After penning a series of articles on the current plight of the Muslim world and assigning so many pages to the subject in my book ‘The Changing Geo-political and Geo-strategic Dynamics: Challenges for Pakistan’ published last year, I felt a strong repulsion to go again through the anger and agony which one inevitably feels to recall the ever shrinking role of the OIC in the Muslim world and the Arab League and the GCC in the Arab affairs. All these organizations were rendered redundant at the global and the regional levels by the growing ambitions and the mutually harmful Arab rivalries and the ever deepening vulnerability of the wealthy Arab states to the machinations of the global power politics.
Being bogged down in endless conspiracies to undermine each other, triggering coups, civil strife, sectarian proxy wars and bloody conflicts in their region and beyond, they were forced to outsource the security of their oil wealth and countries to the globally and regionally powerful states which, to a large extent, controlled their foreign and strategic policies too. Nations shackled by fear, insecurity and over-indulgence in luxurious living cease to create men of dazzle and courage destined to change the direction of national history. The Muslim world, with very few exceptions, is muddling through such a barren phase of history.
Over a century or so, the Arabs have been living with foreign support from the Ottoman Caliphate to T.E Lawrence and the British and French Protectorate. The nascent kingdom of Saudi Arabia struck an alliance with the USA in 1945 conceding the American control over their oil exploration and trade. In tandem with the US policy, the Saudi monarchs were at loggerhead with the Arab nationalist or radical states. The conflict remained aglow until Egypt veered to the Western stables after the death of Gamal Nasser, and Iraq, Libya and Syria were reduced to pale shadows of their erstwhile political stability and power.
The most luckless country in the Arab world has been the impoverished Yemen ever subjected to the mutually disastrous Arab intrigues since decades. In the 1960s, the civil strife supported by Saudis and the radical states divided it into two states – the nationalist South Yemen and the monarchist North Yemen. The country reunited just a few decades ago with Ali Abdullah Saleh, an anathema to the Saudi monarchs, at the helm of affairs. The wave of public protests in the Arab world called Arab Spring also overwhelmed Yemen largely fuelled by Arab monarchs to get rid of President Saleh and to bring in power Abdu Rab Al-Mansoor, the Vice President and a favorite of the Saudis.
President Al-Mansoor, challenged by the rebellion of Shia population, particularly Houthis living a subdued and deprived life in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, could not hold onto the slippery pole of power and had to flee to Riyadh where he has been staying since past many years. The rest – constitution of a coalition force of many Arab countries to thwart the takeover of the country by the Houthis – is too recent to warrant any elaboration. However, the war in Yemen has exposed many foreign and security policy weaknesses of the Arab countries.
The Arab Spring would have culminated into functional democracies in some Arab countries like in Tunisia had the US-led Western states resisted the machinations of the wealthy Arab states to settle their old scores in Iraq, Libya and Syria. They were also complicit in the military coup d état against the elected President Muhammad Morsi in Egypt giving a carte blanche to the new Egyptian military leader for a crackdown against the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin or Brotherhood. The Ikhwans are spread over almost all the Arab countries including Turkey. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain are over-obsessed with the fear of Ikhwans. The Ikhwans reflect the deep division of the Arab societies into secular and liberals and ideologically Islamists.
The wealthy Arab countries were apprehensive about the ambivalent Middle East policy of President Barak Obama in his second term. The rhetoric of the candidate Donald Trump at his election trail blowing hot and cold about the intractability of the Middle Eastern conundrum and his threats to pull out of the messy region only added to the Arabs’ fear forcing them to look for other reliably powerful states for strategic partnership. We may recall the French President François Hollande and the British Prime Minister Theresa May were particularly invited to the GCC Summits before the US presidential elections. Prime Minister May went out of her way to reassure the Summit for help to push Iran away from the Middle East or curtail its hegemonic ambitions.
