At last week’s Arab-Muslim-American Summit in Riyadh representatives of various Muslim countries were in attendance, including our Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The glitziest welcome though was reserved for the commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest war machine, Donald J Trump. Billboards carrying pictures of Trump and King Salman Abdulaziz emblazoned with the motto “Together We Prevail” adorned all Riyadh roads. Trump was awarded the kingdom’s highest civilian award. And at a special event organised in his honour he got to participate in the traditional sword dance alongside the custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam, while all others had to curb their urge to have some fun and look on approvingly. And of course the US First Lady, Melania Trump, had the privilege of making her glamorous presence felt at all major events, and was seen even shaking hands with the King- something unthinkable for any other woman.
No matter all through his election campaign Trump had demonized Muslims, and his first executive orders upon coming to office included a ban on people from six Muslim majority countries. No matter also if at one point in November 2015 he said he would “strongly consider” closing mosques, nor telling an interviewer in March 2016 “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there [about the religion] that – there’s a tremendous hatred there… there’s an unbelievable hatred of us.” On display in Riyadh was pure realpolitik. The power of money trumped whatever the US President thought of Muslims; and the power of a political ambition trumped whatever his hosts thought of him. At the launch of the ‘Together We Prevail’ plan, Trump happily signed two agreements: a $110 billion US arms sales deal and $ 350 billion investments in the US. For him it was a “tremendous day… tremendous investments in the United States. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” A tremendous achievement, indeed, since aside from creating jobs in America and fetching hefty profits for its arms manufactures, prevailing together is to advance US strategic interests in the region. Others rather than the US forces are to fight those challenging the status quo via the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), billed as the ‘Muslim Nato’ and headed by our very own good general Raheel Sharif. In return, the kingdom gets a sense of security in having the (waning) superpower on side, receiving vital intelligence information and other background help from it. There is hope also that if and when the going gets bad, the US would directly intervene to turn the tide in its GCC allies favour.
Lest anyone thought the IMAFT is designed to fight the IS and al Qaeda terrorists, both the Saudis and the American President clearly stated who the target would be. While King Salman described Iran as the “spearhead of global terrorism” other officials identified the Houthis, Hezbollah, even Hamas, as the terrorists behind the ‘spearhead’. In his keynote speech to the Arab-Muslim-American summit Trump averred “from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” In their obsession to counter Iran, the Arab governments have no qualms about making a common cause with Israel either, (Hamas and Hezbollah are a thorn in Israel’s side), as Trump noted upon his arrival in Occupied Jerusalem from Riyadh: “what’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel.”
Now that the IMAFT’s real aims and objectives have been clearly enunciated, it follows – contrary to what we have been told – as commander of the IMAFT General Sharif will be going after the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas fighting Israel, and Hezbollah and Iranians helping the Assad regime in Syria, which is fighting both rebels supported by Western and GCC countries as well as the IS. He will be using his experience as the former chief of Pakistan Army to lead the Gulf States’ fight for regional ascendancy by taking on Iran’s allies; and in some situations, even Iranians themselves. This would be an open invitation to trouble, making an enemy out of our next-door neighbour with which we have no quarrel.
Iran surely is not going to sit on its hands while IMAFT, with a Pakistani component and headed by a (retired) senior most Pakistani general, prepares to give it a bloody nose. If it gets hurt it will naturally want to react. Retaliation can come in different forms, both direct and indirect. That won’t require much effort given the security situation in this country and hostile neighbours across our eastern and north-western borders. Such a scenario will divide this society, inflame sectarian passions, and encourage violent sectarian groups – Gulf proxies – to jump into the fray, leading to disastrous consequence for this state and society.
Common sense suggests self-interest take precedence over all other considerations, and calls for maintaining Pakistan’s long-standing policy of staying out of the Gulf region’s disputes. Islamabad must refrain from picking a side. Telling no to its Arab friends may not be easy for the government, but then good diplomacy is tested in such trying times. The Arab governments need to be explained that unlike them Pakistan is a democracy, where the wishes of the people have to be respected. The people have already voiced their sentiments through their representatives in April 2015 in response to Saudi request for troops for its Yemeni campaign. At the time Parliament had passed a unanimous resolution, disallowing participation in the Saudi-led coalition, saying Pakistan should remain neutral in Middle Eastern affairs. Now that the battle lines have been drawn for the IMAFT, the matter assumes urgency. The government must find ways to extricate this country from the Gulf States power games.saida Fazal, "‘Together We Prevail’," Business Recorder. 2017-05-25.
Keywords: Economics , Muslim countries , Election campaign , American summit , Open invitation , Strategic interests , IMAFT , US