The current toxic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is another manifestation of the deep decay that has set in the Muslim world. The two countries are locked in a power struggle and are primarily using the classic sectarian divide to strengthen their respective positions. The 34-country Saudi-led alliance formed with the avowed purpose of fighting the most brutal of insurgent groups, the Islamic State, is also supposed to serve the more important role of acting as a bulwark against Iran’s expansionist designs. Pakistan, caught by surprise when this alliance was announced, flip-flopped, but with its top leadership having leanings towards Saudi Arabia, joined the coalition. When parliament and the media started questioning the wisdom of the decision, Islamabad and the GHQ seemed to have backtracked and taken a more prudent position of playing the role of a conciliator rather than remaining partisan. Whether Pakistan will succeed in bringing the two sides toreassess their policies of confrontation will very much depend on the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia. But surely, this is an option worth pursuing in our own interest as well as that of the Muslim world.
The sharp political and ideological division between Iran and Saudi Arabia has foreign backers, with the US and other Western countries generally supporting the Saudis in their opposition to President Assad and Russia leaning towards Iran and supporting the Syrian leader. The polarisation among Muslim countries has strengthened the hold of major foreign powers and made the Muslim world more subservient to their policies.
Tensions in the Middle East have been a boon for the defence industry of the US as well as for other major arms producers. In contrast, with depleting oil reserves and increasing defence expenditures, the squeeze on the economies of Saudi Arabia and Iran will have to be absorbed by the people of the two countries.
Israel is another beneficiary of this intra-Muslim conflict. Regrettably, not only has the world’s attention digressed from the plight of Palestinians, the common hatred for Iran and for Syria’s Assad has brought old foes, Saudi Arabia and Israel, closer to each other.
With the shackle of sanctions removed, Iran will be able to develop close relations with the US and the West. The sanctions had prevented the West from investing in and exploiting the Iranian market, which has huge potential. Interestingly, Iran is a more natural partner for the West. It has an educated population, a 5,000-year-old civilisation, a relatively stable society and a semi-democratic government, all of which make it an attractive market for the West. In anticipation of the lifting of sanctions, Western firms and entrepreneurs have been visiting Iran to explore the market and establish contacts. The release of Iran’s frozen $100 billion assets by the US government and lifting of the trade embargo after Tehran meticulously complied with its nuclear obligations is making the Saudi and Israeli governments uneasy. The violent protests in Iran that followed the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent cleric, further vitiated the atmosphere.
Leaders of Muslim countries need critical introspection of their internal and external policies. Most of them are pursuing policies that perpetuate their grip on power without any consideration for their adverse consequences on their peoples and the stability of the region. Unfortunately, not a single Arab Middle Eastern country is democratic. Bashar al Assad was ‘elected’ president in 2000 as successor to his father, Hafez al Assad, who had ruled Syria with an iron grip for 30 years until he died. No wonder then, that the IS found Syria an easy prey to make inroads into and a convenient launching pad for its attacks on adjoining countries. It is ironic that the alliance formed to bring down Assad constitutes countries that suffer from similar weaknesses and are ruled mostly by monarchies or dictators, accused of mistreating minorities and running roughshod over their political opponents. The plight of Shias, Kurds, Christians and dissidents in these countries is a manifestation of their insular policies. This makes these dictatorial regimes more dependent on outside powers, which in turn exploit them to advance their regional agendas. Unless this vicious cycle is broken, there will be no peace within these countries and among them.
Iran also needs to curb its ambition to dominate the region. The alliance of 34 countries that Saudi Arabia has forged is essentially a reflection of the insecurity that generally prevails among Arab kingdoms against an expansionist neighbour. Most of the Gulf states view Iran as a hegemon that has created proxies to undermine insecure regimes. Just as Iran has wisely opened a new chapter with the West, it should similarly review its policies towards its neighbours. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has to reconsider its policy of aggressive intervention in neighbouring countries. Its military intervention in Yemen or even in Syria has only complicated matters.
Pakistan’s interests remain intertwined with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The option of joining the Saudi coalition without conditions could lead to some unintended consequences. Pakistan has a significant Shia population and will not like to be caught in a pincer if the two Muslim countries were to expand their conflict.
On the positive side, if peace were to prevail, with lifting of UN and US sanctions, several opportunities open up for Pakistan. Iran has offered to provide 1,000MW of electricity to us and in due course is willing to export 3,000MW. If the tariff structure is mutually agreed upon and security aspects are streamlined, the project could be undertaken, which will be beneficial to both countries. Similarly, the construction of the Iran-Gwadar portion of the much-needed gas pipeline could also commence, as the design and other prerequisites have been largely completed. Only the equipment remains to be procured to finalise the project.
Pakistan has taken a laudable step of making a genuine effort at reducing tensions among opposing regional powers. This is in sharp contrast to its past ventures when it blindly plunged as a pawn in the power struggle of super and regional players, subordinating its national interests for short-term gains. Let us hope it succeeds in its efforts.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2016.