What it means for Pakistan to get entangled in Saudi Arabia and Iran conflict

The country, which is already a fertile land for terrorists, will be engulfed into a civil sectarian war.

 |  9-minute read |   25-03-2015
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Pakistan's relationship with Saudi Arabia has been intense and shrouded in secrecy for years, but new wave of speculation follows Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 4. The Pakistani-Saudi deal for the kingdom's security against terrorist groups especially the ISIS, or for nuclear technology for Saudi Arabia, will only create more mess in Pakistan: more sectarian killings or international isolation. Pakistan may inadvertently attract greater scrutiny of its nuclear programmed from the United States and other great powers due to its Saudi connection. Former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani told Wall Street Journal, "Pakistan may end up being Saudi Arabia's friend of last resort", by providing a nuclear umbrella in case Iran persists with a nuclear weapons programme.

In this recent visit, Saudi Arabia reportedly has asked Pakistan to provide more troops to boost the security of the kingdom against terrorists. The Express Tribune of Pakistan and Financial Times of London media has been asking the question, why Saudi Arabia is reaching out to a Pakistan, which is the only Muslim-majority state with nuclear capability? A visiting fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, Nawaf Obaid, told AFP, "Saudi Arabia is drastically going to re-energise its foreign policy to bring the kingdom back to its natural role as the main unifier of the Sunni world because of its unique attributes." My question is, if Pakistan, which is a nuclear state, gets involved in the regional conflict in between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what would be at stake for the country and for the region considering the country is still paying the price of its initial involvement in Afghan proxy war between the Unites States and Russia in the form of extremism, terrorism, sectarianism and economic crisis?

I moved out of Pakistan in 1997, when the wave of sectarian killing was on the surge and the educated people from Shia sect were the main target of terrorist organisations. At that time the terrorists groups like Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) were targeting the prominent educated people of the community like doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors. This was the aftermath of continuous growth of extremism and teaching of hatred against different sects through the religious seminaries (madrassas) and religious organisations after the end of Afghan war in Pakistan. The foreign funded seminaries were attracting the poor families in Pakistan, who weren't able to send their children to schools or feed them daily. The seminaries were providing them religious education with free housing, food, and clothing. The organisations like theSSP and the LeJ, who thrived on foreign funded money, started bombing Shia communities around the country.

According to inspector general of Punjab Police, hundreds of religious seminaries in Pakistan especially in Punjab are foreign funded. In 2009, Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bombed a religious gathering in Karachi while in 2013, Shia neighborhoods in Balochistan and Karachi were bombed massively. The terrorists belonged to the TTP also attacked other minorities including Christian community. These terrorists groups in Pakistan go by many different names but they are connected to the same ideology - Wahabism - an ideology that traces much of its roots to Saudi Arabia.

In Pakistan, the spread of extremism started under the folds of Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Pakistani military establishment added the policy of supporting the US in Afghanistan against Soviet Union by projecting the war as a religious duty (Jihad), to get the maximum numbers of fighters through the recruitment. Many people were recruited through the religious seminaries by Pakistani security establishment to support the US policy. Former Ambassador, Husain Haqqani explained, "As substantial amounts of money, weapons and fighters flowed in, Pakistan's security establishment began setting up camps to not only train fighters to battle in Afghanistan, but also in Jammu and Kashmir."

According to many political pundits in Pakistan, the then Pakistani security establishment found this enormous spread of "jihadi mindset" useful to strengthen their own "Kashmir narrative" against India. Most of the fighters were recruited from Punjab and Northern Province, which shares the border with Afghanistan. Zahid Hussain, a journalist and correspondent to the London Times and Wall Street Journal from Pakistan, mentioned in his book, Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam, "Saudi government has consistently backed the seminaries of particular sect (Deobandi) which was close to their Wahabi school of thought in Pakistan". According to him, "Seminaries funded by Saudi Arabia especially after the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan became the centre of militancy and recruiting ground for terrorist organisations involved in sectarian killings".

