Saudi Arabia has got together with its inner circle of states in the Arab League to set things right in neighbouring Yemen, where a civil war is raging between a deposed president backed by Saudi Arabia and another president who was earlier deposed by it. Yemen’s own president has already run off to Riyadh. But there is a catch here.
The rebels include the Houthi tribe. They are called Shia but are actually Zaidi, which means they do not recognise the Twelve Imams of Iran because Imam Zaid was the son of the fourth Imam, which is where they end their confession. Iran is supporting the Houthis, backed by a split Sunni army in Yemen, which is also home to two other anti-Saudi killer outfits: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This means the Saudis are being squeezed in the south by more or less the same forces squeezing them from the north in Iraq.
Put Saudi Arabia together with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which it is a member, and you have a clutch of very rich market states that can afford to spend on the Yemen invasion. They are target-killing the Houthis in Sana’a, Aden and elsewhere, without any “boots on the ground”. The big army of Egypt is on board, but the “biggest Muslim army of Pakistan” is not yet taking part. In Pakistan, no one supports participation in the invasion, forcing Islamabad to say Pakistan will go in if Saudi Arabia is invaded.
It is a tough decision not to go in and bomb the Iran-supported Houthis. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is ruling Pakistan, was plucked out of prison in Karachi in 2000 — where he was to serve a life sentence for having tried to kill his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf — and given a comfortable life-in-exile in Saudi Arabia. Even earlier, when Nawaz faced sanctions for having tested a nuclear device in 1998, the kingdom had given him free oil for three years at the rate of $12 billion annually, which comes to a lot of money. In exile, Nawaz was able to restart his business in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia didn’t like socialist PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took Pakistan leftward. But it took to General Zia-ul-Haq, who hanged Bhutto and then Islamised Pakistan with a lot of Saudi money. Bhutto had built up Libya’s then President Muammar Gaddafi in opposition to the Saudi king during an Islamic summit in Lahore in 1974, thus taking sides in a polarised Arab world. The kingdom, thereafter, never really took to Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and fawned on the right-wing Muslim League supported by the Pakistan army.
Zia rolled back Bhutto’s leftist legacy with hard Islam. Lucky for him, he had America and Saudi Arabia fighting on the same side in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. That meant Iran had to be ignored. The Soviet invasion had coincided with the Islamic Revolution led by the anti-US Imam Khomeini, who had mauled the US embassy in Tehran and started destabilising the small states across the Gulf in 1979. Zia was strapped for cash after the Bhutto interregnum of bad economics. He just couldn’t be neutral.
In the 1990s, the Muslim League (Nawaz) and the PPP (Benazir) alternated in power, with the army calling the shots, cutting short their tenures and expanding into Afghanistan with American and Saudi money. In 1996, Pakistan put in place the dreaded Taliban government and recognised it. The world stood aside, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE went along with Pakistan. In 1998, the Taliban killed Iranian “diplomats” in Mazar-e-Sharif and invited Tehran’s wrath. Pakistan, thereafter, became the arena of “relocated” sectarian mayhem that has, today, forced the country into a popular stance of neutrality as the Arabs and Iranians take each other on.
By the time Musharraf was ousted in 2008, he had already upset the Saudis because of the way he had treated Nawaz. The PPP alternative was never to the kingdom’s liking. When the party came to power after Musharraf, it favoured the Iranian pipeline project because America had imposed sanctions on a “nuclearising” Iran and India had ducked out of it earlier. At the fag end of the PPP rule in 2013, its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, went to Tehran as president and signed an impossible deal with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — Pakistan would build its side of the $7.6 billion pipeline or pay $200 million a month if it failed to buy Iranian gas by December 2014.
In 2013, Nawaz returned to power, but wisely didn’t say how hopeless the pipeline project was under the sanctions. Tehran wooed him by proposing to lend him money for his part of the project. It then waived the post-December 2014 fine. But nothing moved. What moved was new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s palm-bearing diplomacy and the newfound “heroic flexibility” of Ayatollah Khamenei, who produced the clinching fatwa that Islam forbade nuclear weapons. Washington and Europe (P5+1) bit the bait and put Saudi Arabia — and Israel — off, landing Pakistan in an awkward locus of two very hard places.
Pakistan was unstable and broke. Iran has the rial but not much of it, and under sanctions, that too is scarce. Saudi Arabia has the riyal too, but its supply is abundant. The kingdom played its cards better than Iran. Proud Iranians had backed a restless Ahmadinejad, who needled the region with dubious adventure and saw his oil — which he didn’t refine — come under sanctions. The kingdom, pragmatic and plugged into the global economy, was heavy with dollars and purse-proud. A measure of its power was experienced when it refused to cut production in 2014, during a demand slump and piled more hardship on Iran through tumbling prices. It funded the generals in Egypt and propped up a Pakistan that can’t say no, paralysed by terrorism.
Pakistan is going to get into more trouble in Afghanistan unless it gets together with India to fight the post-withdrawal war there, which no one is going to win after the 3,00,000-strong Afghan National Army takes to its heels — and the Taliban, now anti-Pakistan, kills all the “empowered women” in Kabul and pushes millions more refugees into Pakistan.
India is now a bigger presence in Afghanistan than Pakistan, and the Afghans are clearly not too enamoured of Pakistan. Singly, India and Pakistan will both come to grief. But a mutually agreed upon plan of action against the Taliban can stop the Islamic State — which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says is already in Afghanistan — from entering Pakistan on its way to India as the “Army of Khorasan”.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are equally important for South Asia. The GCC states give employment nearer home and are the only kinds of states that Muslims provisionally seem able to run well, if you can keep democracy away. If India and Pakistan act clever and coordinate their plan of action, they can benefit from the mushrooming manpower of South Asia.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’