The Arab Reaction | Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Pakistan’s decision not to join the Saudi-led coalition in its Yemen war has not been received well in Riyadh and the UAE. They expected us to be on their side. They might rightly claim that they have been on our side in many difficult situations that we have faced in the past. Acknowledged. Never was it, however, a one-way generosity or affair. We did our part, for decades, in providing security training, intelligence cooperation, and during the deadly Iran-Iraq war, stationed our troops, advisers and trainers in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has traditionally offered itself to Arab countries as their second home, and it should continue to do so, even after their reactive swing to India. Reactive posturing in foreign affairs doesn’t work much except for some temporary relief in getting even or having some satisfaction of stressing the other side. Actually, Pakistan shouldn’t be much concerned about how the UAE is going to develop its relations with India. It has big money and India is a big emerging market to invest. Let us wish them the best of luck.

The question is, was the move, coinciding with Narendra Modi’s visit, a search for an infrastructure market to invest or find a new strategic partner against their real or imagined ‘adversary’, Iran? It is quite puzzling that India has been as big a market as it is today for decades, and the UAE failed to see its potential to invest its surplus funds it holds in many safe places in the world. It will be as disappointed to see India refuse to support it in any endeavour against Iran, as it was when it expected Pakistan to support its war in Yemen. Rationally speaking, countries weigh costs and benefits, leave emotions aside and pursue a pragmatic path in foreign affairs. A conventional truth in this respect is that nothing is permanent, except national interests.

Pakistan did the right thing in not choosing any side in the Arab-Iran rivalry, which in recent decades has transformed into a sectarian conflict that has historically been embedded in their clashing national identities. This is not for the first time Pakistan made this choice. We stayed neutral during the Iran-Iraq war and adopted the same posture during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and during the first Gulf war to liberate Kuwait. We have been badly hurt by the Arab-Iran rivalry as both sides have been attempting to extend it through their religious proxies to other Muslim lands. The secret sectarian militias in our country have sources of funding, aspirations, advice and counselling in the rival capitals. Taking sides will have been internally divisive. We must stick with our good old policy of neutrality in wars between Muslim states.

There are new kinds of wars emerging in the Middle East and in our immediate neighbourhood i.e., in Afghanistan — civil wars. They have all the combustible elements in them — tribe, ethnicity, sect and religion. All of them feed on the fire of hate and extremism, and they have to some degree, singed us in the face. Disregarding what our Arab friends think or how they react to our neutrality, we must pursue this course. We have served our interests well by staying out of the bloody wars of the Middle East. The internal and external costs of being part of the Arab coalition would have been staggering.

Our Arab friends made some serious miscalculations about Pakistan’s policy, or may be our diplomatic communications were weak or signals were not read well on the other side. We are a big state, very diverse and endowed with natural resources and we should be making independent decisions in our national interest. This is exactly what we have done.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd,  2015.

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