A royal visit

February 20,2019

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His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s royal visit showered immense benevolence on Pakistan as Iran and India flayed Islamabad over attacks in their countries.

What made the visit historic were the $21 billion seven MoUs – the second largest after the CPEC bonanza. The MOUs include RLNG plants worth $4 billion and $1 billion in petrochemical projects over a period of two/three years; the Saudi ACWA Power to finance $2 billion for renewable energy; a long-term $10 billion project to establish an integrated refinery-cum-petrochemical plant in Gwadar; and $2 billion investment in minerals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Indeed, a great boost to a financially-starved government. With it also came a prompt relief for 2107 Pakistani prisoners; they are set to be released from Saudi prisons as a result of a passionate appeal by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

MBS’ tour of Asia, which includes India and China, is essentially motivated by the Saudi urge to expand its oil-based and other business interests and strategically isolate Iran with the blessing of the US and Israel. The Riyadh-based International Institute for Iranian Studies has, in one of its studies, called for “immediate counter-measures” as the Chabahar Port poses a “direct threat to the Arab Gulf states”. This coincides with Pakistan’s serious exception to the Chabahar Port being expanded with India’s backing as an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. But, as the Chinese had rightly desired, both ports could work in tandem to the greater benefit of the region, including both India and Pakistan.

The royal visit also coincided with the suicide attack on the Revolutionary Guards in the south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan of Iran, which resulted in the deaths of 27 guards; the attack was claimed by Jaish-al-Adl. The same timeframe also saw a US-sponsored conference against Iran in Warsaw. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari had accused Pakistan of the attack and warned of retaliation.

Countering a question on Iran’s accusations about terrorism, the Saudi foreign minister in his joint press conference with (and to the embarrassment of) FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi called for the elimination of this “scourge of terrorism” from the “face of planet”. Despite the $27 billion promises of aid and investment, the MBS visit must have put Prime Minister Khan in a double bind – how to resist Saudi pressure to drag Pakistan into their conflict with Iran and ensure Islamabad’s wish to enlist Saudi support against India’s recent tirade.

When these lucrative MOUs were being signed in Islamabad, a bloody encounter was taking place in the Pulwama district in South Kashmir, resulting in the deaths of one major and three jawans and two militants – one of them suspected of being a top commander of Jaish-e-Mohammed and alleged mastermind of the February 14 attack on the CRPF convoy. Ever since the attack , the BJP-led government and its supporters have – according to ‘The Wire’ – taken the lead in fanning “anxieties, aggressiveness and hyper-nationalism” from social media to the streets, as well as calls for revenge-fed political agenda.

The attack on the CRPF convoy must be condemned. But whoever the perpetrators were and whatever their intentions were, it came as a great boost to the hyper-Hindu-nationalist agenda just before the Indian elections – and led to vigilantism against the Kashmiri youth and dissenting voices across India. In response to Prime Minister Modi’s threat for a “befitting reply”, calls for #BadlaloIndia are dominating television screens as voices of sanity are being hounded as “fifth columnists” – from poor Sidhu to anybody else not joining the war-mongers. Indo-Pak relations are at their worst at the moment since the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and some kind of blitzkrieg has been speculated.

Crown Prince MBS is to visit New Delhi today and Prime Minister Modi is expected to raise the issue of the Pulwama attack, which Riyadh had “strongly condemned and denounced”. Saudi Arabia considers India one of the eight strategic partners with whom it is expected to set up a ‘Strategic Partnership Council’ at the ministerial level during this visit.

As the fourth largest trading partner of India with an annual trade of $ 27.48 billion, including 17 percent crude oil and 32 percent LPG imports from Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince MBS is expected to woo India to somehow wean it away from Tehran and assuage its concerns about its allegations regarding terrorism originating from Pakistan. Although the joint statement issued in Islamabad stressed that “dialogue is the only way to ensure peace and stability in the region to resolve outstanding issues”, without directly mentioning Kashmir, and at the same time underlined “the need for avoiding politicisation of [the] UN listing regime” – implicating JeM chief Masood Azhar – India is most likely to strongly take up the Pulwama attack with MBS. This will be a most complicated balancing act for MBS to mediate. The crown prince is unlikely to win India to his side against Iran, but he can be useful in diffusing the current Indo-Pak tensions.

Pakistan is quite pivotal to Saudi security and its Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) is being headed by former COAS Gen Raheel Sharif. For Pakistan, it is essential to expand Pak-Saudi relations to economic spheres from the narrow prisms of Saudi security – while also refusing to alienate and annoy Iran. It was good to hear from FM Qureshi that he talked to his Iranian counterpart and, hopefully, the kind of cooperation seen to rescue some kidnapped Iranian guards in the recent past will be expanded to nab anti-Shia elements and to not let Balochistan turn into yet another war theatre along our border with Iran.

On the other hand, given expanding Indian-American-Saudi ties, Islamabad can hope to benefit from MBS’ mediation. The Kashmiris’ autonomy to articulate their aspirations and decide the course of their peaceful struggle must be respected. On any sides of the border, the rights of all oppressed people, including Kashmiris, call for political solutions rather than pellet guns or military operations.

For the people of the Subcontinent, there is nothing to rejoice in the rising tide of religiously divisive hyper-nationalism or jingoism and chauvinism. In a rare gathering in Lahore, the participants of the Faiz Peace Festival vowed to oppose war, terrorism, discrimination against people on the bases of ethnicity, nationality, religion and gender, and demanded fundamental civil and human rights and freedoms for all the people of the Subcontinent. Such sane calls for peace and amity should come from all corners of South Asia to make it free of war and animosity.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: imtiaz.safmagmail.com

Twitter: ImtiazAlamSAFMA


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