LAHORE: Tehran has conveyed its resentment to Islamabad over continuing recruitment of the retired Pakistani military officials to bolster the strength of the security forces of Bahrain, which have been cracking down on pro-democracy Shia protesters in the Gulf state with the help of the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Fauji Security Services (Pvt) Limited, which is run by the Fauji Foundation, a subsidiary of the Pakistan Army, is currently recruiting on war footing basis thousands of retired military personnel from the Pakistan Army, Navy and the Air Force who will be getting jobs in the Gulf region, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But sources in the Fauji Foundation say over 90 per cent of the fresh recruitments, which started in the backdrop of the recent political upheaval in the Arab world, are being sent to Bahrain to perform services in the Bahrain National Guard (BNG), and that too at exorbitant salaries. Thousands of ex-servicemen of the Pakistani origin are already serving in Bahrain and the fresh recruitments are aimed at boosting up the strength of the BNG to deal with the country’s majority Shia population, which is calling for replacement of the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain’s ruling elite is Sunni, although about 70% of the population is Shia.
While taking serious notice of the ongoing recruitment process for Bahrain, the Iranian foreign minister has reportedly warned Pakistan that if the recruitment was not stopped by Islamabad, it would have serious ramifications for diplomatic ties between Pakistan and Iran. According to well-informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, Pakistan’s charge d’affairs in Tehran Dr Aman Rashid was recently summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry by deputy foreign minister Behrouz Kamalvandi to convey his country’s serious reservations over the recruitment of thousands of Pakistanis for Bahrain’s armed forces and police. However, it seems that the decision makers in Islamabad have ignored the Iranian warning as the recruitment process continues. Approached for comments, a senior official of the Fauji Foundation said while requesting anonymity that the foundation has been making such recruitments for almost 50 years and nothing unusual has happened now.
The recruits are being promised around 100,000 Pakistani rupees a month, besides other perks and privileges including free medical facilities and accommodation. According to available figures, over 1,000 Pakistanis have so far been recruited in March 2011 alone while 1,500 more would be hired in next few weeks. Advertisements appearing in several Pakistani newspapers stated that the Bahrain National Guard immediately requires experienced people with required qualifications as anti-riot instructors and security guards. In fact, Bahrain has long been a happy hunting ground for ex-Pakistani army personnel — an estimated 10,000 Pakistanis are already serving in various security services of Bahrain.
But what is being clearly seen as Sunni and Shia rivalries, Iran is annoyed with the recruitment of mainly Sunni Muslims for the Bahraini security forces because it blames them for crushing a mainly Shia uprising against the rule of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Tehran believes that all these recruitments were being made at the behest of Saudi Arabia. For long, Riyadh has been one of the two foreign hands — the other being the US — rocking the cradle of Pakistani politics, brokering truce among warring leaders, providing asylum to those being exiled and generously lavishing funds on a state strapped for cash. But the explosion of democratic upsurge is gradually bringing about a role reversal — it is Pakistan’s assistance the Arab royal families have now sought to quell rebellion in West Asia, rekindling memories of 1969 when the personnel of the Pakistani Air Force flew the Saudi fighter planes to ward off an invasion from South Yemen.
In the backdrop of the current political uprisings in the Middle East and the Arab world which has led to the ouster of several autocratic rulers of the Muslim world, it seems that Pakistan has decided to play a key role in the region by supporting Saudi Arabia to pre-empt a possible revolt against the Saudi Kingdom, with whom Pakistan has had a longstanding cozy relationship for almost half a century now. According to diplomatic circles in Islamabad, Pakistan seems eager to become the bulwark of the royal families against the popular Arab rage. They further say Islamabad has kept at standby two divisions of the Pakistan Army for deployment in Saudi Arabia should the simmering discontent there bubble over.
Pakistan in fact turned its gaze towards West Asia following the visits of, first, Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and then, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, in March. Though pro-democracy sentiments haven’t gathered a critical mass in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is worried that the popular upsurge in Bahrain, a mainly Shia country over which Sunni kings rule, could well, with time, permeate across the border. The Americans seem to have endorsed Riyadh’s decision to seek Islamabad’s assistance. In return, the Saudi prince has offered support to resuscitate the Pakistan economy and meets its energy demands. But the khaki circles in Rawalpindi believe that Pakistan won’t commit its regular forces to a country other than Saudi Arabia.
Already, the presence of Pakistanis in Bahrain’s security forces prompted pro-democracy forces to target the expatriate community. The Pakistani Embassy in Bahrain recently reported that two Pakistani-born policemen and three other Pakistanis were killed and another 40 injured in the clashes between the security forces and protesters, some of whom told the media that they were set upon by uniformed men speaking Urdu. Analysts, therefore, feel that Pakistan could get embroiled in the Sunni-Shia rivalry for supremacy in West Asia. Iranian media has already predicted a prominent role for Pakistan in West Asia, accusing Islamabad of “collaborating with the Sunni rulers of Bahrain to crush a pro-democracy movement”. As Tehran is supporting the Shia protesters and Saudi Arabia is siding with Bahrain’s king, the recruitments from Pakistan give an impression as if Pakistan is on the anti-Iran side.
In other words, as things stand, Islamabad, wittingly or unwittingly, has become the frontline state for protecting the supremacy of Sunni Islam which would not be taken lightly by Iran that has the ability to create problems in Balochistan province, neighbouring Iran. Although protests against Islamabad’s growing role in the Gulf region have been largely non-existent in Pakistan, dozens of activists belonging to small groups who protested outside the Islamabad Press Club recently, decried hiring of mercenaries from Pakistan to curb pro-democracy forces in Bahrain. With the uprising in Bahrain decidedly having a popular base, some feel it would turn the people of Bahrain against Pakistan, which is perceived as the stooge of its imperialist masters.