Stark choices for Pakistan- CPEC Regional engagement or Saudi Military Coalition?
By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi
With due respect to those actively advocating joining the Saudi military coalition as a golden opportunity for Muslim Unity etc and lauding Gen. Raheel’s possible candidature as its head, here’s my perspective
Those who haven’t learned from history and current Geo political realities are doomed to repeat it. An oft repeated refrain from my dear late father when his Geo political analysis was questioned, especially when he was fairly sure of his conclusions. When not, he would read, research, seek out the experts in that area, ask questions and patiently listen. Something I try and emulate.
Read history, he would say, understand conflict and friendship between nations, then look at the map and things will be as clear as day!
While Muslim unity is a laudable objective, it requires the two main protagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran to hug and kiss. Unfortunately, history and current Geo politics tell a very different story.
The Muslim Middle East, especially, is embroiled in serious conflict going back nearly four decades. Ranging from serious political and diplomatic rivalries to outright military confrontation.
Here’s a small extract of these conflicts between the countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Bahrain.
Iran and UAE.
Iran and Kuwait.
Iran and Egypt
Iran and Jordan.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt and Turkey.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia
Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Syria and Turkey.
Syria and Egypt.
Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Iran.
UAE and Syria.
UAE and Iraq.
And Israel and India, two happy campers, taking advantage of these conflicts, have established strong ties with key players. Israel with Saudi Arabia and UAE. India with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Their targets. India and Israel want to weaken Pakistan and defang it’s nuclear program. Israel and Saudi Arabia want the downfall of Iran.
One can go on and on. But the conclusions are simple.
Achieving Muslim unity requires a complete change of mindset of all parties, a magnanimous forgiveness of past wrongs, real or perceived. An alignment of common economic interests like the EU, as well as common Geo political interests. But most seriously, is getting past the nearly four decades of violent military conflict. It is only then that these nations will commit to long term and sustainable joint military collaboration.
However, given the current environment this is as impossible as Nawaz Sharif publicly announcing his guilt in the Panama Case, expressing deep remorse, apologizing to the nation and asking for punishment for self and cronies.
But back to our main issue.
For Saudi Arabia, the dominant fear was and still is the fear of the overthrow of the ruling Al Saud ruling monarchy. If not for the average Saudi, it is certainly true for the Royal family.
Al Saud survival overtakes everything else in Saudi Arabia. It is this fear which forced them to align with Al Qaeda in Yemen and in Syria, financing and funding them. This is the very group whose stated aim was and still is the ouster of the AL Saud. And this fear which, now not surprisingly, has also forced the Saudis, to reach out to once their biggest foe and arch enemy, Israel and make common cause against their common enemy and arch foe, Iran.
And it this existential fear of dynastic death which drives the Al Saud’s primary goal of overthrowing the current Iranian ruling clergy and any Iranian allies.
And that is why Syria faced the massive brunt of Saudi financed Al Qaeda terrorist groups, Fatah AL Shaam, Jaish Al Islam, Jaish Al Fatah and the erstwhile AL Nusra and indirectly DAESH.
Of course Iran is much to blame for this, as is Saudi Arabia.
Soon after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, in 1979, Iran went into overdrive and started a massive Shia Islam propagation in the neighborhood targeting Shias across the Region. Shia majority Northern Afghanistan, Shia majority Bahrain, Shia majority Eastern Saudi Arabia, Shias in Lebanon, Pakistan and many other countries. They received highly emotive, sectarian biased religious indoctrination and resulted in a massive response of Sunni indoctrination by Saudi Arabia across the Islamic world of their version of Islam.
But their biggest fear was a “copy cat” Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia by radical Sunni groups, similar to the one that overthrew the Iranian monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi in February 1979. These radical extremist Sunni groups, especially in Saudi Arabia, had been radicalized by several factors. First was the US presence in Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden’s casus belli to fight against his own government. The second was Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and finally and strangely, efforts by the Saudi state itself, which backfired.
This Al Saud fear, changed to near insanity when in November 1979, a group of radical Saudi militants took over the Kaaba. Their stated aim? Exactly what the ruling Al Saud family feared. Their overthrow, and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Saudi Arabia. The event, to quote a French diplomat “was the proverbial hangman’s noose for the Al Saud”
So the AL Saud ruling family initiated several major strategic policies.
The first was to actively create a violent and extreme narrative of Jihadist Islam, within the country to show to the Saudi public that the ruling family was very “Islamic” and “Jihadist”. School and University curriculum now actively and openly advocated Jihad. This backfired with tens if not hundreds of thousands of Saudi youth being indoctrinated by the harsh and exclusivist and violent theology of Wahabiism, as were Muslims across the entire globe.
Then was the financing of the Afghan Jihad against the USSR, in partnership with USA and Pakistan. Close to 25,000 Saudis went to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the Soviets. These Saudis and others, subsequently fought the Shia Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, supported and financed by Iran in the genocidal Afghan Civil War from 1994 to 2001after the Russian withdrawal and the fall of the Communist Afghan regime.
Then in an attempt to overthrow the nascent and fledgling Iranian clergy regime, on its early days, they launched a full scale proxy war against them via Saddam and a 37$ billion war chest. A fruitless war that lasted 9 years from 1980 to 1989. Over a million causalities and no winner.
Finally they ensured Iran’s isolation by raising the fear of Iran’s nuclear program with the USA and EU, resulting in crippling economic sanctions. Consequently Iran, found itself isolated and very few allies in the Region. Pakistan, formerly a friend and its eastern neighbor, was now part of the USA/ Saudi camp. Afghanistan was divided. Iraq was still an enemy under Saddam. The GCC states, except Oman, were also enemies. So was Hosni’s Egypt. Only Syria still remained a friend.
