Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Aug 30, 2016

Saudi pressure again? Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defence Muhammad bin Salman paid a flying visit to Islamabad en route to East Asia on the invitation of the Pakistan government, during which he had one-to-one meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. This visit and interaction can be seen within the context of Saudi concerns regarding the security situation in the region, particularly the series of setbacks the Saudis have suffered in their intervention in the Yemen civil war and the emerging trend of the US carrying out a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran. Pakistan and the Saudis appear to have been more circumspect and diplomatic this time round, at least judging from the bland, generalised communiqué issued at the end of the two-day visit. This is certainly an improvement on the last time the Saudis and their Gulf allies approached Pakistan to militarily support them in Yemen. Pakistan already had, and has, its hands full with the struggle against terrorism at home and was obviously reluctant to get bogged down in the Yemen quagmire, which also has denominational overtones because the Saudis and Iran are backing opposite sides in the civil war whose divide is tinged by sectarian hues. Pakistan’s interests lay then and continue to lie in steering clear of the sectarian passions that are tearing the Middle East apart, from Yemen to Syria and beyond. It is also in Islamabad’s interest to retain and develop good relations with Iran, whose dividends are tantalisingly poised for realisation in the wake of the Iran-US nuclear deal and restoration of relations. These dividends beckon in the shape of the long stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, overland trade, economic cooperation, etc. Last time round, when Islamabad found itself on the horns of the dilemma of refusing the Saudi request for military assistance on its side in Yemen, the civil and military leadership deftly handled the situation by referring the issue to parliament where, after weighing the pros and cons, including the consideration of putting Saudi and Gulf states’ critical economic assistance at risk, parliament turned down the Saudi request. This produced consternation and even unprecedentedly undiplomatic ire across the Gulf, led most belligerently by the UAE. By now, tempers appear to have cooled amongst our Gulf friends and the fortunes of war turning increasingly against the Saudis in Yemen have produced a more nuanced and discreet approach. It needs to be noted in this context that the Saudi intervention in neighbouring Yemen has brought the war home to Saudi soil, as such interventions tend to do, manifested in almost daily attacks, shelling, etc, across the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, producing in the process its deadly crop of casualties amongst Saudi citizens in the border’s vicinity. Hence, perhaps, the increasingly dire situation has induced more circumspection in Saudi Arabia’s approach to its friend and ally Pakistan. The thrust of Pakistan’s policy stance then was that it remained committed to the territorial integrity, sovereignty and defence of Saudi Arabia and protection of Islam’s holiest sites. It should be noted that whenever threats have emerged within the four corners of this policy stance in the past, Pakistan has not hesitated to come to Riyadh’s aid. Various such episodes regarding the threat from extremist elements challenging the Saudi regime on the basis of so-called ‘true’ Islam ended when Islamabad sent troops and succour and helped crush all such uprisings, including an attempt to capture the Ka’aba some years ago. Even now, Pakistan has some 1,000 military advisors stationed in Saudi Arabia, and Islamabad would not hesitate to beef up its presence if and when required. The defence of Saudi Arabia, however, is a very different kettle of fish from fishing in troubled waters in the neighbourhood at Riyadh’s behest. That should remain Pakistan’s position even now, and it should be put to the Saudis as gently and diplomatically as possible to avoid a repetition of the ruction of the recent past.

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