K N Pandita
How the Biden administration will deal with Pakistan is not an immediate concern for policy planner in Islamabad: their real concern is how the divided Islamic world patches up and agrees to stand behind her for realizing the Kashmir dream. Pakistan foreign minister’s jaunts to some West Asian countries and the statements emanating from the host as well as the visitor, both, are clear indications that Pakistan wants to mend the fence and bridge the chasm not really for bringing peace and prosperity to Muslims but to garner the support of Islamic radicals for grabbing the entire region of Kashmir. She wants the ummah to believe that Pakistan’s struggle is Islam centric whereas actually, it is Kashmir centric.
The divide between the radicals and the rationalists in the ummah (Muslim community) is of fair antiquity and traceable in the rise of the Ismailis in the 10-11th century AD. In contemporary times it has taken a different shape by making a subtle shift from ideology to politics. Pakistan has made religion a handmaid of politics in Kashmir.
Kashmir is not the quintessential subject that has drawn a wedge between the Saudi Arabian monarchy and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as the latter would like the world to believe. Their discordance is much deeper than what meets the eye. Before December 2019 Kuala Lumpur debacle, Saudi Arabia was infuriated with Pakistan’s refusal to be part of the Saudi-led 39-nation Islamic military alliance against the Houthi Yemen. By giving media hype to its Kashmir “concerns” and bringing in the Saudi related OIC factor into the Kashmir narrative, Pakistan only wanted to arrest the growing realism among the Kashmiri Muslims that Pakistan was incapable of doing anything to derail India’s J&K Reorganization Act 2019.
The Business Standard of April 13, 2017, had reported that the Saudi government had surprised many countries by announcing that it had forged a coalition for coordinating and supporting military operations against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. Saudi circles inferred that Pakistan’s unwillingness to join the Islamic military alliance stemmed less from the fear of antagonising its next-door Shia neighbour but more from an apprehension that action against terrorists in Afghanistan could expose her clandestine designs as well like ISI-Haqqani group tie-up.
Saudi Arabia, the traditional epicentre of Islamic conservatism, is willingly responding to the imperatives of contemporary times and, hence, undergoing notable social and cultural change. Having received education in the European and American educational institutions, Crown Prince Salman wants to wriggle out of outdated conservatism and open a new leaf in the history of contemporary Saudi Arabia. This disappoints the conservative non-Semitic bloc of Islamic leaders who feel that a liberalized and modernized Saudi Kingdom means drying up of funding sources and channels that kept them in power and their people stupefied with religious frenzy. Also, fostering a cordial relationship between Israel and some of the Gulf States — the trust-building diplomacy in which the Saudi monarchy serves as a silent catalyst — has become an irritant to the non-Semitic Muslim countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia etc. Their apparent anti-Israel stance had prompted Iran to jump on the bandwagon of Malaysian Mahathir Muhammad. But on realizing that the Turkey bloc wanted to wrest the centrality of the ummah from Saudi Arabia and shift it to Ankara, the disillusioned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could not help disappointing them.
Biden’s declaration that the US would not support the war in Yemen and would also be imposing an arms ban on the kingdom came as a windfall to Pakistan. Islamabad’s perception is that a disappointed and betrayed Saudi monarchy will understand the importance of staying closer to the Islamic fold. Pakistan presupposes a mediator’s role for her in rebuilding confidence between the estranged blocs. It has to be kept in mind that as the lone nuclear power among the 53-odd Islamic countries in the world, Pakistan enjoys a reasonably dominant status in the OIC. Iran and Turkey both aspire for nuclear capability and any souring of Saudi-US relations opens up a fairly good chance for the Kingdom to come closer to China which is the world’s largest importer of Saudi crude oil.
There seems a thaw, at least a tactical one, in Pak-Saudi freeze after the Kuala Lumpur episode. Pak foreign minister was recently on a visit to Egypt where he met with the President and his counterpart Sameh Shoukry. He also met with the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Aboul Ghat at the latter’s headquarters. In a joint statement, they promised to strengthen bilateral relations and work towards peace and development in Islamic countries.
Following Pak foreign minister’s trip to Cairo, Saudi Arabia and UAE rolled out a loan of US $ 1 billion to Islamabad. Riyadh also disclosed that Saudi oil giant ARAMCO will invest $10 billion in establishing a refinery in the port city of Gwadar. This is to bring parity with Riyadh’s commitment to India for the Mumbai refinery. West Asian analyst at Warsaw’s War Studies Academy told Nikkei Asia that the Turkey-Islamabad-Malaysia bloc which had challenged Saudi Arabia’s leadership will not be affected by these developments.
Islamabad is working at a multi-track approach to its resurgence as an important player in the trans-national realignment among the Islamic countries. She is contemplating several joint economic ventures and agreements with Turkey and Iran, like the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul railway line and also the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to balance relations with the Saudis and Egypt.
These developments are taking shape after the White House received a new inmate. If Biden stands by his restraining policy, Riyadh will be tempted to lean on Beijing. The road runs through Pakistan. In this scenario, the Sino-Saudi partnership will open a new chapter in the strategy of Gulf and Indian Ocean where Pakistan has been assured by both Turkey and China to be provided with sinews to her naval force. It has to be remembered that shortly after the Quad naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, Pakistan hosted China, the USA and the Russian joint naval exercise in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Long back China had clandestinely supplied some crucial nuclear facility to Pakistan in making the bomb. China could repeat the game and hoodwink the world
In this changing scenario, the significant question that has great bearing on the entire game plan in West Asia is how the united Turko-Saudi block will manage the course of a relationship with Israel once the bloc comes into existence. Is Biden trying to contain the pro-Israel lobby in the US Congress after it had made significant inroad into the West Asian fortification?
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.)
K N Pandita