24 March 2014

Syrian endgame triggers realignments

When senior Pakistani editor Najam Sethi can’t figure out why Saudi Arabia deposited a princely amount of $1.5 billion in the State Bank of Pakistan recently, we are at a dead end. Sethi said in a TV interview, “money is money and if something is taken, something has to be given in return and that is being kept secret. Saudi Arabia had made a request [to Pakistan].” 

There have been reports about a Saudi-Pakistani understanding about Syria — Pakistani advisers to train a Syrian rebel army and for supplying weapons for equipping the rebel fighters. 

But the advisor to Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in foreign and security policies Sartaj Aziz has flatly denied that. But then, Aziz merely says it is “gifted money.” So, Sethi’s tantalizing question remains: why such a generous gift? 

A clue is available with the arrival of the King of Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa in Islamabad on Wednesday on a 3-day visit. 

This is the first visit by a Bahrain ruler to Pakistan in four decades and it is taking place after the recent visits by the Saudi foreign minister and Crown Prince to Islamabad.

One of the agreements signed during Al-Khalifa’s visit relates to the interior ministries. Nawaz Sharif said he expects Bahraini (read Saudi) investments in “mega projects” in Pakistan. 

Slowly, but surely, the picture that is emerging is of Saudi Arabia (and Bahrain) subcontracting to Pakistan certain internal security duties in the Gulf region. Breaking protocol, Al-Khalifa visited the Joint Services Headquarters in Rawalpindi to meet the military leadership’.

With the intra-GCC rifts becoming acute, Saudi deployments in Bahrain to quell the upheaval for democratic reforms are becoming unsustainable, especially with the steadily worsening situation in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, which are Shi’ite-dominated. 

Besides, the Saudis are bracing for a confrontation with Qatar. The latter, on the other hand, has close ties with Turkey and Iran and, even more shockingly for Riyadh, it has reached out to the Syrian regime for a patch-up. In sum, Saudi Arabia faces isolation and has only the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan as its reliable allies. Iran’s Fars News Agency featured an insightful report on this complex realignment taking place in the Middle Eastern politics. 

Quite obviously, the endgame in Syria and the brightening prospects for an Iran nuclear deal have triggered realignments in regional politics. The Syrian regime has all but gained the upper hand on the ground and is fast reaching a position to dictate the national reconciliation, while Iran’s diplomatic options have multiplied. 

Against this backdrop, and with Egypt in disarray, Saudi Arabia feels an unprecedented regional isolation. No doubt, it is assiduously courting Pakistan. 

But it is unclear whether Pakistan will want to take sides in the intra-GCC rift involving Saudi Arabia and Qatar or in the popular Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain. 

From all accounts, a furious debate is going on within the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan always walked a fine line when it concerned ties with Iran, given the Tehran-Delhi equation. Having said that, Pakistan is also badly in need of the “gifted money”. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is scheduling a visit to Iran. 

By M K Bhadrakumar – March 20, 2014

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