By LAWRENCE PINTAK
With the Arabs lashing out at each other—a family feud on steroids—nuclear-armed Pakistan is happy to back away from the coming fight with Iran.
The wheels are already coming off Donald Trump’s grand Muslim anti-terror coalition and there is a quiet sigh of relief here in the Pakistani capital.
It all appeared so simple when viewed from the glittering palaces of Trump’s Riyadh summit. The U.S., Saudi Arabia and dozens of other Muslims nations versus Iran in a “battle between good and evil” that will “destroy the terror that threatens the world.” It’s nice when a solution to global conflict fits in 140 characters. Now the thin veneer of unity has been torn asunder with the announcement that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are severing diplomatic relations with neighbor Qatar, a card-carrying member of the putative anti-terror coalition, and cutting off all land, air and sea ties. “This decisive decision” was being taken because of “grave violations” including “adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups” including “the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and al Qaeda,” the Saudis said in their declaration, without betraying a hint of irony. Who knew politics in the Greater Middle East were so complicated?
The Pakistanis, among others.
The Riyadh summit “has widened the sectarian divide in the Muslim world,” the nation’s leading newspaper, Dawn, declared over the weekend as the latest Saudi-Qatari tiff was about to transform into an all-out diplomatic and economic assault. “The Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism may have some counter-militancy aims, but it is also increasingly clear that it has been conceived by the kingdom as an anti-Iran alliance,” the paper said in an editorial titled “Dangerous Alliance.” In a blur of glittering chandeliers, glowing orbs, and billions of dollars in trade deals (along with a tidy gift to Ivanka Trump’s favorite charity), Saudi Arabia had deftly transformed itself into America’s soul-mate and Iran secured its place as Public Enemy #1. All that complex stuff about the so-called Islamic State being a Sunni terror group that gains its inspiration—and financing—from elements in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, while Iran is Shiite and at war with ISIS, was left at the palace door. Ditto the fact that America’s bare-chested, muscle-flexing entry into the Middle East’s seminal religious and geographic divide left Pakistan—a Sunni-majority country with a sizable Shiite population —in a no-win situation. After all, while Saudi Arabia provides billions in aid to Muslim Pakistan, Iran is right next door.
The optics and timing of the Saudi summit were particularly challenging for Pakistan. Less than two weeks earlier the head of Iran’s armed forces had threatened military strikes on Pakistan after ten Iranian soldiers were killed by Pakistan-based Sunni militants. “Iran’s eastern border regions with Pakistan have become a safe haven for training and equipping terrorists recruited by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States,” said Chief of Army Staff Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, according to the Iran News Agency. “We will not tolerate this situation in the joint borders. If continued, we will hit the terrorists’ safe havens anywhere they are.” Making matters worse, Pakistan recently agreed to allow its former top general to command the military wing of the new Saudi-led alliance. The fact that it’s now an overtly anti-Iranian military force is a real problem for Islamabad policymakers. “We have to walk a very fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” a senior government official told me. “It can be quite dangerous.” It’s dangerous for everyone else, as well, since Pakistan happens to have nuclear weapons.
Iran may not be willing to strike at Saudi Arabia, but Pakistan would be a tempting place to send a message if Islamabad doesn’t play its cards right. After all, Iran and Saudi Arabia are already fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. What’s one more? Even if Iran’s military keeps its weapons sheathed, there are plenty of other ways Tehran could cause headaches for Pakistan by cutting trade; killing plans to supply electricity, desperately needed in a country suffering 12-to-14-hour-a-day power cuts; and, most crucially, stirring up trouble in the restive province of Baluchistan, on the shared border, as well as via Pakistani Shiite militant groups that can be found in every corner of the country.
Adding humiliation to diplomatic discomfort, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—who reportedly practiced his speech while flying to Riyadh—was not allowed to address the Saudi-American summit, presumably because the Saudis knew he would make a case for his country’s difficult geo-political position. The snub has angered many here.
“Trump’s speech itself further added salt to the wounds,” wrote columnist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid in The Diplomat. “Not only did the U.S. president identify India as a victim of terror, he failed to acknowledge Pakistan as one.” Trump also refused a private meeting with Sharif, rubbing in the salt. That’s probably because the Americans want Pakistan, widely accused of cynically supporting militants, to do more to crack down on terrorist groups operating inside the country. Ironically, the militant organizations Washington is most concerned about are Sunni groups often spawned in the extremist Saudi-funded Madrassas that litter Pakistan. But let’s not let complicated facts get in the way of Good vs. Evil policy.
The long-simmering Saudi-Qatar enmity broke into the open not long after Air Force One lifted off from Riyadh.
It began with a Qatar News Agency story quoting the emir as dissing the Saudis and Emiratis and seemingly praising Iran. Qatar was being unfairly criticized by “some governments which promote terrorism by adopting a radical version of Islam which doesn't represent its tolerant reality," Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, was quoted by the Qatar News Agency as saying. The story went on: “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility toward Iran,” which he allegedly called “an Islamic power”—blasphemy to the Saudis—adding that Trump’s Saudi visit was an attempt to distract from the Russia investigation. Doha quickly claimed the news agency’s website had been hacked and the comments were “fake news.” If it was the work of agents provocateurs, they succeeded in igniting simmering tensions that had been papered over since the last time they came to blows over divergent policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt.
The media war of words had been building to Monday’s dramatic break.
“Since its inception, Qatar has been an emirate of coups, treachery and playing with fire,” declared Saudi Arabia’s Al Eqtisadiya, in one typical broadside. “Bark as you wish, Qatar won’t change its principles,” Qatar’s Al Raya newspaper responded. The diplomatic blood-letting among erstwhile Gulf brethren is giving hope to some observers here that the so-called Muslim NATO, haughtily announced by the Saudis without much consultation with its presumptive allies, might amount to little more than a Trump photo op. “One summit meeting does not create an organization,” Amb. Ali Sarwar Naqvi of the Institute for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad told me. “This was already nebulous. This was all very much in the air, nothing concrete. I don’t think this alliance has much of a future.” With the Arabs once more lashing out at one another in what has become a family feud on steroids, that appears to be a pretty good bet. Pakistan is content to sit back and watch. There are no plans to follow in the footsteps of Saudi vassals like Yemen and the Maldives and cut ties with Qatar, according to the Foreign Ministry.
“The overriding imperative is that Islamabad keeps a healthy distance between itself and the conflicts raging across the Arab world,” The Express Tribune said in an editorial the morning after the break. “This is not our fight.” That unnamed government official mentioned earlier said much the same in more diplomatic language. “It is unfortunate that those latent animosities have surfaced again,” he told me over the phone. “We never like to see our friends squabbling, but it certainly relieves the pressure on us.” You could almost hear him smile.