Pakistan should've nothing to do with Saudi-led sectarian 'anti-terror coalition'

Every country holds its national interests before anything else

“Pakistan enjoys close and brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and attaches great importance to their security,” Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif said in a meeting with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman yesterday.

“Any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan,” he further added.

This is the second visit of a Saudi official in three days to Pakistan. These recent visits came in the wake of rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Execution of a famous Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr, along with 46 others evoked a strong response from Iran. Tensions were heightened when Saudi embassy in Tehran was set afire by enraged protestors, leading to Saudi Arabia breaking off its diplomatic ties with Iran.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps condemned the execution of Sheikh Nimr and threatened Saudi Arabia saying, "Without a doubt, the hated Saudi regime will pay a price for this shameful act."

Following the tussle, Sunni-led Bahrain and Sudan called off diplomatic ties with Iran, while UAE minimized the links.

The execution of 47 people came in the background of KSA announcing an Anti-Terror Coalition consisting of 34 countries – excluding Shia-led countries like Iran, Iraq or Syria.

The alliance caught many countries, including Pakistan in surprise. Talking to media, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said he was surprised to know of Pakistan’s inclusion in the alliance.

Hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran date back to 1979 Iranian Revolution. Considering Khomeini-led Shia Iran as a threat, Saudi Arabia has been in a continuous proxy war with Iran. With Iran being closer to Russia and against Israel, Saudi Arabia has always enjoyed unflinching US support – making them natural allies.

The whole dynamics of the region changed when US and Iran struck a historic nuclear deal which resulted in lifting of trade sanctions by UN, US and European Union.

Saudi Arabia, infuriated by the deal, has been bent upon finding new alternatives to maintain its dominance in the region and stay relevant in eyes of Western powers.

Formation of so-called anti-terror coalition with no Shia majority country points towards the same fact – that Saudi Arabia is desperate to assert its influence in the region.

Being a purely sectarian and regional issue, Pakistan has been cautious from the start to deal with it. When Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen to oust a Shia-led rebellion, Pakistan refused to send its troops.

It has also remained ambiguous till now about its role in the anti-terror alliance and has offered to act as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the recent diplomatic row.

However, like the statement above, Pakistan has always reiterated that whosoever poses threat to Saudi Arabia’s integrity, would have to deal with Pakistan too.

While the position of government remains vague, far-right parties have come out in open to support one of the two parties in the conflict.

Shia Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen rallied Friday in Islamabad against ‘human rights violations’ in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s inclusion in Saudi-led alliance.

In a contrasting situation, Tehreek Difa-i-Harmain Sharifain, a Sunni coalition, protested against ‘an international conspiracy’ to damage the ‘sacred’ cities of Mecca and Medina.  

These conflicting protests tell of a rather uncomfortable reality – extreme sectarian tensions in Pakistan. During Afghan Jihad, Saudis made sure their funding went to the sects of their liking i.e. Deobandi, Salafist and Jamat-e-Islami. Meanwhile, Iran funded Shia groups in Pakistan.

A sectarian war broke out in the country with organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba, often under the patronage of deep state, targeted the minority Shia groups.

This sectarian war, although toned down, continues until today.

Under such circumstances, it has become difficult for Pakistan to side with either side and thus remains the ambiguity.

However, far-right parties are at their hypocritical best. Not to mention how harmful an alliance based one sectarian based could be. The demand to be a part of it is full of paradoxes and contradictions.

JuD (read Lashkar e Taiba) is the lead campaigner in favor of Saudi Arabia from where it collects the largest amount of funds. The manifesto of LeT is to wage Jihad against India – the same country that signed a defense MoU with Saudi Arabia in 2014. The MoU “will allow exchange of defense-related information, military training and education as well as cooperation in areas varying from hydrography and security to logistics.”

2015 saw a significant progress between Indo-Saudi relations when 110 IAF officers and airmen made first staging visit to Saudi Arabia – the first ever in the history.

Saudi Arabia funds LeT and other Jihadi organizations to fight against India and at the same time, keeps growing ties with India. The question arises that in case of war, who would Saudi Arabia support – India, with whom it has friendly relations or ‘brotherly’ Pakistan? Or to be more precise, who would these Jihadi groups support?

The parties that make Tehreek Difa-i-Harmain Sharifain are all highly anti-USA – which has long been an ally of Saudi Arabia. Does that mean KSA befriending US is fine but Pakistan-USA alliance is somehow impure?

The Iran-US nuclear deal has upset two countries the most – Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many reports in the past have mentioned Saudi Arabia working with Israel to contain the Iranian influence in the region. One report even suggested Saudi Arabia had agreed to let Israel use its airspace as well as assist militarily in case of an attack on Israel.

Far-right organizations champion the Palestine cause and often use it to demonstrate their street power. Why remain silent on Saudi-Israel relations?

At the beginning of Yemen crisis last year, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash threatened Pakistan of ‘heavy price’ for staying neutral. The same UAE opened up to India when Modi visited in August last year.

Agreements to invest $75 billion in India and increased defense ties were signed between India and UAE.

All these facts point towards one direction: every country holds its national interests before anything else.

Pakistan must end its ambiguous stance and take a firm stand on not being a part of any alliance having sectarian inclinations. The religious parties must for once and all decide where their loyalties lie because clearly, the myth of Ummah has long been busted. No country would care what a bunch of delusional mullahs think or aspire when it comes to their national interests.

Umer Ali is an Islamabad-based journalist who reads and writes about Pakistan and its history. He aspires to see a tolerant and progressive Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter

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