And that’s where India stepped in and provided economic support to Iran, ignoring sanctions and buying Iranian oil.
A senior army general once asked me, the causes behind Iran’s move towards India, despite being a Muslim country and at one time a great friend.
A starving beggar doesn’t question who gives them food, I said. Iran was on its knees, economically crippled, and fighting an existential battle for survival. They reached out to us many times for help, but we were by now firmly allied to the USA and Saudi Arabia, and declined their overtures. Its a sad commentary about a country which till 1994, was the only country in the world, other than China, who supported our Kashmir cause on all International forums, and sadly was now closer to our arch enemy, India and even signed a defence pact with them.
Hence it is fairly easy to comprehend the prime causes behind Saudi/Iranian rivalry and understand the deep involvement of both countries in the Syrian civil war. Iran to ensure its major ally does not fall. Saudi Arabia to bring down this Iranian ally.
Analysts have called these efforts by Saudi Arabia as trying to “break the so called Shia crescent stretching from Iran, Iraq, Syria to Lebanon”.
A classic mix of religion, sectarianism and Geo politics at its best.
Iran fought back by supporting all anti Saudi groups in the Region to overthrow the Saudi monarch or their allies. An easy target was to instigate the Shia majority in Bahrain and the Shia majority in oil rich eastern Saudi Arabia. The Houthis in Yemen, now fighting AL QAEDA in Yemen were also willing partners.
In Pakistan this proxy war has destroyed and killed thousands. Mostly Shias. Doctors. Lawyers. Engineers. Professionals. Innocent and tragic statistics in this insane war. Shias are now a beleaguered scared minority.
Consequently extremist sectarian Sunni outfits mushroomed. Sipah e Sahaba, Lashkar e Jhangvi, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Jihadi outfits such as Jaish e Mohammad in the employ of the deep state also acquired strong sectarian biases. So when their day job was over, they would happily go around killing Shias. The TTP while fighting the Pakistani State and heavily infiltrated by the Indians and the USA also went about targeting Shias. All these were and still are, very serious attempts to destabilize Pakistan through armed sectarian conflict and civil war.
So terribly has this schism divided Pakistan and destroyed rationality and sanity that even its Interior Minister, states that ” sectarian terrorist outfits should not be classified in the same way as other terrorist groups”.
It has been and still is a fight to the death for both Iran and Saudi Arabia with sectarianism defining who is allied to who.
Hence that is why, in my opinion, the military coalition of Muslim States, especially one lead by one of the two main countries at war, Saudi Arabia is a non starter. It is juvenile to think that these two, at each others throats, will become a part of the same coalition.Those who think so, don’t know their history or their geography or their regional politics.
Or know it and have an agenda!
Only with shared common, economic and political interests can this journey begin. And this is where CPEC can become the real game changer, not just for Pakistan but the entire Region.
The solution is simple, its execution more complex but not impossible. Money makes the mare go. Pakistan has to create and allow EAST WEST trade linkages into CPEC, in addition to the NORTH SOUTH route.
This means bringing the many regional countries into the fold by linking their roads and other communication infrastructure to feed into the main CPEC artery.
Gwador and Chabahar and Jebel Ali free port can all be part of this network, each serving markets which they serve best. Rather than competing, these ports and other trade linkages and roads will complement and enhance the economic and trade volumes of many countries such as
By tying the economic interests of these countries through trade via CPEC, especially our immediate neighbors, Iran, India, Afghanistan, will current enemies be more favorably inclined towards Pakistan to preserve their own economic interests.
Therefore it is critical that we first set our own house in order and not get involved in any highly polarized military coalition pipe dream. A coalition unlikely to see the light of day, or even if it does, will just be a Saudi force, with a sprinkling from UAE, as it is now.
Internally we must eradicate the twin terrors of sectarian terrorists and Jihadi outfits, many, allegedly, still in the employ of the deep state as silent and unofficial instruments of state policy.
This is a policy which has failed to deliver on any account.
Externally It has targeted us as a state sponsoring terrorism. Internally It has widened and deepened sectarian and religious fissures.
We must finish off these demon. We have to, if we want a prosperous, peaceful, stable Pakistan.
Otherwise, be ready for a violent sectarian civil war which will engulf Pakistan. And even the Pakistan Army, always our last bastion of hope, will be unable to stop it.
Therefore, before this madness takes over we have to fix governance and all our institutions. Create employment for our youth. Provide healthcare, safety and security of property and life. Radically reform our law and order and our judicial system and entire infrastructure.
We must root out the cancer of widespread corruption, especially at the top. Especially in our politics, governance, military, police and judiciary. We must hold leaders accountable and punish them with exemplary punishments. Panama is a huge opportunity.
We have to conduct systemic and major electoral and administrative reforms to allow honest and competent people to acquire leadership roles in politics and governance
These are and should be our priorities.
Externally, its setting our immediate neighborhood in order. India, Afghanistan and Iran to start with.
CPEC is a God send. We must leverage it’s full potential.
So the conclusion is that, for now, Muslim Unity is a very tall order. A very very tall order.
Hence let’s park this Saudi lead controversial coalition on the side.
As far as Gen. Raheel is concerned.
He has to make his own personal decision, evaluating it’s pros and cons. Much has been said on this issue and he has much to mull over. So let us leave it him to decide what he wants to do.
But for Pakistan, we have a clear objective of engaging other countries and CPEC and need a team of seasoned diplomats to be tasked in moving this forward as our CPEC Ambassadors.
My personal choices. Sherry Rehman, Mushahid Hussain, Hina Rabbani Khar, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi and others
Hence clearly. CPEC and not Saudi Coalition.
Let’s fix our house first!