Categorized | South Asian Politics


Posted on 28 March 2014 by admin

Dr. Hasan Askari

  A few weeks back we discussed the increased diplomatic activity between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The visits of several important personalities from Saudi Arabia, including the Crown Prince, to Pakistan in February started a debate in Pakistan on the purpose of such visits.

 Two developments in March have given a new life to this debate. First, the federal government announced that it had received a donation of $ 1.5 billion from a friendly Arab state. No country was named by the federal Finance Minister who refused to divulge the name despite persistent demand by the political leaders. However, the media took a few days to track down the name of Saudi Arabia for this gift. The federal government admitted the fact. The policy of not disclosing the name of Saud Arabia created a suspicion about the motive of such a gift.

  Second, the ruler of the mini-state of Bahrain visited Islamabad on March 18-20. Several agreements for bilateral cooperation and investment were signed. The two sides agreed to increase cooperation in security and defense fields. It is expected that Bahrain would accommodate more Pakistanis in jobs in the future.

 The conservative Arab states have four advantages of financial resources, oil, gas and jobs which they can use to win over Pakistan because Pakistan is short of these four items. It is desperately looking for foreign economic assistance, investment, oil and gas and jobs for Pakistanis in the Middle East and the Gulf region. From the point-of-view of the Nawaz Sharif led Pakistani government, getting external financial support and investment will help to improve the economy. If this happens the present federal government hopes to renew its electoral mandate in the next general elections.

  Traditionally, Pakistan has maintained cordial relations with all Middle Eastern states, especially the conservative Arab kingdoms which contributed significantly towards Pakistan’s economic and diplomatic recovery after the December 1971 India-Pakistan War and the break-up of Pakistan.

 Current Saudi-Bahrain interest in Pakistan has to be understood with reference to their efforts to expand their influence in the region and contain Iran’s radical Islamist and anti-monarchy approach and support their favorites in strife-ridden countries in the Middle East like Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Egypt.

 Saudi Arabia is now building a role in the Middle East autonomous of the United States. This reflects Saudi Arabia’s disappointment from the U.S. policies towards Syria and Iran. Initially the U.S. was supportive of the demand for the removal of Bashar-al-Asad’s government in Syria. However, as Al-Qaeda attached groups and those with strong anti U.S. Islamic militant groups gained ground, the U.S. became cautious in supporting dissident groups because it did not want these Islamic hardline and anti-U.S groups to replace Bashar-al-Asad. Saudi Arabia was supporting the Salafi groups that had pro-Saudi orientation. But their success vis-à-vis Bashar-al-Asad was not assured in the absence of the U.S support.

 The other development that made Saudi Arabia unhappy was the U.S. policy of seeking a negotiated solution of Iran’s nuclear program. The interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes in November 2013 began to change the relations between Iran and the U.S. Now the U.S. and Iran are negotiating a final agreement for restricting Iran’s program for peaceful purpose under international supervision. This means that the U.S. would not pursue tough policy towards Iran, which will enable Iran to devote more attention to economic development and pursue its interests in the Middle East.

 These two major factors led Saudi Arabia to cultivate more active relations with other states, especially the states that are located close to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain began to work together to contain liberal politics that grew out of the Arab Spring. They also worked towards restricting the role of the Al-Qaeda linked groups and promoting those religious hardliner groups in Salafi tradition that were linked with their regional agenda.

 This cooperative move received a setback when Qatar supported Muslim Brotherhood after the Egyptian Army overthrow President Mursi government (2013). This perturbed Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the military government in Egypt. As a protest Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew the ambassadors from Qatar. This division among the conservative Arab kingdoms weakens their efforts to contain the influence of Iran and Syria. Now, they will have to spend a part of their effort to neutralize Qatar’s support to Muslim Brotherhood.

 Given the new agenda of the conservative Arab states and division among them, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are trying to isolate Qatar in order to change its policy towards the military government in Egypt.

  Pakistan gains importance in the calculations of Saudi Arabia. The latter would like Pakistan to distance itself from Qatar and review its plan to import LNG (gas) from Qatar. Saudi Arabia views the Pakistan Military as a professional force and Pakisan’s defense industry is also developed enough to make small and medium size weapons available. In Science and technology, Pakistan has professional skills and qualified personnel. Another advantage of Pakistan for Saudi Arabia is that both the militaries in both countries use American weapons.

 Saudi Arabia wants greater Pakistani support to the agenda of the conservative Arab states in the Middle East. Even if there is no formal deployment of Pakistan’s regular Army troops in Saudi Arabia, it can directly recruit retired military personnel. Some Pakistani military personnel may seek retirement for a security-related job in Saudi Arabia. In this way Pakistan will be able to make the argument that it has not sent any troops to Saudi Arabia. It is possible that Saudi Arabia buys small weapons, arms and ammunition from Pakistan for it use in Saudi Arabia. Some of this equipment may be passed on pro-Saudi rebels in Syria.

 Bahrain already recruits Pakistanis for its police and paramilitary force. It can increase recruitment from Pakistan.

  While pursuing the relations with the conservative Arab states Pakistan should maintain equally friendly relations with Iran. The reality of geography and economic considerations make it imperative to maintain friendly relations with Iran.

  Pakistan’s relations with all Middle Eastern states must be based purely on mutually advantageous economic and diplomatic considerations. Any entanglement in an inter-state dispute or power struggle in the Middle East and the Gulf region will have negative implications for Pakistan’s national interest.

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