And where Pakistan stands
While the Gulf kingdoms condemned the attacks on the Saudi embassy not all broke off diplomatic ties with Iran. UAE only downgraded relations, replacing its ambassador with a chargé d’affaires
Donald Trumph will leave for Riyadh on 19 May to meet the Saudis and the Gulf Sheikhs. He will also meet other Arab and Muslim leaders collected together by the Saudis to listen to Trump. It would be catastrophic for the Middle East if Trump was to encourage Saudi ambitions to take on Iran or other countries in the region.
The differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran could have been kept within manageable limits if the Gulf region was left to itself.
Within hours of Riyadh executing prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, charged crowds ransacked and put on fire the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. While Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani condemned the acts, the damage had been done. With the two provocations, one in Saudi Arabia and the other in Iran, a new chapter of hostilities began between the two countries.
Following the attacks, the Saudi government broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. All air traffic with Iran was suspended and trade links and commercial relations cut off. The Saudi government imposed a ban on its citizens’ visit to Iran. Iranian pilgrims were disallowed from performing hajj.
While the Gulf kingdoms condemned the attacks on the Saudi embassy not all broke off diplomatic ties with Iran. UAE only downgraded relations, replacing its ambassador with a chargé d’affaires. Close trade ties however remained unaffected between the two countries. Oman criticised Riyadh’s move as unwise and incorrect.
King Salman remained double-minded for months about his Iran policy because he was not sure about Trump’s views about the Middle East. In January this year the Saudi King in fact sent a personal letter on the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The letter, which was addressed to Rafsanjani’s family, described the former Iranian president as “honourable” and wished for God to grant “patience” to the family of the late Ayatollah. Weeks later the Saudi government lifted the ban on Iranian pilgrims.
In the last week of January Kuwait’s foreign minister Sabah al-Khaled al-Ahmad al-Sabah came to Tehran with a letter from the Emir of Kuwait on behalf of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) about the necessity of improving relations. This was followed in February by a whistle-stop tour by President Rouhani of Oman and Kuwait.
Saudi attitude however started changing after a successful meeting between Trump and Prince Mohammad bin Salman on 14 March. Trump discovered that reversing the Obama policy regarding the Kingdom would bring the much needed hard cash to fight the IS and other terrorist networks, add to jobs at home and provide a lucrative deal to the military industrial complex. What is more the new policy would help US bolster Israeli influence in the region by promoting a Saudi-Israeli understanding against Iran.
Within weeks of the Saudi prince’s visit, the US Defence Secretary was in Riyadh. According to Saudi newspaper Al Arabiya,during his meeting with King Salman James Mattis discussed Iran’s activities in the region as well as the need to prevent Tehran from establishing a ‘Hezbollah-like’ militia in Yemen. The two sides discussed ways of enhancing strategic relations between the Kingdom and the US as well as cooperation in the field of defense. They also discussed regional and international developments.
The day Pentagon chief was meeting the Saudi king in Riyadh, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was addressing a US, Saudi Arabia CEO Summit in Washington. Tillerson underlined the importance of the economic cum strategic partnership between the two countries and further enhancing it by exploring new opportunities. As Tillerson put it, “This administration is committed to using its good offices to help facilitate partnerships between American businesses and Saudi Arabia.”
As Trump made preparations for his first foreign trip, the contours of US-Saudi relations became more defined.
Saudi Arabia is to bankroll the American war against the IS, the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. It would further open up its economy to attract US investors and facilitate joint ventures with US companies promoting American business interests. In return the US will side by the Kingdom against the big bogeyman Iran. What is more the Trump administration will remove prohibitions imposed by Obama administration on certain categories of weapons. The US will also allow the sale of more weapons to the Kingdom.
The US has a long history of arms deals with Saudi Arabia having sold the country US$58 billion worth of arms between 2009 and 2015. Washington has been working to push through contracts worth tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia ahead of President Donald Trump’s trip to the kingdom.
The Saudi royalty is fascinated by hi-tech toys as these give them a sense of power. They are willing to buy costly weapons systems some of which might never be used and simply rust away and turn into junk in years to come. Saudi Arabia has no powerful neighbour to contend with. The weapons are likely to be used against neighbours who adhere to some form of Shi’a faith like Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and even the security forces in Iraq and Syria if desired by the US.
In a TV interview with Al Arabiya early this month, Prince Muhammad bin Salman talked about taking the battle even to Iran. “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia but we will work so the battle is there in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.” Does he intend to use the Islamic Military Alliance for misadventures of the sort?
Pakistan must not be drawn into any alliance against Iran as it would go against some of the fundamentals of the country’s foreign policy
The arrival by Donald Trump and encouragement provided by him could further bolster the ambitions of the Saudi royalty. This will be bad for the Gulf region. War will take away the governments’ attention from improvement of their economies, the plans to diversify these and provide jobs to their people.
Pakistan must not be drawn into any alliance against Iran as it would go against some of the fundamentals of the country’s foreign policy. Any Saudi-Iranian confrontation will have a divisive impact on Pakistani society. The question is if Mian Nawaz Sharif has the intellectual capacity to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together.
Pakistan can help Trump by fighting the terrorists of all hues and colours alongside the Afghan and the allied forces. It can in no way be a part of any fratricidal war in the Gulf. Pakistan army has yet to take Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasad to their logical conclusions. Terrorists still continue to launch major attacks. Pakistan cannot put its troops at the service of another country or alliance fighting under any pretext.