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".