narrative which centers on emotive instances of Pakistan’s history of participating in ‘others ways’, evoking an irate response from our Iranian neighbours and at least on social media the gradual Arabization of the country; a message brought home by uploading pictures of Vehicle number plates with Al Bakistan inscribed on them. Pakistan must not only side with Saudi Arabia and the coalition but play a leading role in the Middle East conflict. Here is why:-
Pakistan shares a long border with Iran and both countries have had a historical and traditionally friendly relationship. Persian culture has had a strong influence in the Indian sub continent and what has now come to be Pakistan. Many Pakistanis trace their origins to present day Iran, and many aspects of our culture are similar. Pakistan’s relationship with Iran remained exceedingly friendly, amicable, strategically close and based on mutual goodwill and respect during the Shah’s tenure. The Shah realized the importance of good neighborly relations with Pakistan and openly sided with country in its wars with India, uprisings in Balochistan and in economically and militarily assisting Pakistan. An example of how important Pakistan was to the Shah is of a brief rapture in bilateral relations, ironically, during the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, otherwise a brilliant international diplomat and a master craftsman of realpolitik. As narrated in Stanley Wolpert’s Autobiography of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, “the Shah was eager to help his Shia neighbors, Yahya (Of Persian Ancestry) and Bhutto.” Wolpert adds, while visiting Washington, Bhutto made the case for the arms embargo on Pakistan to be lifted and in a meeting with Nixon and Kissinger said “the Shah is not too stable after all and you should look ahead of him.” The Shah learnt of the remarks made by Bhutto and was “livid, mad.” To the extent that he boycotted the otherwise very well attended Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore but the same Shah later visited Pakistan to mend fences, supported Bhutto with arms and joint operations against the Baloch insurgents and cancelled a previously agreed loan agreement with India meant for a water reservoir objected too by Pakistan.
Post Shah and the Revolution, Iran has largely remained oblivious to Pakistan’s genuine national interests. True that Pakistan must share of what it owes to causing stress to our bilateral relationship but the Iranians too have not been charitable either, perhaps, in a greater measure. Iran for many years deliberately courts India, allowing it access to two of its most vital ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbass. The former has been built with Indian largesse whereas the later hosts an Indian Consulate. This when Pakistan has been denied permission to open a consulate in the same city despite repeated Pakistani requests at the highest levels. Iranian dignitaries make no secret of their anti Pakistan tirades in their media so much as to suggest crossing the border but are silent on India’s absentations and voting patterns against Iranian interests at the International fora most notably the IAEA. Iranian State today makes it clear in unambiguous terms that the Shi’a anywhere and everywhere is a vanguard of the 1979 revolution and deserves state protection and patronage irrespective of its own borders, thus, it is vocal to “state persecution” of Shi’a in Bahrain and the Hazara in Pakistan but is unmistakably silent on the rights of 10 million Sunnis who live in abject poverty and inhumane conditions within its own borders. It aids and supports Shi’a regime in Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon but does not want to speak of the people’s uprising against Assad’s tyranny, It wants the end of ISIL because it is a “militia and perverse occupying force” but does not want to say that about the Houthis, it speaks of the “inalienable right to freedom for the Palestinians from evil Zionism” but does not say the same for the subjugated people of Kashmir. Does Iran want to base its relations with the world only through the context of the Shi’a school of Islam? Does it want that its own interests be safeguarded but that of others be violated? Why is that a country which such glorious history, traditions and past obsessed with the protection, promotion and interests of the Shi’a sect and the Shi’a school of thought over core national interests of other countries and the collective goodwill of the Ummah, of which it, unmistaken ably claims leadership for? The Iranians need to do soul searching and ask these pertinent questions to themselves. For if anything, according to a recent brief on the country published by The Economist, the scarves have started to loosen even in religious cities such as Qom, the Iranian population is young, un employed and seeks change, their memories of the revolution and the war are confined to the history books, the economy, much of it being directly or indirectly controlled by the clergy or it’s organs, is in dire straits and a delusional, unwise obsession with nuclear technology has only festered discontent and frustration with the ruling elite. Most certainly, the great Imam Khomeini, would not be proud of the sons of the revolution that he worked so hard to bring and sacrificed for.