Faced with the escalating civil war in Yemen, they explored the possibility of Pakistan making military contributions for crushing the rebellious Houthis in 2015. The year had also witnessed the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal between the US and Iran exacerbating the fear of the Arab countries. We maintained our long-held neutrality in intra-Arab conflicts. The Arab brothers vented their anger by according a red carpet welcome to Narendra Modi at the heel of the visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Army Chief, General Raheel. They had taken Pakistan for granted for strategic help after its contributions to the security of Saudi Arabia in 1979 and the deployment of over 20,000 soldiers on Saudi borders in the 1990s. However, the Saudis were assured that Pakistan would be ever willing to help defend the security of Saudi Arabia. They were also obliged to a larger extent by allowing Pakistani retired soldiers to take employment with the Bahrain in the thick of the Shia uprising in that country. This was not lost on Iran which was being contained by the Arab states.
The US by reducing its role in the Middle East was trying to create equilibrium of Sunni states including Israel balancing Iran. The balance of power, as put it by Henry Kissinger, is never static and its components are in constant flux. The US has been the balancing power in the Middle East and it was needed to play this role. Therefore, the reduction in its role at a time when the region was gripped by a deepening turmoil was causing sleepless night in the Gulf countries. The fluid Arab Spring and the apparent US fatigue in the Middle East impelled wealthy GCC states including Saudi Arabia and UAE to deepen their covert security relations with Israel and turn their labour-export oriented relations with India into a strategic partnership.
The UAE quite recently has been following somewhat a robust foreign and security policy reaching out to powerful countries in the region and beyond in a quest to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world eyeing, at the same time, a role for maritime control in the Arabian Sea. It seems tired of the hegemonic policy of Saudi Arabia in the GCC and the Arab League. The Saudi proposal to convert GCC into a Union of Arab States with a joint foreign and security policy was scuttled by UAE in collaboration with Oman and Qatar. Now, it has quietly shifted its support from the embattled Al-Mansoor to Southern rebels in the Yemen civil war.
For some time now, the UAE diatribe against Iran has been somewhat muted too. They may have realized that any war in the region resulting from the Saudi antipathy to Iran would be catastrophic particularly for Dubai – swarmed by Iranian traders and investors, and being in the direct hit of the Iranian missiles. The UAE views the Iranian Bandar Abbas Seaport and Gwadar as rivals to Dubai Seaport, and CPEC as a likely hub for trade and economic connectivity from South to Central Asia and the Caucasian region denting the monopoly of Dubai as centre of trade. The growing Chinese interest in the Arab world has given a fillip to their apprehensions.
China has emerged as the most important economic and strategic player in the Middle East gradually obscuring the most feared hegemonic menace of Iran in the Arab world particularly after the establishment of a strategic outpost in Djibouti as part of its BRI. Gwadar is also suspiciously viewed as the second naval outpost of China. The Arabs, taking a cue from the US policy, are politically, economically and diplomatically investing in India as countervail to China in their region too. This cobweb of political, economic and strategic initiatives was bound to lead to rebalancing of relations among the countries of the region, and India just grabbed this opportunity to deepen mutually beneficial relations with the wealthy Arab states particularly the UAE. Dubai is already claimed by the Indian traders and investors as one of their biggest cities.
The Indian antipathy to Pakistan is long and anchored in history of bilateral relations between the two countries. India has always tried to sabotage all the economic and trade schemes which could benefit Pakistan. The initiatives of some countries including Pakistan to import gas and electricity from Central Asian states and the expansion of CPEC in the region have fallen prey to Indian machinations. The India’s strong foothold in Afghanistan and Iran and its burgeoning relations with Gulf States were bound to reduce the influence of Pakistan in the region. No one in this Hobbesian world blows one’s trumpets.
When all this was taking place, our rulers were not looking beyond their businesses, plazas, palaces and iqamas in the Arab countries. Right move at right time is sine quo non for success in diplomacy. The chessboard of diplomacy needs constant focus and clever moves. Better to get out of complacency.
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