Will The Chickens Come Home To Roost?
By Javed Masud
March 22, 2014
There appears to be near unanimity among critics of the present government that it neither has the will nor the capacity to take major policy decisions. Yet, Nawaz Sharif has surprised all his critics with a significant policy shift on Pakistan’s stance about Syria’s internal conflict. The passionate and painstaking denial of the Foreign Office spokesperson notwithstanding, Pakistan has now clearly aligned itself to the Saudi position. There continues to be media speculation as to what could have prompted such a bold decision by Prime Minister (PM) and (default) Foreign Minister (FM) Sharif. One obvious motivation could be the urge to express his gratitude to the royals for their hospitality extended to him during his exile.
According to gossip in Islamabad, the first international call Nawaz Sharif made after taking oath was to his benefactors in Saudi Arabia to enquire about what they expect of him. The observation, “Nawaz Sharif is our man”, attributed to a member of the Saudi Royal family as quoted in the US media lends credence to the gossip. While an average Pakistani might find it insulting that their PM is being caricatured thus, Nawaz himself might even feel happy that an important part of his personality — Doston ka Dost (friend of friends) — has been internationally acknowledged. Does this policy shift also signify that, decades after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, the elected PM has regained the authority to take foreign policy decisions independently? No, a single sparrow does not herald spring. The military establishment would be averse to giving up its stranglehold on foreign policy and national security.
It follows, therefore, that the military must have been consulted and that they are fully on board. The short-term advantage for the army is the potential sale of locally manufactured hardware to the Saudis. In the longer term, post-2014, the army is obviously on the lookout for replacements for the US as principal financiers of toys required by the Boys and Saudi Arabia seems to fit that role. Yes, the quest for entering into a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia represents a common agenda for the civilian government and the army. But is either of them aware of the long term implications of this initiative? The alienation of Iran with consequential increases in regional tension is obvious. What is less obvious is that the flame being fanned by Pakistan’s covert or overt support to Saudi Arabia might ultimately engulf the country.
It is ironic that forty years ago, Pakistan played a key role in promoting unity in the Muslim world by convening the Islamic Summit and now we have, unthinkingly, decided to become camp followers of the forces that promote divisiveness amongst Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia continues to play a pivotal role in that process. The turmoil in the Muslim world started with the destabilisation of Afghanistan after the Saur revolution with the Pakistan-Saudi nexus providing an effective platform to the US. This was followed by a series of self-destructive events: the Iran- Iraq war, the Kuwait war and finally, the US invasion of Iraq. Yes the US has been the principal aggressor but none of these adventures could have been embarked upon without the logistical and financial support of the Saudis. What is the current Saudi agenda? Their primary objective appears to be protection of the monarchical system within Saudi Arabia and the region.
Till recently, the US was considered the sole protector of this system. There are growing signs that US support may be weakening, owing mainly to declining dependence on Middle East energy as a consequence of massive shale gas discoveries in the US. Another threat emanating from within the region is represented by forces unleashed following the Arab Spring. Driven by desperation, the Saudi government is embarked on a two-pronged strategy: to aggravate the Shia- Sunni divide across the Muslim world and to promote Salafism in all Muslim communities. The disastrous impact of this strategy is already being felt in the region and also globally. The increasing turmoil in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen is visible and growing. The doctrine of Salafism appears to have a global outreach, leading to distortions of the image of Islam in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Mali and even Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, with fringe elements resorting to violence in pursuit of establishing their own version of Sharia. Most Muslim countries in Africa and South-East Asia are finding it difficult to resist extremist Islamic ideology.
In Pakistan, however, an environment seems to have been deliberately created for promotion of this ideology. Saudi funding over the years to madrasas and the clergy has worked wonders. To many in Pakistan, the Saudi system represents an ideal model. There is little reflection on how a country that does not have a constitutional system or equal rights and opportunities for all citizens provides a model worth emulating. The current trend of Arabisation in Pakistan ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia has little to offer in terms of culture or intellectual thought. Pakistan’s culture is rooted in the subcontinent and we have every reason to be proud of it. We should also recognize that our cultural affinity is much stronger with our neighbours, including Iran, Afghanistan and India, than with geographically removed Saudi Arabia.
Let us also not forget that the inspiring message of Islam in terms of compassion, tolerance, equality has come to us from our own Sufis. This is a precious heritage that needs to be preserved. Unlike many other Muslim countries, Pakistan has the potential strength to resist the onslaught of Saudi-inspired religious orthodoxy and resist we must. The relationship with Saudi Arabia should be based clearly on equality and mutual respect, not on the patron-client model. More importantly, the quid pro quo for Pakistan should not be the size and frequency of Saudi financial bailouts but their commitment to put a halt to funding seminaries in Pakistan and the assurance that the rights of Pakistani migrant workers are fully respected.