Friday, January 8, 2016

Daily Times Editorial Jan 9, 2016

Saudi FM’s visit Saudi Foreign Minister Dr Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir finally made good his postponed visit. The visit has been billed by the Pakistani authorities as ‘successful’. But if we go behind the seemingly consensual joint statement at the end of the visit, much light can be thrown on the dilemmas of Islamabad vis-à-vis the current rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its consequent fallout on the region and the world. At the outset, it should be recalled that the incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is considered very close, if not beholden, to Riyadh. Despite that, Islamabad has found the courage to say ‘no’ to the Saudi attempt to drag Pakistan into a sectarian war in Yemen on its side. For once, the government deserves credit for placing Pakistan’s interests above any momentary or expedient considerations of keeping our ‘close’ friend happy. Similarly, in the middle of the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the former’s execution of prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi regime Nimr al-Nimr, Islamabad is trying to remain as ‘neutral’ as possible for fear it too may get dragged into this sectarian conflict. So what was on offer for the Saudi foreign minister were soothing phrases about Pakistan standing shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabia against any threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty and little else. These were the same formulations used to placate Riyadh and its allies over Pakistan’s refusal to commit troops to the Yemen civil war on the side of Saudi Arabia and against the Houthi rebels considered by the Saudis to be Iranian surrogates. As far as the 34-country alliance against ‘terrorism’ announced by Saudi Arabia without it seems even consulting Islamabad as to its inclusion, Pakistan’s reservations regarding the sectarian character of the alliance from which Iran, Syria and Iraq are excluded, have persuaded Dr Al-Jubeir to offer Pakistan (and other members) involvement in the alliance to the extent they wanted. Pakistan so far has only committed to providing training, capacity building and counter-insurgency help. The significant omission here (again) is deployment of troops in what Nawaz Sharif papered over as an anti-terrorist alliance to whose purposes Islamabad stands committed but which in fact is a continuation of Riyadh’s current thrust to roll back Iran’s growing influence and clout in the region and rehabilitation in the international community since the nuclear deal. After the Saudi foreign minister’s return, at the time of writing these lines it has been announced that Mohammad bin Salman, the King’s son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister is coming to Pakistan (on a follow up?). Mohammad bin Salman is credited, along with his father King Salman, with Saudi Arabia’s current aggressive posture vis-à-vis Iran and Shias in general. Their comfort with brinkmanship on this front would have been unthinkable under King Salman’s late brother King Abdullah, who adhered to Riyadh’s typically cautious approach to such matters. Prince Mohammad has attempted to reassure a jittery world through an interview to the Economist that the crisis will not lead to an all-out war. Clearly this is a message to the oil markets as well as allies and friends across the globe that despite the ransacking of Riyadh’s embassy in retaliation for al-Nimr’s execution, which led to Saudi Arabia breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran, the conflict would be contained. Pressure from ‘big’ friends like Washington and even the UN may also be playing a role in dampening Riyadh’s ambitions to nudge Tehran off its perch and establish its own credentials as the pre-eminent power in the region. These ambitions have negative connotations for the efforts to secure peace in Syria and forge an international coalition against Islamic State, arguably the main threat to all regimes in the region and beyond. Meantime back home, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has seen fit, in the light of the sensitivity of the issue and the delicate balancing act Islamabad is essaying to keep its relations with Riyadh and Tehran on an even keel and leave open the option of playing a mediatory role between the two, to ‘advise’ the electronic media to exercise ‘restraint’ while discussing the Saudi-Iranian quarrel. The opposition is unnecessarily weighing in against the government for this balancing act, not caring for such sensitivity and demanding ‘leadership’ from Islamabad. Leadership of what, for what, is unexplained. Better for Pakistan to keep its powder dry and stay out of sectarian quagmires. In that lies the real interest of the country.

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