In his speech in the UNGA, Imran spoke of threats to Muslims in many parts of the globe, including India. He forgot his own country and China. Wonder if Muslims do not exist there. The largest rally demanding deaths to Shias, who are also Muslims, was held in Karachi. Iran was peeved. Within Pakistan, Sunni terrorist groups target Hazaras and Shias, with support from the state. Is this because Pak cannot remove Saudi control over its clerics or is it a warning from Saudi Arabia to break Pak-Iran-Turkey nexus.
Pakistan was itself founded by Jinnah, himself a Shia. Shias comprise 15-20% of Pakistan’s population and are spread across the country, except in Gilgit Baltistan, where they form the majority. Pakistan has the second largest Shia population after Iran. Hazaras, a Shia Muslim ethnic group,are primarily located in Quetta, Baluchistan. Over the years multiple Sunni terrorist groups have led attacks on them in addition to sectarian violence deaths. Since 2003, almost 3000 Shias have been killed and 5000 injured. Any sect countering Saudi Wahabism was a natural target.
There is no doubt that Shias of Pakistan are religiously allied with their brethren in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The 2016 execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the dissident Saudi Shia cleric, led to the largest global Shia demonstrations taking place in Karachi. Pakistan has been caught in a web between Iran, its neighbour, and Saudi Arabia, its benefactor.
It was the Saudis, who with petro dollars, bankrolled Wahabism in Pakistan and financed its clerics and Mosques. Most Sunni clerics owe allegiance to the House of Saud. Pakistan, with Saudi backing and funds,supports anti-Iran terrorist groups, Jaish ul-Adl and Harkat Ansar Iran based in Baluchistan. On the contrary it accuses Iran of providing support to anti-Pak Baluch terrorist groups operating under the umbrella of the Baluch RaajiAajoi Sangar(BRAs). The visit of Imran to Tehran did little to reduce support to groups to anti-Iran terrorist groups. The Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani, assassinated by the US in Jan this year, considered Pak as an enemy because of its support to terrorist groups.
Despite Saudi having accepted Raheel Sharif to head the Islamic Military Alliance, Pakistan refused to join claiming its forces were over stretched. It became evident that Saudi Arabia was angry with Pak and could act in a manner contrary to Pak’s interests. In recent times, Pakistan teamed with Turkey, Iran and Malaysia seeking to form a counter to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), dominated by the House of Saud and UAE, on account of their unwillingness to back Pakistan on Kashmir.
The meeting on the sidelines of UN General Assembly between leaders ofMalaysia, Turkey and Pakistan to hold a summit in Kuala Lumpur added to Saudi anger. There had to be a retaliation. Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman withdrew the aircraft he had loaned to Imran for visiting New York, forcing him to fly back by private airlines. Pak did not take the hint.
The meeting in Kuala Lumpur in Dec last year was attended by few national leaders. These included Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar and Iran. Most others either ignored the meeting or had low level attendees. Imran had to withdraw from the conference at the last minute as he was compelled under Saudi pressure. It ended in failure.
The strong statement against Saudi Arabia issued by SM Qureshi on the anniversary of removal of article 370demanding a special meeting on Kashmir was done with the premise that it could send a warning to Saudi to back it or else it would join hands with Turkey and Iran. Evidently, this coalition had the backing of China which was keen to see the rise of a counter group to reduce the influence of the US in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia retaliated by demanding USD 1 Billion from the 3 Billion loaned to Pak, refusal to renew the deferred payment mechanism for oil and refused to invest in CPEC projects. It was evident that the UAE would follow suit.
The rushing of the Pak army chief, General Bajwa to Riyadh did little to relieve tensions. His desire to meet the Crown Prince was turned down. Pak’s attempts to cover the visit as being linked to military cooperation was not backed by any Saudi press release.
Since the improvement of Indo-Saudi relations, Pakistan has repeatedly been advised by the House of Saud to desist from pushing terrorism into India, a warning that Pakistan ignored, banking on Chinese support. Saudi has neither backed Pak in the FATF nor would it back it in the future.
Further, Pak’s recent actions were moving against Saudi interests and it had begun taking the House of Saud for granted. The next counter-step adopted by Saudi Arabia was to break the alliance of Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, created to challenge its power. The easiest route was to enhance threats of sectarian violence against Shias within Pakistan. This would lead to tensions between Pakistan and Iran.
Pak is currently in a catch 22 situation. It cannot alienate itself from the Saudis nor can it anger Iran, which is its neighbour and with whom relations are currently improving. It desperately needs Iranian support to curb activities of the BRAs, which has begun gaining ground in Baluchistan. Shias who fought alongside Iranian rebel groups in Syria and are now returning and could form a counter insurgent group to target Sunnis in retaliation. They could be supported by Iran
The recent rally, held in Karachi, which has a large Shia population was led by Mullahs backed by Saudi Arabia. Though there were claims that this was orchestrated by the Pak army, it is unlikely. Any violence against Shia’s impacts Iran, as it considers itself as the champion, benefactor and protector of Shia Muslims globally.
The Pak leadership was aware of the background behind the rally and hence there were no comments from any political leader countering demands for sectarian killings, openly announced in the rally. The rally was a message to Pak to either tow the Saudi line or it would ensure that sectarian violence increases adding to internal pressure on Pak. Iran would retaliate in anger.
Further, with improving relations between Middle East countries and Israel, Kashmir would move further down the list of priorities for the OIC. Pak must understand its difficult situation. It has been given multiple hints, which it has ignored. Pressure from Saudi cannot be offset by relations from China. It would need to choose whom it can bank on, Saudi’s or China, as both seek to dominate the same region. It is currently riding the Chinese horse, which could soon, without notice, dump it in the middle of nowhere. Saudis would never come to their rescue then.
(The author is Major General (Retd)