Pakistan cosier with Turkey, abandons Saudi Arabia
September 7th, 2020 at 4:32 pm
Pakistan cosier with Turkey, abandons Saudi Arabia

by Matiar Chowdhury in London

Call it diplomatic agility, or call it lack of reliability and even being ungratefulness – Pakistan has moved away from one of its principal benefactors, Saudi Arabia and is getting cosy with Turkey, latter’s rival in global Islamic politics.

This is just as it is gingerly moving away from another, even bigger benefactor, the United States, and is getting closer to China, its “all-weather friend”.

Whether Pakistan itself can be anyone’s “all-weather” friend and ally is a question none can answer – not even Pakistan itself, given its record of perpetual flip-flops.

But make no mistake, each move is meant to fight India, the perennial adversary.

Recall Pakistan being ‘used’ by the Western powers as a ‘bulwark’ against communism and China in the 1950s. It was then a member of the CENTO and SEATO, both US-led military alliances.  The switch began after arch-enemy India lost to China in 1962.  

Turkish flag

Recall its role as an American ally against Afghanistan and Iran. Then against a non-aligned India, while at the same time swearing by non-alignment, often disrupting the movement.

The then US President George W. Bush had called Pakistan “a valiant fighter in the war against global terrorism,” while ignoring or condoning its role in propping up the same Taliban the US has been fighting.

Why, even today, scores of Pakistani fighters are engaged in Syria, fighting the forces the US supports. Of course, they are “non-state actors” in Pakistan’s official parlance.  

Recall and emphasise that despite all the American help, its relations with the US, all along have remained transactional. The US armed it, nevertheless, legally and allowing its missiles meant to fight the Russians in Afghanistan to be systematically pilfered through the 1980s, because it served the broad interests.

So, you had US Senator Charlie Wilson organising a huge operation.

It was ditto during General Pervez Musharraf who ensured that thousands of his soldiers directing the Taliban were airlifted from Kunduz and other places in Afghanistan, just before Taliban fled from Kabul – only to gain shelter on Pakistani soil.

Today, Prime Minister Imran Khan laments how Pakistan was forced into “fighting other peoples’ war.” His predecessor, the ousted premier Nawaz Sharif had used the similar language and even Musharraf did when his — and Pakistan Army’s – purpose with the US was served.    A year ago, Imran Khan was rushing from Washington to Beijing to Abu Dhabi to Riyadh with the proverbial begging bowl seeking help ease Pakistan’s foreign debt servicing crisis and the empty domestic coffers.

But today, he is disillusioned with the US that signed the Doha pact with the Taliban without giving Pakistan a dollar for all the “facilitating” it did with the Taliban this South Asian countries controls. Although things seemingly give Pakistan a vantage position in any resolution of the Afghan imbroglio, Khan — or rather the all-powerful army that controls Khan — would rather for sake the US and ride piggy-back on China.
Intriguing is the change of horses from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, which is part of the changing West Asian scenario. Make no mistake, again – the pivot of Pakistan’s current cross-over is the Kashmir issue that it obsesses. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other Gulf countries enjoy good relations with India.

Even the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) invited India. An incensed Islamabad is accusing them all of not doing their bit to highlight the Kashmir issue and being driven by trade with India. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi dared Saudi Arabia that dominates the OIC to hold a ministerial meet on Kashmir, else, Pakistan will convene one. The cheek of it has angered Riyadh that has held back free oil supplies and demanded three billion dollars lent to help meet the economic crisis.

Violence in Kashmir
Kashmir

Last word has not been said on how far and how tough the Saudis could get with Pakistan and by a long shot, on the political future of Qureshi. Rushing Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa did not help. Everyone including the Saudis would be surprised at Khan having a bee in the bonnet against the Saudi royalty. Khan has accused it of ‘pressuring’ it to let Nawaz Sharif go to London for medical treatment last year. In an interview to ARY, Khan did not name the Saudis, but did talk of a ‘King’ who had applied those pressures. Even the Army and Bajwa would be surprised and concern at Khan’s attack coming so soon after Qureshi’s thinly veiled threat.

Khan was never close to the Saudis the way Sharif is or even the Bhuttos. But attacking Riyadh tantamount to betrayal. It is foolhardy because any benefits are remote. Khan has turned to Tukey as the new godfather, to mutual benefit. Erdogan has no problem attacking India and raising the Kashmir issue.  Erdogan wants Pakistan to tease the Arabs and the Gulf region and thus take sides in the emerging OIC or the Muslim world rivalry. But Erdogan cannot fill Pakistan’s emptying coffers the way the Saudis and the UAE have actually been doing. Erdogan has hit Turkey’s otherwise thriving economy by conducting too many proxy wars in the Gulf region.

It is not just domination of the OIC, there is a changing ideological and cultural narrative in the Islamic world and Pakistan is becoming a part of it. Khan has sponsored to his countrymen the Erdogan-blessed television series, Ertugrul, that envisages a return to the Ottoman Empire that the Gulf Arabs, ruled by the erstwhile Caliphs resent it.  Annoying the Saudis could be risky for Khan and his military mentors because for Pakistanis and Muslims anywhere, Saudi royalty is the custodian of Islam’s shrines. The overriding factor is military — former Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif heads the Saudi-sponsored Islamic army. This may stop the diplomatic flip-flop.   Only time will tell who will pay a price for it, and when, once the Pakistan Army decided to weigh the importance of its traditional ties with the Saudis and the Gulf region that transcend the religious, economic and political. (Ends)

Matiar Chowdhury is a senior freelance journalist