Pakistan’s Persian Gulf Balancing Act

My latest blog post at ForeignPolicy.com’s AfPak Channel discusses opportunities and risks for Pakistan as the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry heats up in in the Persian Gulf.

The post can be read here.


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Pakistan Dives into the Persian Gulf

The always-important Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Pakistan this weekend to ensure that the country’s major power brokers are behind Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the latter faces a possibly Iran-backed domestic uprising from its Shia native majority.

Bandar, the once long-time ambassador to the United States and now national security council chief, sought to avoid a replay of the 1990 Gulf War, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif supported Saudi Arabia and the United States in Iraq war, while Chief of Army Staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg publicly called for an Iraq-Iran-Pakistan alliance against the West.

Today, it is the civilian government that is less likely to be on board with Riyadh’s game plan. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a pragmatic nationalist aligned with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China.  The Islamabad coalition government is led by the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has historically had poor relations with Riyadh. Its senior brass consists of many Shia Muslims, the minority Muslim sect hardline Salafis in Saudi Arabia have deep contempt for.  Riyadh has a soft side for the PPP’s rivals: the various center-right Pakistan Muslim League factions, particularly Sharif’s, as well as the army and military intelligence services.  The Saudi king has even expressed his personal disdain for President Asif Ali Zardari, describing him as “rotten” and the major “obstacle” behind Pakistan’s progress, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, the PPP has sought warmer ties with Iran, which has not improved the party’s standing in Saudi eyes.

But the Saudis are in need and seem to be reevaluating their hostility toward the PPP.  Bandar’s visit comes two weeks after the Saudi army chief’s meeting with Kayani. Riyadh’s concern for the future of Bahrain and potentially even Saudi Arabia’s predominantly-Shia eastern corridor provides the PPP with an opportunity to mollify Saudi antagonism, ease domestic pressure, and help its always-embattled government continue to crawl toward the finish line and complete its five-year tenure.  The Saudis have reportedly offered Islamabad oil on deferred payment or at concessionary rates, which could assist Zardari in maintaining oil prices at current rates and containing public opposition.  Inflation is at a seven-month low, but the PPP could be hit hard by a rise in global oil prices due to the strife in Libya, and the combination of a traditional summer oil price spike and IMF pressure to reduce subsidies.

Distrust between the PPP and Riyadh is considerable, but money talks. Riyadh’s assistance could give the PPP a temporary lifeline.  However, it cannot save the Islamabad government from from self-destruction. Furthermore, Riyadh is unlikely to let go of an option to support a center-right and Islamist alliance should Pakistan face early elections late this year or early next year.

One should not overestimate the importance of the civilian government in Saudi eyes.  Most likely, Riyadh simply wants all of Pakistan’s major power brokers to be on the same page.  But the most important player for the Saudis is the military.  The Pakistan Army, as one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most powerful armies (and because Rawalpindi is more likely than Ankara to play second fiddle to Riyadh), will become even more critical to Riyadh as the Sudairis doubt Washington’s intentions and resolve.  The Pakistani military — deeply allied with China, the largest importer of Saudi crude — has historically contributed forces to Arab Muslim states in times of need. It is an equal opportunity offender, having shot down Israeli fighter jets and brutally subdued Palestinian militant organizations.  Many of its retired officers have also served in the security services of Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain. Recently, the Fauji Foundation — a massive Pakistan Army welfare trust and business conglomerate — put out advertisements for hundreds of anti-riot instructor and security guard jobs with Bahrain’s internal security services.  Pakistanis have served in the Bahrain security forces for decades; many have been naturalized to boost the island nation’s Sunni population.

So the Pakistan Army is not a tangential player when it comes to Gulf security.  It can potentially serve as a force multiplier for the Saudis. Presumably, Riyadh is preparing contingencies for worst-case scenarios that might require the direct support of the Pakistan Army. Bandar’s meetings with the civilians – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, as well as Zardari — are likely aimed at ensuring that they do not serve as a hindrance to such plans.

Interestingly, Bandar is not the kingdom’s major interlocutor with the Pakistanis.  The kingdom’s Pakistan portfolio is generally handled by the Saudi ambassador, foreign minister, and intelligence chief.  It is possible that in addition to his role as general secretary of the NSC, Bandar visited Pakistan due to his pragmatist and pro-US leanings, which might have helped in building confidence with PPP officials.  It also suggests a deficiency in the more regular channels of communication.

For Pakistan, siding with the conservative Sunni Arabic bloc risks alienating Iran, with which there remains the faint hope of a natural gas pipeline for the energy-starved South Asian state.  While an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline seems unlikely in the present, it would be advantageous for Pakistan to have multiple gas import options available at least hypothetically so as to reduce its perceived dependency on a single source.  If it became clear that Pakistan’s sole option was the TAPI pipeline transiting through Afghanistan, then Kabul and ISAF could use this as leverage vis-a-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Now only if the Saudis were a major exporter of natural gas.

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Benazir Touches the Fire; Will Pakistan Shine or Burn?

Benazir Bhutto called today for the resignation of Pervez Musharraf from both the army and presidency, giving strong indication that she has jumped off the fence and is now in complete opposition to Pakistan’s ruler. Though she has ruled out any future talks with Musharraf, it is unclear as to whether she is in communication with others in the army.

Her decision to fully oppose Pakistan’s ruler comes well after other opposition parties arrived at the same conclusion; it also follows her contravening of the spirit of the Charter of Democracy she signed with Nawaz Sharif in 2006 by going into talks with Musharraf. That is not to say others would not do the same if offered a Washington-backed foot in the door.

Though Bhutto now stands on the same side as Pakistan’s other opposition parties, she is not necessarily standing with them. Bhutto hasn’t completely ruled out participation in January’s scheduled polls. Indeed, she is clearly in campaign mode — intent on regaining the premiership and starting in Punjab. While other opposition leaders are — in the words of Imran Khan — “out of circulation,” Bhutto, using her relatively liberal treatment by Musharraf during emergency rule, has taken center stage.

While Washington might be comfortable with a post-Musharraf arrangement dominated by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani and Benazir Bhutto, the Saudis are not enamored with the Daughter of the East and Darling of the West. Musharraf is expected to stop by Riyadh around John Negroponte’s visit this week; the Saudis would like to see the return of Nawaz Sharif, to restore a balance of civilian power favorable to them, and the release of ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul.

In order to ensure that Pakistan’s democratic moment lasts longer than a moment, Bhutto and, indeed, all of Pakistan’s opposition parties must mend relations; develop a collective agenda that also appreciates their natural political competition; and resist the temptation to resort to treachery, back-room deals, and — when out of power — sabotage.

If they fail to do so, Pakistan will witness a replay of previous short-lasting democratic transitions and a continuation of the corrosive cycle of failed civilian and military rule.

All this occurs at a critical juncture.  Neighbor and rival India, over the next fifteen years, will likely continue to move toward becoming a superpower. In which direction will Pakistan go? That of Algeria, Lebanon, or Somalia?

The onus is now on Pakistan’s civilian politicians to transcend their base instincts and not repeat the mistakes of the past. If they fail to do so, Pakistan may very well one day itself be seen as a mistake of the past.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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