Monday, November 24, 2014

Saudi Arabia’s Pilgrimage to Pakistan

LONDON – Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly estranged from its long-time protector, the United States. It viewed America’s backing for Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in Egypt – and its subsequent acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood government – as a betrayal. Then came US President Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce his “red line” in Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime unleashed poison gas on its opponents. But the final straw was America’s support for the recent interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia’s mounting distrust of the US matters, because whenever the Kingdom has felt an existential threat – and it regards Iran’s regional ambitions as such a threat – it has relied on an external power to protect it. But if it can no longer rely on the US, where can the Kingdom turn for sufficient military muscle?

The answer seems to be Pakistan, a country that the rest of the world views as on the verge of becoming a failed state.

Pakistan has previously served the Kingdom’s interests by sending military and security assistance during times of stress. Saudi Arabia received some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers in 1979, at the time of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. And these troops remained in the Kingdom until the mid-1980’s.

The Saudis also employed thousands of Pakistani soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War. And, at the beginning of 2014, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Crown Prince Salman visited Islamabad to renew the two countries’ military agreements on joint arms production. The visit was also intended to lay the groundwork to bring 30,000 Pakistani soldiers and military advisers to the Kingdom.

Why Pakistan, and why now?

The Saudi rulers view Pakistan as one of three regional powers, along with Iran and Turkey, capable of having a decisive impact on the Middle East. An alliance with Shia Iran – the Kingdom’s supreme ideological enemy, and one with regional hegemonic ambitions – is out of the question. Turkey, for its part, is regarded as a competitor for the mantle of Sunni Muslim leadership – a position long held by the Ottoman Empire.

The frequent description of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as harboring “neo-Ottoman” ambitions for his country clearly implicates this rivalry. It was the Ottomans who brought down two historical Saudi/Wahhabi states. The first such state (1745-1818) was destroyed by Egypt’s Mehmet Ali with Ottoman support; the second (1824-1891) was also defeated by the Ottomans.

By contrast, the Kingdom has no problematic history with Pakistan. On the contrary, the Saudis have bankrolled the Pakistani state, and proved a generous host to its current prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, during his long exile following the military coup that toppled his government in 1999.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Pakistan since the early years of its independence. Given that Pakistan was founded in 1947 on a religious basis, it is not surprising that its leaders sought support from the source of Islam, Mecca, then under Saudi rule. The Kingdom, in turn, exported its Wahhabi teachings to the “Land of the Pure,” ultimately fueling the Islamic extremism and sectarian violence of the Taliban and others.

Saudi Arabia also invested in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, the so-called Sunni Bomb, by directly financing the research of A. Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani effort. The Kingdom’s hope of directly benefiting from Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities was blocked in 2003, when the US discovered the prospect of a transfer of knowledge and more.

Moreover, the forces that the Pakistan has sent to the Kingdom over the years have been perceived as generally loyal. Although up to 30% of the Pakistani army are Shia, the Saudis will only accept Sunni soldiers, and Pakistan has happily provided them as mercenaries, sent on rotation and treated as guest workers.

Part of the Saudi plan today is to use Pakistanis as the backbone for a new Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint military force. Pakistani forces under Saudi command were used in operations to quell Shia uprisings in Bahrain in 2011, and the Saudis now want a standby force ready to put down Islamist and Shia provocations whenever and wherever they may appear in the Gulf. In the event of an existential threat in the region, in particular a confrontation with Iran, Pakistan would offer the Kingdom a form of deadly protection denied it by the West.

So to what extent can Pakistan really enhance Saudi Arabia’s security, particularly in a war against Iran? Pakistan is badly fractured, with domestic terrorism running rampant. Its military lacks the capacity to intervene in Saudi Arabia’s defense while maintaining not only domestic security, but also readiness for war against India (an obsession of Pakistani generals).

Moreover, Pakistan’s substantial Shia population might join the ranks of the violently disaffected if the military backed the Saudis in a sectarian war. And the Pakistan People’s Party, now in opposition but still a powerful domestic force, shares interests with Iran.

