Floating on an ocean of oil, the Gulf royals are the richest of rich Arabs. Five extended families own a staggering 60% of the world’s petroleum reserves, with the Saudis being at the very top. They underwrite the US and European defense industries with multi-billion dollar arms purchases, own idyllic islands and private jetliners, travel in groups to hunt rare birds with powerful radar-directed guns, and freely flout the local environmental laws of countries they visit. More dangerously, they export toxic clerics and religious radicalism across the world. If the Saudis think they own the world they may be wrong but not by too much. Their fantastic wealth also means that they expect every command to be unquestioningly obeyed and every wish fulfilled.
It was therefore difficult for the Saudis to believe their eyes when last month, obedient and obsequious Pakistan chose to reject their diktat. The normally fractious and perennially warring parties in Pakistan’s Parliament unanimously refused to send Pakistani troops to Yemen, as demanded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). The Parliament was, in fact, reflecting the public mood. Worn out by an internal Taliban insurgency that has claimed upwards of 50,000 lives, and wracked by a series of targeted assassinations and bombings of Shia mosques, the country has no stomach for a potentially disastrous overseas adventure fighting an enemy whose name (Houthis) most Pakistanis have heard now for the first time.
The resultant Saudi anger at Pakistan is partly understandable. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government had given the GCC Arabs an impression that his nation stands at their beck and call. Sharif pampered the egos of oil despots and gratefully accepted their favors, including a mysterious “gift” of $1.5 billion dollars in March, 2014. Was there to be no quid pro quo? Then, various other Pakistani leaders raised Arab expectations further with loud declarations promising to “shed every drop of our blood” for the defense of the holy Haram-ul-Sharafein when, in fact, no Muslim holy site was ever threatened. But, when it came to putting boots on the ground in what would be a long-drawn bloody civil war, they chickened out.
Expectedly, the GCC Arabs are in no mood to listen to lame excuses from a dependent country. Employed mostly as domestic help, wage laborers, construction workers, and restaurant employees, millions of Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Filipinos in the Gulf sustain their families back home by scrimping and saving their precious riyals. This left UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr. Anwar Mohammad Gargash, flabbergasted: how could one such country actually dare to choose neutrality in an “existential confrontation” with Iran. Pakistan, he threateningly said, would “pay the price”.
And so, deeply worried, two weeks ago the highest and the mightiest in nuclear-armed Pakistan – the Prime Minister, Chief of Army Staff, Minister for Defence, Foreign Secretary, and an assemblage of officials – went to the world’s petro-capital, Riyadh. They hoped their contrite expressions could somehow soothe an irritated septuagenarian monarch and his angry princes. But their pledge to “safeguard the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and Holy Places” failed to mollify the royals who well know – as does everyone else – that the threat to Saudi Arabia’s territory and its holy places has been conjured up. Instead, the real issue in the Yemen conflict is the long-term survival of the House of Saud, which Iran is placing at risk.
Iran today is challenging Saudi hegemony in the Middle East. It is an insurrectionary, revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia wants the status quo. Iran’s mullahs openly call for the overthrow of all monarchies. In their political model the Iranian clergy holds the reins of power, with some marginal space allocated for the expression of popular opinion. But any political freedom, no matter how small, is anathema to the Kingdom. It is deeply alarmed that Iran’s support for the Palestinians, and its staunch opposition to US-led wars in the Middle East, has resonated with Arab public opinion even in Sunni majority countries.
Pakistan’s disobedience might have been more forgivable at another time. But it came at a particular moment when the Saudis were already in a state of fury over the action of their long-time ally, the United States. A preliminary Iran-US nuclear deal, which the Kingdom has long feared and opposed, has already been signed. Although staunch anti-Iran and pro-Israel Republicans in the US Congress plan to strain every nerve to block it, President Obama will likely succeed in pushing through the final version at the end of June. The Saudi nightmare is that an Iran-US rapprochement will accept Iran as a threshold nuclear state and end US-imposed sanctions. Iran would then appear as the victor, giving a big blow to the Saudi-led Sunni coalition, of which Israel is an honorary member. Saudi cleric Muhammed al Arifi has plainly called for an alliance: “Israel is not our enemy but the Shias are”.
But Pakistan is not enthusiastic about worsening its already tense relations with neighbouring Iran, especially since it hopes for an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that could greatly reduce its severe energy deficit. Moreover, with a 20-30% population of Shias, it cannot afford yet more killings carried out by Saudi supported Sunni groups.
So how worried should Pakistan be? Will the Gulf Arabs really exact retribution for its disobedience? I think realpolitik strongly limits Saudi options.
First, kicking out Pakistani workers is not an option. Without an adequate supply of hard-working and underpaid servants, every petro-country would grind to a halt. Nationals of all Gulf countries are hopelessly poor in skill and work habits. Living in a work-free welfare state with every need met, they are in no hurry to change.
There’s a second reason. Pakistan is the only country that can, at short notice, potentially provide the Kingdom with nuclear weapons, or with a nuclear umbrella. Of course, Pakistan would be wise in not even considering such a possibility. But the fact is that there are no other nuclear vendors in town – and the Saudis know it.
Pakistan also stands squarely in the middle of all avenues that could lead to an eventual indigenous Saudi nuclear weapons capability, which the Kingdom so strongly desires. In March, it quietly signed an agreement with South Korea for importing two nuclear reactors. According to the World Nuclear Association, the Kingdom plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, with the first reactor on line in 2022. So far it has not agreed to US demands, and insists (unlike UAE) on having a full nuclear fuel cycle. This leaves open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear wastes, which only Pakistanis can secretly help in doing.
Poor and war-torn Pakistan, with fearful leaders who are deeply obliged to the club of rich GCC Arabs, has done unexpectedly well by refusing to be their bouncer. But it is surely time for the world’s powerful countries to stop rewarding the backers of violent extremism across the world and, in particular, the Middle East.
Anxious to please Israel, and keep reaping the 50-year old oil bonanza, the United States and Europe have closed their eyes to Saudi crimes. While Saudi Arabia is formally at war with Al-Qaida and Da’ish, the philosophy of its wretchedly crooked and rabidly religious ruling class is equally barbaric. No country has anything resembling the plaza in Riyadh, popularly called Chop-Chop Square by expatriates, where limbs and heads are publicly severed. Women are forbidden from driving and homosexuals are executed. While jihadist groups are banned at home, GCC governments and individuals shovel protection money to such groups overseas.
With petro-wealth explosively spreading hatreds globally, the world is well on its way to a bloody clash of civilizations – and a still bloodier clash within Muslim civilization. This, in fact, is precisely the kind of Armageddon that the extreme “takfiri” Saudi ideology seeks to provoke. Progressives across the world must demand that the West sever its business relationships with the most retrograde forces on earth today.
The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad