Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pakistan skating on thin Bahraini ice

The visit by the Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khaled Bin Ahmed Mohamed Al-Khalifa to Islamabad opens an incredible twist to the unfolding saga of 'Arab revolt' in the Persian Gulf region. The visiting dignitary met President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar. The discussions primarily related to 'defence cooperation'. Shorn of diplomatese, Bahrain wants Pakistan to be a key provider of security and 'Barkis is willing'. Bahrain is very pleased with Pakistan's`principled stand` on the situation in the Gulf state, which was succinctly articulated by Zardari: “Pakistan desires peace, security, and stability in Bahrain. Pakistan… would not like its (region`s) stability to be upset in any way. Pakistan believes that it would be dangerous for regional peace and stability if the system was destabilized one way or the other”.
Bahrain and its mentors in Riyadh have every reason to be thrilled that Pakistan has unequivocally endorsed the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to crush the Shi'ite uprising. Such clear-cut support is hard to come by nowadays. Quite obviously, Pakistan has estimated that no matter what it takes, Riyadh will never allow Shi'ite empowerment to be realized in Bahrain lest it repeats in the oil-rich eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia itself and from Islamabad's point of view, it pays to be with the 'winning side'. There could be many positive spin-offs - greater job opportunities for Pakistani expatriate workers in the PG states, economic assistance from the petrodollar GCC states, oil supplies on concessionary terms, budgetary support for Pakistan's ailing economy and if things go well, a key role in the PG region's security architecture.
But Pakistan is taking a big gamble. Pakistan has a sizeable Shi'ite minority and it is prudent not to take sides in the sectarian strife in another Muslim country when Sunni-Shi'ite tensions are endemic to Pakistan itself. Second, Pakistan is bound to annoy Iran and other Shi'ite countries in the region, apart from the Shi'ite majority community in Bahrain itself. Third, Pakistan may be overlooking the possibility of the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain increasingly getting radicalized as time passes and it may get sucked into a protracted internal strife. US Vice-President Joe Biden's phone call to the Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa on Sunday gives an indication that Washington remains unsure that the Saudi-led crackdown is the best means of preventing a dangerous situation from developing as the excessive force may well drive the protest underground or may trigger even a region-wide Sunni-Shi'ite conflagration. Indeed, the calm in Manama is deceptive. A White House statement said, "The vice president recognized the important steps taken by the crown prince to reach out to the opposition and that law and order are necessary in order for a productive dialogue to proceed." But one can never tell the US intentions in the Bahrain situation insofar as its first priority will always be to safeguard the basing facilities of the US' Fifth Fleet.
Pakistan could be estimating that by aligning itself with the "pro-West" Arab oligarchies in the persian Gulf, it serves the US strategic interests as well. In sum, is Pakistan chewing more than it can chew? The prominent Middle East expert Juan Cole has warned that "Among the Middle East protest movements, that in tiny Bahrain is one of the more momentous".


H. Chimpster said...

congratulations on your blog. Will follow it regularly.

Jonathan said...


Thank you for your insights regarding the recent moves by the Pakistani state regarding the events in Bahrain.

I would like to ask about the role of China in this affair:

Pakistani military intervention on behalf of the conservative Sunni Gulf monarchies against the Bahraini Shia may very well provoke a crisis in Pakistan-Iran relations. But given the rapidly growing strategic importance of Iran to China's strategy for a Eurasian continental energy corridor, and China's role as the single most important foreign ally of Pakistan, wouldn't Beijing warn Islamabad against such a move?

Might this move by Pakistan be reflective of the wishes of more pro-US factions within the Pakistani military but not of the pro-China factions? A Pakistani academic once told me that in the eyes of his Chinese interlocutors, the problem with Pakistan was that it did not have a unitary state. Instead, the organs of the Pakistani establishment often operate with great incoherence as different factions pursue different goals and seek to preserve the interests of different foreign allies (be they Chinese, Saudi or American). These foreign interests co-existed relatively well during the Cold War and even into the 1990s and early 2000. But as Chinese and American interests increasingly diverge, the Pakistani elites find themselves in a very compromising position.

On the Chinese side, perhaps their elites are not in agreement about the prospects for Iran to truly become the leading force in the Middle East? Consequently, a wait-and-see approach may have been adopted by default. Might the argument that prevailed in Beijing be the following: regardless of whether revolutionary Iran or the conservative Gulf monarchies prevail, either side will come to see China rather than the USA as their primary strategic partner of the future. Since China cannot dissuade these two sides from their mutual enmity, it would be better to stand aside and let the tigers fight.

ss0099218 said...

Sino-Pakistan relationship is no where near on par with US-Pakistan relationship. The former is a mutually beneficial friendly relationship while the later is an allied relationship. In return for US's favours Pakistan has to stick her neck out in dangerous situations, be it with regards to Afghanistan, muslim terrorism, Iran, or BAHRAIN. US would allow a measure of Pakistani independence but when push comes to shove Pakistan will have to be part player in a US strategy.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

@ ss0099218

That seems very unlikely, nor does the current Pakistani ambassador to the USA share your view.

"Despite increased cooperation between the United States and Pakistan since 2001, Islamabad places greater value on its relationship with Beijing than vice versa, say analysts. "Pakistan thinks that both China and the United States are crucial for it," said Haqqani. "If push comes to shove, it would probably choose China--but for this moment, it doesn't look like there has to be a choice." Pakistan considers China a more reliable ally than the United States, citing years of diplomatic manipulation and neglect on the part of Washington."

Hari said...

Congratulations and thank you for the blog.

I find your analyses on Asia Times and Hindu very informative.

Haridas R

Hari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hari said...

Congratulations and thanks for the blog.

I find your analyses on Asia Times Online and The Hindu very informative.


ramanadas said...

I have read many of your articles and I find them to be too general. Could you bring your expertise in foreign affairs to tell us how India is affected by the various situations and the options that our country has to protect its interests?

Gajanan Netravali