So, although the strategic value of closer military ties with Pakistan seems highly questionable, Saudi Arabia has little choice. The GCC is in fact disintegrating, following Qatar’s ouster for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Oman’s voluntary departure from the group. That, together with the Kingdom’s deepening distrust of the US, is fueling a growing sense of isolation. Pakistan may not be anyone’s idea of an ally when facing an existential threat; for Saudi Arabia, however, it is an idea whose time has come.

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    1. CommentedDan Adams

      I live in the ME but my, this is setting an awful precedent. Two crippled states linking up to fail. Its something out of Beckett.

    2. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      President Obama is in the middle of a subtle but significant reconfiguration of American foreign policy which puts stability forward as an overarching goal. With regard to the Middle East, such a shift in policy focus towards stability also means that the nationalist agendas of various allies and client states in the Middle East are not necessarily those of the US. In particular, America is making very clear with its insistence upon Israeli-Palestinian talks that the sub rosa irredentist objectives of Israel are no longer even tacitly accepted as goals of American policy. In a similar vein, the evolution of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Sunni states into a militant alliance of garrison states rooted in the past is not the direction desired by the US. Most likely the Israeli revanchist policies will ultimately fail as will the Saudi Arabian alliance of the reactionary regimes against the supposed threat of Iran. These policies as pursued by Israel and Saudi Arabia will contributed to heightened instability in the region, not less. Therefore they are going against the gain of American policy.

      If the Americans succeed in integrating Iran back into the world economy as a more peaceful member, then Saudi Arabia will have created a garrison state with no apparent foe but its own fear of change and its hostility to the future. Something similar will occur to Israel if the foreign "threat" of Iran is removed from the regional calculus.

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      In light of the declining relations between Washington and Riyadh in recent months over US policy in the Middle East, President Obama is paying a visit to its long-standing ally and tries to define US interests differently to those of his Saudi host. There are disagreements between the two countries relating Obama's handling of Egypt, Iran, Syria and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. The Saudis claim the US were weak, as it resorts to diplomacy instead of military might to resolve the crisis in Syria and the nuclear dispute with Iran. Saudi Arabia felt further betrayed when it turned out that US and Iranian officials had for months been conducting secret negotiations in Oman, that helped pave the way to the interim deal in Geneva last November.
      Saudi Arabia seems to be the country that has problems with its own self and with its neighbours. The Shia/Sunni divide reflects the power struggle between the Saudi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran over regional hegemony and has plunged Syria into a sectarian war, with a ripple effect felt in Iraq and Lebanon.
      The vicious intra-Sunni schism between the Saudi Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood's political Islam had led to a Saudi-backed military coup in Egypt, which toppled the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, last summer and the brutal crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
      The late Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud had once said: “All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood,” and argued that the group “has destroyed the Arab world.”
      The former long-serving interior minister was seen as even more conservative than King Abdullah and personally committed to upholding strict religious traditions.
      Another reason why Saudi Arabia wanted to get rid of Morsi, was that he reached out to Iran. In August 2012 Iran's Vice-President Hamid Baghai came to Cairo. A week later Morsi himself travelled to Iran to attend the non-aligned nations meeting hosted by Ahmadinejad. No Egyptian leader had set foot in Tehran since the mid-1970s. Diplomatic relations broke down after Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and received the Shah, who fled the Islamic Revolution. Iranian warships were allowed to pass through the Suez Canal in February 2012, a huge thorn in the Saudis' side.
      That Saudi Arabia now strengthens its tie to Pakistan can been seen as a desperate attempt to forge alliance abroad. If Saudi Arabia is capable of "exporting" softpower, it is indeed the "Wahhabi teachings". If boys and young men in impoverished regions of Pakistan go to school, then they attend the madrassas, funded by Saudi Arabia, which fuel "the Islamic extremism and sectarian violence of the Taliban and others".
      Pakistan is cash-strapped and won't hesitate to help train Syrian rebel groups and even provide Riyadh with nuclear weapons to deter an attack by Iran. Saudis' allies in the GCC are distancing themselves from Riyadh, because Dubai, Oman and Qatar want to maintain a good relationship with Iran.

    4. CommentedMarc Laventurier

      King Arthur: Consult the Book of Armaments.
      Brother Maynard: Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one.
      Cleric: [reading] And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats...

      Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)