Saudi Arabia was flowing in oil money to strengthen the Wahabism in religious seminaries. The Saudis got a chance to spread their version of Islam through the Afghan war, which in the future would help them in legitimising their dominance on the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia and Iran are equally involved in bringing the sectarian war to Pakistan, which was the cause of bringing Wahabism in Pakistan in the cover of Afghan war. While Saudis were funding their terrorist organisations like the LeJ and the SSP, at the same time Iran was funding the organisations like the Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP).

Saudi Arabia, which is a country ruled by a monarchy but it also holds the most sacred places for Muslims, has always been paranoid and threatened by the Iranian revolution like uprising from the people of Saudi Arabia. The spread of Wahabism in Pakistan was detrimental to Iran, because it was serving Saudis' interest and was growing the anti-Shia sentiment in the region. In Lahore in 1990, the assassination of Iran's Consulate General, Sadiq Ganji by the SSP terrorist and the support to Taliban government in Kabul made Iran supported the pro-Shia elements like SMP in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia government has always been in a cozy relationship with Pakistan's current prime minister. Saudi Arabia played an active role in securing the release and exile of Nawaz Sharif and his extended family to Saudi Arabia after being convicted and jailed for hijacking of passenger plane carrying former Army chief, general Pervez Musharraf. Once again Saudi Arabia approached Pakistan in 2014, when King Salman as prince, visited Pakistan with grant of one point five billion dollars to reaffirm the Pakistani-Saudi strategic partnership or in other word bought Sharif government to serve their interest in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Bahrain, like Saudi Arabia, is a monarchy which has been facing an uprising since 2011. According to Aljazeera News, almost 2,500 Pakistani retired army and police officials joined Bahrain's anti-riot force in cracking down the Bahraini protestors. According to the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, "Our own Shia cannot join the security forces, but the government recruits from abroad". The Guardian reports, mostly Bahraini protestors are Shia.

Iran, being a Shia dominant country has repeatedly denounced the crackdown on the protestors, while Saudi Arabia being a Sunni state has stood as closest supporter of Bahrain. Michael Stephens, a Qatar-based Bahrain specialist at the Royal United Services Institute said, "It has certainly put Pakistan in a very awkward position, where it has to balance its relationship with Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the other."

Pakistan and Iran relationship has suffered several setbacks due to the anti-Shia militancy, backed by Saudi Arabia, near Pakistan-Iranian border. How can Pakistani government send former servicemen as anti-riot force to the other country, where the issue is more sectarian, while knowing the vulnerable condition of its own?

There is no denial about the Iranian-sponsored militias fighting in Middle Eastern countries to counter the terrorism spread by the ISIS. According to Council on Foreign Relation report, with Iran and Saudi Arabia, both are involved in fuelling the current sectarian wars in Iraq and Syria. The former head of British Intelligence said in 2014 that he doesn't have doubt about the private funding from Saudi Arabis and Qatar to the ISIS while authorities of the countries have turned blind eyes towards it.

Pakistan, which is already fertile land for terrorists with logistical and human support in the form of religious seminaries and trained jihadists for organisation like the ISIS, will be engulfed into a civil sectarian war. As the director of Pakistan Institute for Peace, Amir Rana said, "Our groups were in crisis; now Daish (ISIS) has provided them with a powerful framework that is transforming their narrative." According to NBC News report, a commander of Taliban in Pakistan, Mufti Hasan Swati said, hundreds of Pakistani Taliban have joined the ISIS branch of Pakistan. In 2014, New York Times report, the country recently witnessed the ISIS flags and graffiti's in the big cities like Karachi and Lahore. If history is any precedent, continued Saudi support to extreme Wahabi elements will result in counter manoeuvre from Iran to safeguard the Shia interest in Pakistan.

Therefore, influential states and global leaders should restrict Iran and Saudi Arabia from obtaining the nuclear technology and from spreading sectarian wars through their proxies. According to Global Arm Trade analysts, in 2014, Saudi Arabia has spent six point five billion dollars on arms purchase, which was 54 per cent more than 2013. Now Pakistan needs to realise that it can't get involved in other countries' dirty games at the cost of their own people's lives. Pakistan has already paid the heavy price due to terrorism in the form of more than 30,000 lives lost and billions of dollars loss in revenue.


Farheen Rizvi Farheen Rizvi @farririzvi

The writer is a US-based Pakistani blogger.

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