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Balance in the Gulf

The exhibition of pettiness and skulduggery within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the last few days, combined with, essentially, the all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the last few years have combined to create a highly inflammable and dangerous situation. For Pakistan, these are not matters of mere prosaic issues of international relations or foreign policy. To assess, we must attempt to comb through five dimensions that matter most: economic, spiritual, strategic, propaganda and information wars, and finally, the internal coherence of Pakistan.

Let’s begin with economics. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 1.5 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, at least another one million live in the United Arab Emirates, and at least another half million are spread across Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. In total, no fewer than three million Pakistanis live and work in the GCC. Remittances from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia alone make up for about one-third of all workers’ remittances, whilst workers in the UAE make up for another fifth. These funds not only help macroeconomists plug the foreign currency gap, they also enable the families of those workers to live relatively better lives than they otherwise would.

There are no fewer than 15 million direct beneficiaries of worker’s remittances here in Pakistan. Among Pakistan’s key trade partners, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE feature among the top ten sources of Pakistan’s imports, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE also feature among the top fifteen destinations for Pakistani exports. In sum, the GCC countries represent a significant bloc of countries for the macro and micro economy of Pakistan. This simple fact means that any changes or policies that Pakistan adopts viz these states must consider the potential impact. It does not mean that Pakistan should, in fear of repercussions, never make any changes to how it conducts relations with these states. It just means that those changes must cater to the potential economic impact of the GCC countries on oil imports, Pakistani expat labour, their remittances and our foreign exchange reserves.

The second dimension is spiritual. Though it may pain some Pakistanis that public policy can in any way be affected by individual and/or collective spiritual preferences, we must live in the world we live in, rather than one that does not exist. There are three spiritual dimensions here. The first is the strong bond that all Muslims, regardless of sect, have with the Two Holy Mosques. This bond translates into a deep and abiding commitment among many ordinary citizens of Pakistan to protect and defend Makkah and Madinah.

The second spiritual dimension is the deep sense of kinship that some Pakistani Muslims, belonging to the Shia school of thought, have with the institution of the Ayatollah in Iran. The Ayatollah acts as a spiritual steward for many Shias and they derive their political leanings and opinions largely on the weight of the Ayatollah’s pronouncements. The Ayatollah’s Pakistani constituency has been cultivated by Iran robustly and effectively. That is why, for example, we see frequent reports of Pakistani fighters in Iran being feted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The third spiritual dimension is the strong commitment of some Pakistani Muslims to Salafi and proto Salafi ideology, which have historically been led by Saudi Arabian scholars. The kingdom has assiduously cultivated a Salafi constituency in Pakistan, and this manifests itself in both non-electoral political narratives and electoral politics across the country.

These three spiritual dimensions have interacted with each other over the years to produce a reasonably flammable set of perceptions related to sectarian affiliation. There have been attempts to counter the poisonous effects of Saudi Arabia and Iran fuelled sectarian hatreds – but the divisions now run deep. Shias have been slaughtered in numbers and to effect. Young, firebrand Shia youth have been delivered to the Ayatollah in hand-knitted baskets. Three generations of firebrand Sunni youth have been convinced to conceive of Shias as mortal enemies to be resisted at all costs. The cost has been high.

Pakistan’s blubbering, fumbling responses to the slow-motion mega-crises of the Middle East is a symptom of uncertainty and confusion stemming directly from the republic having been infected with the disease of its people. But this is not unexpected and should not be the exclusive and singular focus of our critique. Pakistan may have left itself vulnerable to these problems, but the list of enablers and facilitators is long and distinguished.

This brings us to the third dimension: strategic. Iran may be majority Shia and Saudi Arabia may be majority Salafi, but the ruling elite in both countries seeks to perpetuate their rule, not the word of God. The religious affiliations they hold are the instruments, not the objects of their power. Pakistan’s biggest mistake with the GCC and Iran has been its willingness to be used as strategic leverage by other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mostly however, the willingness of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders to offer strategic carte blanche to the US and China has produced strategic blind spots and vulnerabilities. Among the greatest is Afghanistan, and the insecurity in that country. Another is the physical and political accessibility that enemies enjoy to Balochistan – Kulbhushan Jadhav being a case in point. Perhaps least explored of the strategic vulnerabilities Pakistan faces is the emergence of a post-CPEC Pakistan with Gwadar as an alternative to the existing commercial and trade hub of Dubai.

The combination of economic, spiritual and strategic dimensions lays the groundwork for the most visible but most easily forgotten dimension of the Middle East and its impact on Pakistan: propaganda and information warfare. Every day our WhatsApp groups and Facebook timelines are bombarded with messages, images and videos that are designed to inflame our sentiment, and exploit our partialities. None of this is necessarily being done to damage Pakistan, but rather to create pressure on the Pakistani elite to act one way or another. The most undignified version of the propaganda war was in the aftermath of the Haj tragedy two years ago, in which Iran and Saudi Arabia traded pointed barbs and Muslims all over the world, including in Pakistan, were left to choose sides rather than to mourn the dead.

The latest manifestation of the info wars were the mass hacks of Qatari government websites, and the response of the Saudi kingdom and the UAE in blocking the transmission of Al-Jazeera news in their respective jurisdictions. In response to the Trump visit to the kingdom, Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif wrote tweets and an oped in the NY Times. The aggressive push across the Gulf to win the argument is not without impact in Pakistan. These political contests are being debated vigorously here – with significant potential ramifications for this society.

And this brings us to the final and most important dimension: internal Pakistani coherence. The Sunni-Shia disconnect is obvious, but merely avoiding the nightmare of all-out sectarian conflict is no grounds for claiming victory. The greater immediate threat to Pakistan’s internal coherence is institutional, not sectarian. Take a good look at the core of the relationship between Iran and Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, or the UAE and Pakistan. The civil-military disequilibrium lies exposed in all three. It is this disequilibrium that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE will exploit to their advantage. None of them necessarily with ill intent, but all with potentially devastating effect.

One way to understand the current mess in the Gulf is through the personas of dominant tribal personalities. Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in Riyadh, Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad in Doha have proactive, expansionist visions of their influence. As they resolve their differences, Pakistan has only one job. It must stay out of sight, and out of mind. It must steadfastly refuse to take sides, either between the GCC states themselves, or between Iran, and any state opposing Iran.

Pakistan has already paid the price of poor leadership and shoddy strategic thinking. The toxic flames of the current strife are an opportunity to change course. To do so requires coherence and unity at home.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Balance in the Gulf," The News. 2017-05-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Political contests , Political accessibility , Economy , Muslims , Politics , Kulbhushan Jadhav , India , Pakistan , CPEC , GCC