Sultan M Hali
DESPITE the trials and tribulations the nation is passing through, Pakistan has some in-built strength, which is acknowledged by its allies. An article titled ‘Pakistan — a key GCC ally’ carried by “Arab News” on 15 January 2016, authored by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is an example. The informed scholar observes that three million Pakistanis work in the Gulf countries, and the $4 billion in annual transactions they make, contribute to the nation’s economic strength. He opines that the country is not viewed merely as a trading partner but the region considers relations with Pakistan strategic. The erudite academic opines that Pakistan is not viewed as a mere trading partner or another Muslim nation. Its military capabilities qualify it to play a balancing role in the region, whereby it is a deterrent against Iranian expansionism, which has increased following its nuclear deal with the west.
Pakistan has always been considered as part of the formula of regional balance with Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There have been military agreements with it via undeclared contracts and alliances. Despite regional tensions, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed does not consider that the situation will deteriorate into military conflict between major regional countries. However, an active Pakistani presence in the Middle East, and particularly in the Gulf region, will provide regional stability and security, and enhance Islamabad’s international influence. He expressed that Pakistan has played a balancing role with Iran in the Gulf since the 1970s, and its weight increased as Tehran’s threats against Gulf countries increased in the 1980s. Consecutive Pakistani governments have strengthened relations with the Gulf countries.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have worked to bridge the gap, even when United States pressure on Pakistan intensified following the September 11 attacks. Back then, Washington believed Islamabad was lenient when dealing with terrorist threats, and some parties went to the extent of accusing Pakistan of obstructing their war on terror. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed concludes that Pakistan has succeeded in avoiding military confrontation with its bigger neighbour India, despite their many previous conflicts. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, it has also overlooked what the Americans — who are always suspicious of Islamabad’s “secret” activity there — are doing.
The author believes that since Pakistan is militarily stronger than its neighbour Iran, with which it shares a 900-kilometer border, Tehran has avoided a confrontation with Islamabad, although it has not stopped inciting sectarian tensions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran has been keen to tempt Islamabad by talking of building a gas pipeline through Pakistan — a plan that has always been delayed by regional crises, geopolitical issues and sanctions on Iran that prevented bilateral trade. Even if Tehran implements the plan, Pakistani interests in Arab Gulf countries are huge and have bigger value commercially, politically and religiously.
The ground realities are that Pakistan has been doing a diplomatic tightrope walking by maintaining fair relations with both Iran and the GCC. Cognizant of the sentimentalities of a sizable Shia population residing in Pakistan, its government and military have avoided taking sides. It is prudent to not only steer clear of regional politics but pertinent to offer its good offices as an honest peace broker. The enemies of Islam would be pleased to see the simmering differences in the Islamic Ummah to boil into conflict and chaos. Pakistan’s unique position enables it to play an effective role in the current milieu.
Pakistan is definitely an ally of the GCC and other Muslim countries but cognisance must be taken of how the people of Pakistan perceive the Muslim world. The raison d’être of Pakistan’s creation was to preserve its independent Islamic identity from Hindu India. The founder of the nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, had made it clear what to talk of differentiating between the sects of Sunnis and Shias, all other faiths, who had chosen to make Pakistan their home, would find shelter in it with equal rights as equal citizens of a fee state. It is later bigotry and schisms that have been divisive. In this chaotic environment, vested interests have taken advantage and fanned trouble.
Both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran have found Pakistan fertile ground to let their proxies use it as a battle field, leading to sectarian violence here. Unlike the GCC, Pakistan has a more holistic view of the Islamic world. It is no surprise that it has produced all kinds of leaders and does not differentiate if the leader is male, female, Sunni or Shia. The father of the nation was of Shia sect while majority of the leaders have been Sunni but this has not deterred them from holding the mantle of authority or being voted into power because fundamentally Islam is our identity. Unfortunately, the GCC and Iran are divided along sectarian lines. Yemen, Lebanon, now Iraq and Syria, all are plagued with sectarian fault lines, while enemies of Islam including the ISIS or Daesh tend to gain from this divide. Pakistan, on the contrary, refuses to go along with any tug of war pulling it to either side or get embroiled in the sectarian imbroglio.
Pakistan’s military is indeed one of the most battle-hardened countries, equipped with nuclear weapons but it is far-sighted to avoid adopting an aggressive anti-Iran posture. Besides the fact that Iran is our neighbour and has at times fished in troubled waters but both Iran and Pakistan enjoy historical relations. It was the first country to recognize Pakistan as an independent state. It was also very helpful to support Pakistan during its conflicts with India. It has worked with Pakistan to quell unrest in Balochistan. Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries are equally strong and time tested. While well wishers like Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, consider Pakistan a key GCC ally and acknowledge Pakistan’s strengths, it would be judicious to offer sharing our rich experience in fighting terrorism rather than act as mercenaries and dispatch our armed forces to the GCC countries to fight their political mêlée.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.