The onset of March is a pleasant time in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s impressive capital. The long, cool desert nights give way to temperate sunrises. One can easily misconstrue this to be any sprawling American megalopolis basking in the luminosity of iridescent lights from the window seat of an airplane. The cars beneath look like lightened ants synchronized in a direction. But all this heralds for the arrival of long, tortuous summer when things start to fester.

However, the recent turn and pace of events in Saudi Arabia have been indifferent to the arrays of the weather, rather, these have continued to simmer with excitement and uncertainty at the internal and external fronts. Internally, the Kingdom’s heir apparent has strengthened his position with alacrity launching his vision for the new Saudi Arabia through his flagship Vision 2030, rolling out ambitious reforms to the oil dominated economy which has come under tremendous strains due to the plummeting oil prices and an excessive reliance on foreign reserves. The announcement of the creation of NEOM is but an important component of weaning away the Kingdom from an Oil dependent economy. Prince Salman plans to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and position it as a hub of manufacturing, commerce and the region’s chief trading outpost.

A ruthless but well intentioned crackdown on reckless pilferages to the Kingdom’s coffers by influential royals and businessmen may have met all three of Prince Salman’s purposes; in order of importance: i) consolidating his power base and removing any challenge to his ascension as the future King of Saudi Arabia. ii) Recovering money on the pretext of corruption to add to the state’s coffers and meeting fiscal challenges iii) promoting an image of a clean young man trying to connect with the country’s large, unemployed youth bulge who are some of the most active users of social media anywhere in the Arab world, disaffected and subscribing to militant ideologies including joining the ranks of outfits such as ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Prince Salman’s last presumed attempt might also be an interconnected endeavor at some of his other sweeping social changes such as granting women the right to drive, commencing business’, admittance to sporting activities, celebrations and carnivals. The opening of cinemas and screening of movies that shall allow for mixed audiences and seating is another important highlight of his social reform programme. The raging, carefully crafted propaganda against the Kingdom and its ruling elite aside, such changes must be welcomed. In a globalized age of information when borders are increasingly becoming irrelevant, holding on to old dogmas has long adversely affected the Saudi social fabric and its image to the outside world. One might urge caution at the rapidity of which these reforms are carried out; however, these are desirable. These reforms will also echo in Iran where headscarves are already coming off in an act of defiance and a demand for greater female emancipation will gain momentum, if only subtly at this stage.

Externally, not all is so quite on the Kingdom’s Western front, to twist the legendary novelist Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece’s title. Saudi Arabia’s increasing mutual hostility with Iran has placed the entire Middle East on a precipice. One must be mindful of that the region’s precarious stability is anchored in a fragile cohesion in all of its fatal fault lines. The lines cut across the region’s Sunni, Shia; Sub-Sects, Baathist Socialism, Arab Nationalism, Non State Actors and Israel. The Arab Spring and winter being the latest components to these layers. Much of the present turmoil between the region’s two powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia is a result of the ill-conceived, dubious Iraq War. It is unimaginable how the US could go to war against Saddam and remove a buffer to Iranian expansionist designs in the wider Middle East. In doing so, the US effectively gifted the Iranians an opportunity to vastly expand their influence in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Iraq is now virtually an Iranian vassal state. This has emboldened Tehran to further spread its power in Syria. Lebanon, Yemen and other states. Saudi vulnerability to the battle hardened Iranians stems not just from a weaker economy, an inexperienced army, a costly stalemate in Yemen and regular missile incursions by the Houthis into Saudi territory but also ceding space in Syria, Lebanon and other allied countries.

