Nawaz Sharif is, to many, a bundle of contradictions. He has charmed Indians with his knowledge of Bollywood music and films, acting as a gracious host to PM Vajpayee and cultivating PM Gujral with sweet talk in Punjabi. He is often attired in Savile Row suits. But, at the same time, he has an Islamist streak, which makes him comfortable with the leadership of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s foreign policy has traditionally been based on strengthening the “Muslim Ummah” and making the OIC a forum to denigrate and undermine India in the Islamic world. The affinity of Nawaz for the House of Saud and Wahhabi causes has, however, landed his country in deep trouble with its “core constituency” in the Islamic world—the monarchies of the oil-rich Arab Gulf, on the western shores of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s relations with Shia-dominated Iran have been steadily deteriorating ever since Nawaz assumed charge. Iran was furious when Nawaz unilaterally annulled a signed contract for a gas pipeline on which construction on the Iranian side had progressed. Iranians were infuriated when Sunni fundamentalist, Pakistan-based groups, like the Jundallah and the Jaish-e-Adl attacked Iran, prompting Iranian retribution and even a reference to the UN. Pakistan now has tensions on its borders with all three neighbours—Iran, Afghanistan and India. The Pakistan army has its hands full tackling Pashtun tribals on its borders with Afghanistan, while promoting infiltration on the border near Jammu and the LoC. The Pakistan army, understandably, has no appetite for war in distant lands.
The Pakistanis have sworn to defend Saudi Arabia, which has been a generous contributor of financial assistance and concessional oil supplies. Nawaz is also beholden to the Saudis for their intervention and hospitality, after he was jailed by General Musharraf. Most observers acknowledge that Nawaz agreed to militarily join the Saudi intervention in neighbouring Yemen, by providing troops, air power and naval ships, when he met the Saudi Royalty in Riyadh on March 3. All hell broke loose when Saudi Arabia announced this Pakistani commitment. The Pakistan army had no appetite for such misadventures and public opinion was hostile. The Pakistan Parliament unanimously passed a resolution, asserting, “Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict, so as to play a pro-active role to end the crisis in the Arabian Peninsula.” It added:”Pakistan should play a mediating role and not get involved in fighting in Yemen.”
The Gulf Arab monarchies reacted with fury. Warning that Pakistan would pay a “heavy price” for its “ambiguous stand”, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs demanded Pakistan should take a clear position “in favour of its strategic relations with the six-nation Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”. In a front page editorial, the influential and authoritative Al-Seyassah of Kuwait observed: “The GCC can defend its security, particularly following the alliance with countries like Egypt and Jordan. The Pakistani stance adopted by its Parliament’s decision to remain neutral drops the mask about sharing ‘common destiny’ with Muslim countries.” A senior Saudi official told Pakistan’s Geo TV that Pakistan’s talk about “mediation” was a “’joke”. Referring to the comments of the UAE minister, he remarked, “You are admonished by those who love you.”
Members of the Sharif team had briefed the press that Pakistan’s participation in military operations in Yemen would be conditional on Saudi assurances that they would act against the two million Indian nationals in Saudi Arabia if Pakistan’s relations with India became tense. Pakistan’s enthusiasm for undermining Indian interests in the Arab world has long been clear. What is shocking is that it could stoop to such a low level to damage Indian interests and the livelihood of ordinary Indians in Islamic countries. Sharif should, however, learn that heads of government do not make promises they cannot keep, even in relations with “brotherly Islamic countries”.
The writer is a former diplomat