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The Gulf’s brewing storm

Imagine for a moment that both Late King Abdullah and Late Prince Saud al-Faisal were still alive in their respective positions as the monarch and the foreign minister: would Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf as a whole, come to the point where it stands today? Surely not.

To begin with, the mass executions would not have taken place. And if they were, it would have been done subtly done, staggered over time; more importantly they would have left Al-Nimr out for a strategic barter, if a situation ever arose.

This when the reverberations of what is going on in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen, are still shaking the foundations of the order that the Middle East has known for decades. Many attribute this to American naiveté, or even a design to find the space to pivot east by reengineering the political and strategic landscape around Israel. The Arab Spring was meant as the principal lever of change replacing any residual nationalism with a more collegial democratic order.

But King Salman is ailing, and the kingdom is in the hands of the young princes, a couple of whom have been on a visiting spree to Pakistan. They too will mature with time, but in the meanwhile it is important to keep the kingdom stable and minimise challenges than trigger new ones. Do our leaders convey this to the young Princes, or do they simply mock servility? Helping friends with sound advice is far better than equipping them for destructive expeditions. The Chinese have indulged in this huge service keeping our leadership from making some silly decisions over the decades – and yet they remain our valued friends.

Daesh is an imminent danger to the kingdom. If Daesh (or IS), committed to anti-monarchism, is not prevailed upon in Iraq and Syria even though it fights Bashar al-Assad – another Saudi nemesis – and instead overcomes the opposition fighting it, not only will the map of the Middle East drastically change, but Saudi Arabia too will undergo a complete makeover, the monarchy probably replaced with an Al-Baghdadi order. The political and cultural face of Islam, as we know it, will be changed forever. With such threats looming, why would anyone like to complicate things further by focusing on something as dormant as a deeply buried fissure within the religious faith? Or, is it something to do with the political space primarily?

The Ayatollahs are smart. They are worldly, as indeed all men of religion should be, and are politically suave to know how diplomatic space is better enhanced. Diplomacy is to win space, and space betters your position in time or territorial advantage. The young Saudi leadership has not missed this point of confluence between the global (read: Western) interests and Iranian strategy expanding the political space for Iran while restricting some Saudi space in return for a nuclear pause. The Saudi princes note this with the right consternation but would be better advised to handle with care the consequences of a badly played hand.

In an attempt to embroil Iran and pull it back from its expended presence in the Middle East through an imposed conflict in the region, they also render themselves to the vulnerability of catapulting politico-strategic consequences beyond the control of these young minds at the helm. In either case the House of Saud is in transition and the earlier these young princes can get their hands around the real world by giving themselves more time at home the better would be for their interests and of the kingdom they have inherited.

When the US decided to buy time by acquiescing to the operational pause in Iran’s nuclear march, the Ayatollahs were thinking alike – gaining time to consolidate what they had achieved, holding on to the critical elements of the program, and leveraging the arrangement for a greater piece of the Middle Eastern pie. As such, you find Iran everywhere – in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, in Beirut etc. This has not only bolstered the dwindling power of the Shia Crescent, but has practically checked Sunni presumptuousness in its tracks.

The 34-nation alliance was initially forced by an American demand for a regional coalition that should deal with Daesh/IS. Every argument in the US, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack, ended in noting a gaping vacuum of a local effort to stem the wrath of the IS. Averse to another expedition with ‘boots-on-the-ground’, the qualifying criterion is the nations of the region first standing up to defend themselves.

The young Prince Mohammad at the head of the defence thus moved efficiently on this front, and announced to the world the formation of an alliance – many nations first learning of their inclusion through the news itself. It may have soothed apprehensions in Western capitals but no boots have yet embarked on a mission to ‘thwart the IS juggernaut’ just because the Sunnis of the Middle East are now entwined in an alliance.

But it has surely given fresh ideas to the young princes. Saudi Arabia was initially forced to fight its battles at home by Iran even as Iran itself ventured out to the rest of the Middle East after their rapprochement with the US. Yemen erupted; before that eastern Saudi Arabia erupted under the dynamism of Shia clerics like Nimr al-Nimr; and Bahrain became restive. Qatar began having different ideas. Most of this was when the older, experienced leadership of Saudi Arabia was still at the helm. That is why the troubles were contained.

What the 34-nation alliance has done is to first form a Sunni military alliance, ostensibly against the IS. And then without ever having moved against the IS, given the princes the opportunity to mutate it into a political alliance against Iran by bringing to fore the simmering political division between the two through the New Year executions. Using the American strategy of ‘with us or against us’, the young princes are forcing the hand of Muslim nations they consider critical for their support. A nuclear Pakistan is thus important to them. Especially when they have an adversary whose status does not clearly suggest at what level of capability it has chosen to suspend its nuclear program. That makes the young princes very nervous, as they look to Pakistan in search of assurances.

With so much at stake, the call to arms in the Middle East is happening at the wrong time. Rather than seeking regional stability and calming the fires that can bring the whole house down, the ongoing impetuous decision-making is a recipe for disaster. In such an environment there is little space for political or military expeditions. Saudi Arabia needs more space, not less. By indulging Iran in an acrimonious relationship, Saudi Arabia further restricts its own space. The Ayatollahs are no novices. For Saudi Arabia, this is the time to exercise patience, enhance political and diplomatic space and learn the art of running a kingdom in a very complex environment.

Pakistan would do well to advise restraint and keep out.

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst.

Email: shhzdchdhry@yahoo.com

Shahzad Chaudhry, "The Gulf’s brewing storm," The News. 2016-01-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Political stability , Leadership , Sunni military alliance , American strategy , Destructive expeditions , Iranian strategy , Political space , Daesh , Bashar al-Assad , Middle East , Pakistan , Iraq , Syria , Yemen , Israel , Iran , US

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