By Ayaz Amir
April 14, 2015
Pakistan could have handled this mess better, with slightly more finesse and subtlety. But the quality of decision-making in Islamabad is what it is. So there is no point in moaning over it, or being surprised by the fact that Pakistan is ending up annoying all sides and pleasing none. We’ve had jokers at the foreign office before but it is hard to recall when we had such a crew as the present one presiding over foreign policy. And let’s not forget who the foreign minister is: the PM himself.
Saudi annoyance is not hard to understand. Everything suggests that the government conveyed more than it is now in a position to deliver. If this was not the case the Saudi and Emirati reaction would not have taken the form it has. They feel let down, which is a mild form of putting it, all because our side instead of being thrifty with pledges earlier was puffing out its chest and making bold and unwarranted declarations about the people of Pakistan ready to lay down their lives for the Holy Mosques, etc.
We knew as well as anyone else that the Holy Places were never under any threat, and were not likely to be. The Saudis wanted troops and materiel for ground operations in Yemen. It shouldn’t have taken a Rommel to see this. But we kept at the swinging rhetoric and managed to give the wrong impression. Now that the Saudis are discovering the reality of our pledges, they can be forgiven for feeling let down if not betrayed.
If only we had the firmness of mind to convey a clear sense of what we could do prior to the Saudi action in Yemen. As it is, we have taken the right decision – there should be no doubt about that – but in a clumsy manner. Saying no is one thing but adding insult to injury requires special talent.
The Chinese never supported us in any direct manner in 1971. But they did not give any other impression. They did not promise anything that they did not deliver.
All the same, let us get some facts straight. It is not just Yemen which is in ferment. The entire Middle East is in a state of crisis and Saudi Arabia has much to do with this state of affairs. The Saudis have suddenly become the guardians of order and legitimacy, denouncing the Houthis as rebels. Did anyone in the Arab world much remember legitimacy when British and French fighter planes were bombing Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and Qatar and Kuwait among others were helping arm and fund the anti-Qaddafi rebels? Qaddafi was taken care of but Libya, a stable country before, was plunged into chaos. There was no Al-Qaeda in Libya before; now there is.
What about Syria? Saudi Arabia put its full weight behind the rebels trying to oust Bashar al-Assad from power and it’s been unhappy with the United States for not bombing Assad’s forces.
What about Egypt? Mohamed Morsi was the legitimate ruler, duly elected, but the Saudis couldn’t stand the Muslim Brotherhood and backed el-Sisi when he seized power, immediately writing fat cheques to support the new regime.
The Saudis don’t like the Brotherhood. They don’t like the Islamic State. They are paranoid about Iran. They are unhappy with the United States for not completely following their agenda. They are worried about their Yemen backyard. They have no problem with Israel. The question to ask: what do the Saudis like? What would make them feel completely secure?
The Saudis are unhappy and worried because their Middle East is crumbling around them. Assad survives in Syria…with help from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. And instead of Saudi-supported rebels gaining strength, the Islamic State (IS) has carved out a presence for itself on Syrian soil and spread its tentacles across the border into Iraq.
Left to its own devices, the Iraqi government could not have defeated the IS. But with Iranian help – and leadership provided by one of Iran’s top generals, Qasem Soleimani – the IS advance towards Baghdad has been stopped, and captured Tikrit retaken. Iranian influence dominant in Iraq only adds to Saudi gloom.
The Houthi advance in Yemen comes on top of all these developments. And the kingdom, its patience boiling over, is resorting to arms to redress this situation…and calling upon its friends – in Pakistan’s case, nearly ordering it – to come to its assistance. The Houthis or their allies (forces still loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh) are thus just a part of the problem. For the Saudis the major problem is the spread of Iranian influence across the region. The likely conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran, with its attendant promise of ending Iranian isolation, adds to Saudi unease.
Before the Arab spring the Middle East was such a comfortable place from the Saudi point of view, everything in its proper place. Now everything is in ferment and nothing is predictable except further disorder.
But a further question to ask is whether Iran through insidious and sinister policy has manufactured this discontent or whether, by accident or design, it has merely profited from a situation not of its making. One does not have to be a Shia loyalist or an Iranian partisan to see that Iran had no hand in the Libyan uprising. It did not foment the unrest against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It has not created the Islamic State. If anything, American and Saudi short-sightedness have created the conditions for the Islamic State’s rise and spreading influence.
Iran has not created Saudi Arabia’s Houthi problem. And Iran has not influenced the Pakistani parliament to express its ‘neutrality’ in the Yemen conflict.
For the moment, however, all these calculations take a backseat to the outcome of the fighting in Yemen. Can Saudi Arabia or the coalition it heads change the military situation against the Houthis? Can the Houthis be defeated and peace terms discussed with Saudi Arabia dictating the terms of a settlement?
The use of airpower is one thing but most expert opinion is agreed on two mutually contradictory conclusions: 1) that a ground operation is necessary to push back the Houthis and create favourable conditions for the Saudis; and 2) that because of Yemen’s geography and the warlike temper of its people a ground operation is not a very sensible option.
Presently, the Saudis are in no mood to listen to any advice which goes against the position they have taken. They want concrete help, what they were looking for from Pakistan, not advice…which is why the Saudi special adviser on religious affairs, Dr Abdul Aziz, who is visiting Pakistan has bluntly said that talk of mediation to resolve the Yemen issue was nothing but a joke.
The Saudis are putting what pressure they can…the Emiratis having already hinted at unpleasant consequences for Pakistan. So does Pakistan remain firm on the path it has chosen or will it succumb to pressure? Let us at least eschew the clumsiness…in which context assorted ministers given to shooting from the hip would be well advised to leave formal responses to the foreign office.
It’s not that we should get involved. Of course we shouldn’t. But Pakistan’s leaders should not have given the impression of promising more than what they could actually do. And they should have had the good sense to see why Saudi Arabia’s rulers were giving them a royal gift of 1.5 billion dollars. After all, the fires raging in the Islamic world have been there for some time and Saudi concerns and sensitivities are no secret. So when this gift was offered, the leadership should have had the sense to foresee the likely quid pro quo.
Far from asking any questions the leadership rejoiced in the perception that it had such good relations with the Saudis. Then it was the national interest to take the money (and where that money has gone, or to what ends it has been used, no one seems to know). Now that the Saudis want their chips to be cashed, the national interest is morphing into the colours of ‘neutrality’. They are not likely to be to be greatly amused.