BY OBED PASHA
Islamic Military Alliance is unlikely to help the Saudis with their objectives
Trouble is slowly brewing around the Saudi dynasty as the Kingdom is increasingly confronted with multiple crises that threaten its continuity. Control over the minority Shia population of the Kingdom is getting harder to maintain, whereas ISIS and Al-Qaeda are gaining foothold within the younger generation. Moreover, the unrest in Syria has allowed Iran to play a key role in the region with the help of Russia, and let’s not forget the nightmare of the Houthi rebels of Yemen that is likely to continue. If this was not enough, low oil prices are restricting the Kingdom’s resources and prosperity.
The Saudis are finding it difficult to deal with such matters, and are throwing their hopes behind Raheel Sharif and the proposed Islamic Military Alliance to cope with the security threats they face. Their failure is, in part, a product of the informal and personal means of governance that the Saudi state has adopted at the expense of institution building. Even in matters of foreign policy, the Kingdom prefers to invest in individual leaders of other states rather than forging an institutional state-to-state relationship. Their attitude toward defence is no different. Instead of a unified national defence institution, the Saudi military is divided into two separate factions through the Ministry of the National Guard and the Ministry of Defence that are loyal to the Sudairi and Abdullah factions of the Saudi royal family, respectively. Furthermore, the defence leadership at the command and policy levels is deeply influenced by members of the royal family and chieftains of their loyal tribes.
The Kingdom’s defence structure, thus, betrays the core institutional principle of mission-driven professionalism that is essential for governance in this day and age. The modern institution has evolved over a millennium since its inception with the Roman Catholic Church, emphasising a sense of purpose in the service of the Christian God and merit-based appointments and promotions for clergymen occupying the Church offices. This system was later adopted by the emerging European nation-states from the 15th century onward to govern their territories and colonies. Over centuries, institutions evolved to uphold inclusiveness and professionalism, where the functionaries were encouraged to serve the interests of the nation instead of religion or the ruling dynasty. These features created robust and effective institutions that continue to provide good governance everywhere.
Pakistani military, a descendant of the British colonial army, espouses such attributes that help establish its reputation as an effective combat force. It has proven its worth in dealing with religious zealots occupying tribal territories in the mountainous regions along the Pak-Afghan border, which has an uncanny resemblance with the Houthi situation faced by the Saudis. The Saudi military, on the other hand, remains much less competent to deal with such crises even after spending more than eight times what Pakistan spends on its defence. The Saudis, therefore, are seeking to take advantage of the experience and professionalism of the recently retired officers of Pakistan Army to help protect the Kingdom and preserve its influence in the Middle East.
While this move seems plausible on paper, it is deeply flawed and lacks an appreciation of institutional ethos. The achievements of Pakistan Army have more to do with the institutional structure of our military than the individuals occupying the leadership positions. Pakistan Army enjoys definitive professional discretion and decision-making authority over its matters, and its leaders move up the ranks through a competitive process based on their professional credentials. The prime minister of the country is often restricted by a handful of choices when appointing a Chief of Army Staff, and once appointed, the three-year term is almost always respected. Moreover, any advances by the political government to intrude into what the military considers its policy domains are fiercely repelled with media and political support.
The Saudi royals, on the other hand, maintain strict control over their military with the Minister of Defense serving as the primary decision-maker. Such an elevated level of royal control is necessary given the history of professional armies overthrowing governments in the region. It is no secret that the Saudis are funding this alliance to protect their interests, and would want to steer it as per their desires. Whoever leads this alliance will have to heed to their orders due to a lack of tenure protection and political support. This will evidently decline the leader’s effectiveness.
More importantly, the Pakistani officers of the proposed Islamic Alliance are likely to suffer from a lack of purpose, which will dampen their motivation to innovate and persist. War-making is a grim business with real consequences, and can only be administered successfully when the individuals fighting on your side have a sense of purpose high enough to risk their lives fighting on your behalf. A few centuries ago, bands and tribes of indigenous mercenaries roamed across the subcontinent offering their services to the highest bidding princeling. These mercenaries were governed by a strict code of valor and tribal honor, which made them trustworthy on the battlefield. Raheel Sharif and his fellow retired officers, however, are not governed by such codes and have their loyalties with the state of Pakistan. Decades of institutional conditioning, which engrained deep patriotism for Pakistan cannot be easily over-written for loyalty to the Saudis.
What the Saudi dynasty is going through today has many parallels with the various ruling dynasties of the subcontinent during the 16th and 17th centuries. Back then, an era of relying on tribal confederations and fluid mercenaries was coming to an end, and the Mughals, Marathas, Sikhs, Nizams, and Sultans of the time were increasingly relying on European mercenary officers to modernize their armies. With the help of such officers for hire, they used modern weaponry and strategies against each other with varying levels of success, but stood no chance against a semi-institutionalised military of an emerging British nation-state. If history tells us anything, this alliance is unlikely to help the Saudis with their objectives. In the meanwhile, there is no harm in letting our saviours make a few quick bucks out of the situation.