From this vantage point, it makes sense for Saudi Arabia’s courting of Egypt and Pakistan. Two countries that are important to Saudi strategic and regional ambitions. While Egypt under President Sisi is an allied ally of the Kingdom, nuclear Pakistan’s recent ambivalent policies towards the Middle East and Yemen in particular have been viewed unfavorably by Riyadh and in Abu Dhabi too. Pakistan’s foreign policy paralysis is a result of the country’s volatile politics and its continuing civil-military decision making crisis. Sadly, much of the narrative about Saudi Arabia in Pakistan is increasingly becoming completely ill-informed a revolving around clichés such as Wahhabist ideology, women driving, lashes and public whipping. It is oblivious to the mutually beneficial alliance that has sustained Pakistan at some of its most crucial times in its history. The Saudi Pakistani partnership has not just been about aid and security but cooperation on intelligence, military assistance, economic welfare and bringing political stability to Pakistan. Pakistan’s ill-thought refusal to send troops to Saudi Arabia and offer decisive support during an illegitimate campaign by the Houthi militia in Yemen neither won it any space in Iran nor was reciprocated if it was intended to do so. Instead, Pakistan has helplessly watched as its firm bedrock of alliances in the GCC have vacillated, regrettably, publically too. Along with Saudi Arabia, we have lost great diplomatic capital in the UAE which has emerged as a leading power base in the GCC and the wider Middle East. Exchanges of high level visits between India and the UAE hopefully will not be a precursor to deepening cooperation. Oman’s decision to lease a key port to India and Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow Air India overflight rights to Israel through Saudi Airspace are important Indian forays into the GCC. Strangely enough, our media narrative filtering to an ill-informed public opinion is miffed at Saudi refusal to support Pakistan at the FATF meeting in Paris while ignoring similar Saudi sentiments on Pakistan’s refusal to aid Saudi Arabia over Yemen, Syria and now Qatar.

Neither have our actions and reactions helped consolidate relations with Iran. The nabbing of an Indian spy/terrorist Kulbhushan Yadav, Iran’s decision to lease the Chabahar port to India, the Iranian army chief’s public pronouncement of crossing into Pakistan territory, shooting down of the Iranian drone inside Pakistan, Iranian silence over gross human rights violations in Indian Held Kashmir and President Rouhani’s successful visit to India should serve important reminders on the complete failure of our Middle East policy and add a new discourse to the standard Saudi narrative in Pakistan but that seems unlikely.

Alex Vatanka’s brilliant book on Iran-Pakistan relations is a lucid account on how ties between these two neighbors have frayed in recent years. Iran’s proximity and traditional goodwill for India in its ruling clique from the time of the Shah, its ambitions in Afghanistan, the advancement of its Indian ties at political, economic and strategic levels, border issues with Pakistan, the JCPOA agreement, discriminatory trading practices, tariffs on Pakistani goods and host of other issues will only further affray ties between the two countries. For those arguing in favour of forging closer bonds with Tehran, the fundamental question we must ask ourselves is how forthcoming is Iran towards drawing close to Pakistan? Pakistan must also make decisive steps towards building a cohesive identity that must give it the confidence to take intrepid foreign policy discourses rather than remaining stymied by sensitivities of Shia’s towards Iran and Sunni’s towards the Gulf. A Pakistani’s interests and that of his nation’s actions abroad must echo the sentiments of the motherland nor should guidance be sought from foreign lands. This is detrimental to a nation’s social fabric. Afghanistan warring sects and those in Lebanon are an example. Vatanka’s thesis of an internationally isolated Iran which has little to offer Pakistan in terms of monetary and tangible assistance was a chief reason why Pakistan was cultivated mutually by the Gulf and vice versa. The millions of Pakistani overseas workers and their remittances are also a key financial configuration that an economically weak Pakistan is rightly sensitive about. In a Trump presidency, when Israel has unqualified access to the White House, the optimism of an integrated Iran, characterized by the Obama years, is likely to fade further.

Therefore, Pakistan’s decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia is a decision that has been taken a bit too late. It has missed opportunities of fortifying its traditional power base in the GCC and Middle East. The troops should have been sent earlier. The alarming challenges to Pakistan require us to be bold, imaginative and on the offensive. A cue can be taken from the diplomatic notebook of the UAE’s dynamic Ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Oteiba. Clarity of thinking must be translated into collective policy making for the country to be effectively responsive to increased US pressure, Pakistan’s fragile economy recovery, the war in Afghanistan and an increasingly hostile India. We cannot hope to keep vital issues such as Kashmir alive, gain entry into the NSG, ensuring economic, social development, cohesion and safeguard our diplomatic and territorial borders by excessively relying and taxing friends such as China, Turkey and the GCC nor on the most useless narrative of countless sacrifices and recognition of these at the international fora. Let us strengthen existing relationships, repair worn ties and eschew differences for the country’s common good. On this score, we can and must do more.

 

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.

m_nasir08@hotmail.com