While Pakistan must certainly remain very attentive, sensitive to legitimate Iranian concerns, interests and must work to elevate ties with Iran in all fields turning this into a strategic relationship, it must make known that it expects the same of Iran. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has remained a true, loyal strategic friend and ally of Pakistan. Irrespective of the changes in leadership, relations have progressed and expanded to the highest levels. The Saudi leadership has maintained a special relationship with Pakistan and has greatly assisted the country whenever and wherever support has been required. The Saudis have shored up the Pakistani economy with large amounts of assistance and supplied oil on deferred payments at a crucial times, it has consistently supported Pakistan on Kashmir so much as to raising it at the International Fora, It has been a partner of the country’s regional ambitions and initiatives in Afghanistan, it hosts a large Pakistani diaspora, has come to our aid at a time of natural calamities and most notably has stood by Pakistan when the country faced sanctions and isolation after going nuclear. The Saudi Pakistani relationship extends far beyond the exuberance of words that Joint Statements and Communiques cover, it is a partnership based solidly on common interests and objectives around the World. If our support to the Saudis mean support to the House of Saud so be it since it remains the anchor of stability in tribal Saudi Arabia and in it’s unequivocal and unqualified support to Pakistan. If the Saudis are accused of exporting Wahabism, the Iranians aren’t exporting apricots and cherries too. It is time for Pakistan to stand by Saudi Arabia now.
Would Iran allow for a Sunni takeover of Iraq even if its people chose such a government? No. Would Pakistanis allow the Northern Alliance to take control of Kabul? No. Why then should Saudi Arabia allow for a Houthi (Iranian) takeover of Yemen?
Pakistan in acting late has lost an opportunity that was being afforded to Pakistan, i.e. its projection of a powerful state and a leading member of the coalition of countries. Rarely, we were being courted, rightly so for our legitimate defense capability and showcasing it. We have also lost an opportunity to come closer to countries such as Egypt which has mostly found itself opposite to Pakistan on many issues. Ironically, Pakistan’s position in this instance is opposite to that of another ally, Turkey, as well, which, for the record, too, has a border with Iran. Have we not gone too far in placating the ever upset Iranians. Pakistan must have a robust Foreign Policy and not one of fence sitting. As for the state of the nation and their opinion, it will continue to be hapless and polarized. Very least nothing remotely to do with national interest of their own country, Pakistan. A Shi’a will support Iran, a Sunni, Saudi Arabia (not implying the writer) Pakistan is another country. An ordinary man takes much pride when he talks about how Pakistani pilots downed Israeli planes in the Arab Israel conflict but won’t commit his country’s pilots to ‘other wars.’ They can condemn Saudi Arabia but were they to be presented with a sponsored Umrah and Hajj package, you would see them expressing the desire to die in Saudi Arabia. Yes, we must maintain our territorial integrity, our sovereignty, our national and strategic interests, eschew funding from coffers of countries that fan sectarian groups but living on IMF tranches, Coalition Support Funds, our own internal problems, the Afghan situation, tensions with India and an ever growing population and unemployment do not necessarily give us the space to maneuver much. So let us help and identify the mistakes our friends make and convey it to them but let us also stand with friends who stood by us and continue to stand by us. Then only, would we be truly making more friends and solidifying our relations with a few that we currently have. As for the lota public, see them stand in queue and take selfies with the Metro Bus Project Islamabad upon its inauguration and say how much of a great leader Nawaz Sharif is but somehow Shahbaz Sharif is the one who gets it done. Perhaps, our Saudi friends should approach the younger brother in Lahore. Mediation….
Nasir Chaudhry is a freelance columnist working in the Oil and Gas sector in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected].