Whats the deal?

Source:  Dawn.com Published in Politics on Wednesday, March 19, 2014

IT is indeed a very generous ‘gift’ from a friendly Muslim country — $1.5 billion is not a small sum of money especially in these times of desperation and insolvency. This windfall has not only eased pressure on our fast devaluing currency, it may also help the prime minister fulfil some of his grandiose development plans. Hence the euphoria over this unprecedented magnanimity is not entirely inexplicable.

But what’s the price tag attached to this apparent bigheartedness? We are not supposed to know. “The money should just be accepted with thanks and not be made controversial,” says the finance minister. Even the name of the benefactor was not revealed initially. It may embarrass that country, we are told.

One wishes it was as simple. But things are much more complex than the Sharif government is willing to admit. There is nothing in relations between states that comes without quid pro quo, even if the charity is coming from brothers in faith.

There are no free lunches in international politics. And secrecy shrouds the deal; it is not even being shared with parliament. So much for the transparency and democratic norms that the government vows to uphold.

While the name of the main donor was disclosed courtesy multilateral agencies, the government is still reluctant to provide the details about other contributors. Some reports suggest that the bulk of the amount has come from Saudi Arabia with smaller donations from certain Gulf countries.

Apparently, this is only the first tranche of the massive financial assistance pledged by ‘friendly’ Arab countries for the Pakistan Development Fund recently launched by the government. Pakistan has surely been a recipient of generous foreign aid throughout its history, but such a massive cash grant is rare, if not unprecedented.

Although vehemently denied by the government, the cash inflow is believed to be a payoff for Pakistan’s agreement to play an active role in the unfolding power game in the Middle East at the behest of the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

The first indication of this emerging cooperation came when Pakistan supported the Saudi position on the change of regime in Syria during the high-profile visit of the Saudi crown prince early this year. That signalled a clear shift from Islamabad’s long-standing neutrality on the Syrian conflict. The change of tack is bound to plunge Pakistan into the wider sectarian war raging in the Middle East with disastrous consequences for national security.

The protracted Syrian civil war has drastically changed power dynamics in the region, sharpening polarisation along sectarian lines. While Saudi Arabia has actively been supporting the Sunni rebels, Iran continues to back President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has already spilled across the Middle East leading to an explosive regional situation.

By taking sides, Islamabad may get further embroiled in the already escalating sectarian violence at home. There is a real danger that its strengthening nexus with Riyadh may further deepen the ongoing regional proxy war inside Pakistan, further weakening the already eroding state authority.

Surely Pakistan enjoys strong historic ties with the Saudi kingdom, but successive governments also maintained a delicate balance so as not to get involved in Arab-Iran rivalry. But this equilibrium is now threatened by the Sharif government’s latest strategic shift for Saudi cash.

Sharif’s strong relations with the House of Saud are not a secret. It was the intervention of King Abdullah that got him out of prison and he was later hosted by the Saudi government for seven years. The Saudi government had also come to the help of the second Sharif government when Pakistan faced a serious foreign exchange crisis following the nuclear tests in 1998, by subsidising the oil supply.

During the PPP government’s tenure, relations between Riyadh and Islamabad hit a historical low. Then president Asif Zardari’s closeness with Iran caused a further deterioration in ties. But things started to change with the return of Nawaz Sharif to power. The visit of the Saudi crown prince underscored the emergence of a new strategic relationship between the two countries. Another important factor giving impetus to this emerging Riyadh-Islamabad nexus is the easing of tension between Iran and the US.

A likely deal on the Iranian nuclear programme may allow Tehran to break its diplomatic and economic isolation raising Riyadh’s concern of a possible realignment in the Middle East. Increasingly wary over the rise of Al Qaeda-led rebel groups in Syria and Iraq, it is quite plausible that the West could seek cooperation of Iranian-backed Shia groups to counter Sunni extremists.

With Shia unrest building up in its own backyard and in neighbouring Arab states, the development reinforces Riyadh’s worst fears of an Iran-US rapprochement. In this situation, Pakistan becomes increasingly important for Saudi Arabia for the kingdom’s internal security.

Our retired servicemen had helped quelled the Shia uprising in Bahrain and we may see further the entanglement of Pakistan in the escalating sectarian strife in the Middle East. Volunteers from banned Pakistani Sunni sectarian groups are already reported to be fighting along with the Saudi-backed rebels in Syria.

Close military ties between Riyadh and Islamabad, though not new, have now taken on a new dimension with Iran’s potential nuclear capability. There is growing concern in the West that Saudi Arabia may be seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in the nuclear field. Undoubtedly, the Saudi grant is a huge boon for the cash-starved Sharif government. But what’s in the deal is perhaps the most critical question.

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Written by Zahid Hussain

Author Information: The writer is an author and journalist.

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