Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing two mammoth diplomatic questions from the get-go. The first, which was discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago, is balancing the fiscal dependency between the US and China, both of whom are currently busy making Pakistan’s fiscal vulnerability its latest battleground, as Islamabad looks towards the IMF for a bailout.
The second, which too has fiscal links with the first, is brewing in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is looking to tempt Pakistan’s hand – as it has done over the decades – by providing financial incentives for toeing its line across a region that has long been jarred by ubiquitous fault-lines.
While Pakistan inevitably providing vocal support to Saudi Arabia in its clash with Canada made sense diplomatically – albeit further rubberstamping Pakistan’s wretched human rights record – for Islamabad has much to gain from Riyadh, and very little from Ottawa, what Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wants now is something he’s been eying for a while.
Former Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif is commanding the Saudi led Islamic Military Counter Terror Coalition (IMCTC), which features over 40 predominantly Sunni states, Islamabad has officially maintained that he is doing so in his personal capacity, which he’s entitled to given that he has retired from service in Pakistan.
However, there is wide spread concern that the IMCTC is anti-Shia in orientation, and its imminent goal is continued destruction of a fellow Muslim country Yemen under the garb Saudi protection at best and Muslim unity at worst.
The Pakistani parliament has already raised its objection to any participation in Yemen, but of course hasn’t acknowledged that the IMCTC will be party in that war, especially since Islamabad is officially a part of the coalition.
Furthermore, Pakistan already is party in the war on Yemen, even if Islamabad’s claims are bought at face value, because even by providing security to the Saudi kingdom, it frees up resources for Riyadh to fulfill its ambitions elsewhere.
Even so, what MBS wants now is much more sinister. Tacit and operational support for the IMCTC no longer cuts it for the Crown Prince – he wants Imran Khan to openly back the military coalition.
The word is that given Khan’s global repute this would serve as a PR exercise for the coalition, especially vis-à-vis the very evident sectarian tilt that it has. In exchange, the Saudis would provide the petrodollars to bridge Pakistan’s fiscal deficit and ease the balance of payment crisis, which as mentioned above has put Islamabad smack in the middle of US-Sino powerplay.
Of course, it’s easy for us to sit here and ask Khan to say no to Saudi, but he and Asad Umar know fully well that the cheques that Riyadh is willing to sign wouldn’t have the conditions that the IMF would implement. And even though the IMF bailout might be necessary either way, getting money from Riyadh would at the very least ease the burden on Islamabad and in turn its decision making ability.
It’s not only the local Shia population that Khan would alienate by providing vocal backing to an organisation that is designed to counter the so called Shia Crescent, what the Pakistani premier will also get is more blood on his hands something that his predecessors have acquiesced to in the past.
Beginning with Zia-ul-Haq, Saudi backed radical Islam has been causing havoc in the Muslim world, including Pakistan. While Nawaz Sharif initiated many liberal and progressive undertakings at home, his personal ties with al-Saudi family meant that he just couldn’t say no to Riyadh.
However, even Nawaz openly support the IMCTC. Imran would be best advised to at the very least do the same, and let things be as they are – at worst.
Considering that the foreign policy is still to become the civilian domain, and Islamabad (read Rawalpindi) still long way away from saying no to Saudi Arabia owing to a plethora of reasons, aggravating Pakistan’s role in the Middle East will only tarnish Khan’s personal reputation, and the hope that he has given many.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.