The Gargash guff
Shahzad Chaudhry
April 15, 2015

Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s junior minister for foreign affairs, has sent Pakistan a warning – of there being serious consequences of our ‘neutral’ stance on the ongoing war in Yemen. In simple words, the minister is angry that Pakistan has declared in its consensus resolution by parliament that it will not join the GCC coalition against the Houthis in Yemen.

One can understand the minister’s anguish. By his count it was a done deal that when a sheikhdom beckons, Pakistanis only ask: ‘how soon?’ There can never be another response; at least none other than a wholesome submission to the wishes of our Gulf masters – till now that is.

The minister seems to have missed the point altogether. This is what the resolution means: That Pakistan sees no imminent threat to the security of Saudi Arabia in this ongoing strife. That the Houthis, in the flush of initial success, seem to have momentum on their side but are severely restricted in their capacity to overwhelm the entire length and breadth of Yemen. They can hardly be a threat to the Saudi landmass. That, unresolved and un-ceased, the internal factional strife in Yemen, with the visible propensity of its neighbours to fish in Yemen’s troubling waters, has the making for a more permanent divide in the Muslim world. That, Pakistan would not ever be a party to such consequence of divisions and fissures that over time will become irreparable. We would rather be the voice of unity and cohesion. Itself a composite society of Muslims with different denominational attachments, it remains of vital essence to Pakistan to remain united in the war against terrorism. It cannot afford to invite disaffection.

Consider the geography of Saudi Arabia: its major population centres, including the two holiest – Mecca and Madina – are ensconced deep in the north, on the eastern and western extremities, with a voracious desert in between from Yemen. Imagine also the proposed audacity of an adventurer – much less the Houthis who to survive in Yemen and rule must need Saudi benefaction – to invade the Saudi landmass against this pervasive threat of a hostile and sparse expanse of sand and be consumed by its voracity. The idiocy in such conception can only begin to become clearer.

The hubris of the Saudi response lies in its embedded fears of internal turmoil. After all a group of heretics did once lay siege to Mecca. The Arab Spring did trigger unrest in some of the vulnerable Saudi provinces. And yet, the threat from Yemen will not and can never be as large as the one that can come from the north were the IS to expand further unchecked. When that becomes a reality, the world, including Pakistan, will surely respond differently.

The Saudis may have a point in fearing Shia encirclement – they have gone on record to label the strife in Yemen as Iran sponsored, and Iran fed; yet the reality is significantly different. The Houthis, who are Zaidi Shias (different from mainstream Shias), have been Saudi moles when fighting in southern Yemen. The compulsions of politico-economic sustenance of any order in Yemen are far more real than any divergent religious leaning; and hence far more dependent on Saudi pleasure for survival. That doesn’t mean that Iran will let up on any opportunity to exert pressure on the Saudis, but in a competitive geopolitical context only.

Those who wish to discount Iran, including the good Dr Gargash, do so at their own peril. And the Saudis, past masters at power-games in the Middle East, are sensible enough to know the underlying implications of an imminent rapprochement between the US and Iran. What the Iranians might barter with the Americans in terms of their nearness to a weaponised nuclear status will be regained in the American nod on Iran’s increased geopolitical influence in the larger Middle East. Consider how both the Iranians and the Americans have made space for each other against their common enemy, the IS, in a parallel war feeding in the gains to the other.

Past June 30, when the deal between the two gets formalised, note how economic cooperation between the west and Iran opens up even newer avenues of a major geopolitical shift in the Middle East. The Saudis are right to fear such a shift, though to assume that the Americans will do so at the cost of the Saudis will be equally fallacious. The solution to the Saudi discomfort is surely not in attacking Yemen, but in resolving Yemen through an internal dialogue process that the Saudis will be well-advised to convene, oversee and support to keep Yemen from becoming another field of contention.

The real field of play is to the north of Saudi Arabia, though there too rather than fight and seek areas of broadened influence, Saudi Arabia and Iran would be better advised to focus their energies in fighting the IS and keeping the Muslim world from factionalising further.

The larger message from the major Muslim (Sunni) nations whom Saudi Arabia coveted as a bulwark in the name of fighting a Shia offensive is to dissuade Saudi Arabia from such characterisation of a problem that is patently political in nature. All these nations also have significant Shia populations and can ill afford to engender fissures that can only weaken them from the inside.

When Egypt proposed to form a 40,000 strong Arab army to support Saudi Arabia it was a typical tactic to defer immediacy of direct Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war. Na nou munn tel ho ga, na radha nache gi. Similarly, both Pakistan and Turkey have chosen diplomacy and dialogue over war to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Oman, a member of the GCC, abuts Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and most prudently has eschewed any direct role in the ongoing war.

Here is a fact check for Anwar Gargash: his country would not be what it is today except for the sweat and toil of millions of Pakistanis; the UAE armed forces were raised from scratch by the Pakistani military and today are a formidable modern force in the Gulf; Emirates, UAE’s pride as an airline, was founded by none else than the PIA and is now the world’s most renowned airline. The UAE economy continues to flourish with the support and services of expatriate Pakistanis – that is also true for most GCC countries.

In just the UAE Pakistanis form 21 percent of its population. In Dubai, almost 20 percent of the property is owned by Pakistanis. So is the case in Saudi Arabia. With Saudi Arabia, the relationship doesn’t end here and now. The links are strategic and will stand the test of ultimate challenge. Pakistan will remain Saudi Arabia’s key ally for times to come. As will Iran, a key neighbour.

And as a final test to the Gargash postulation of consequences: ever imagined if the Pakistanis in Bahrain were to be removed in a single stroke? The entire structure of the ruling setup can come crashing down. The reality is so stark and so real, Dr Gargash. It is time to smell some strong Gahwa.

Postscript: Rather than explain Pakistan’s position in the media, the prime minister would be better advised to send a delegation to Riyadh, Doha and the UAE for some real diplomacy. Otherwise, minor ministers of some nations begin to acquire outsized proportions.

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal,former ambassador and a security and

political analyst.


Published in The News