Saudi-Pak spat and the big churn in Muslim world

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (left) and Pakistan Army chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa (right) in Islamabad. (Representative Photo: AFP)
Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (left) and Pakistan Army chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa (right) in Islamabad. (Representative Photo: AFP)

Has Kashmir issue become a catalyst to Saudi-Pak spat? That is what Pakistan wants the Kashmiris to believe. But there is more in Pak-Saudi row than what meets the eye.

The roots of rumbling in the Islamic fold are traceable in the Islamic resurgence movements that sprang during the cold war years. The Khilafat Movement of pre-World War-II era was the first sign of the rumbling in West Asia and elsewhere. Reminiscences of the glory of Ottoman Empire with the Muslims also generated their dislike for the western powers which had brought about its downfall. The phenomenon was replicated in the sub-continent with the liquidation of the Mughal Empire by the middle of the 19th century.

With Anglo-American dominance becoming pervasive during the cold war era the urge for recognition of identity began both as reaction and as a cherished theme of the masses of people in the Third World, especially in Asian and African continents. Muslims widely dispersed in the two continents showed unrest. The idea of a separate state for Muslims of the Indian sub-continent floated in early decades of the 20th century culminated soon after the end of World War-II. In the absence of a centripetal political and military power, it was evident that the mosque and seminaries (madrasas) would serve them as the power centre. It meant revival of orthodox Islam and, of course, the resultant direct or indirect confrontation with the forces of democracy and the epoch of scientific and technological enquiry and advancement.

The rise of Khomeini in Iran and of Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia (where from he shifted to strategically conducive geographical region as well as equally cooperative human force) was an expression of anger against the Saudi Kingdom for its sellout to the Americans. Many Arab countries in the Gulf or West Asia would not want to move far away from Saudi Arabia for the bare reason that the Islamic centrality of the Saudi Kingdom was major security against adversarial forces within or outside the region.

The inception of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1969 in which Saudi Arabia played a leading role was almost hijacked by Pakistan after it attained nuclear capability in 1998. Pakistan’s essential interest in OIC was to sell Kashmir issue to the 57-member strong group. For last two decades or more Pakistan has been moving an anti-India resolution on Kashmir in all of the summit sessions of the OIC. However, on the ground, the passing of these resolutions made negligible difference whatsoever in the bilateral relations between India and the member countries of the OIC.

PM Narendra Modi has been able to establish good relations with the Saudi kingdom as well as the UAE. There has been a phenomenal increase in bilateral trade, import of crude oil, tourism and above all work opportunities for millions of Indians in the Gulf States and the Saudi Kingdom.

Pakistan has been unhappy with it. UAE allowed Indians to build a temple on its soil which the Pakistanis considered a boost to heresy “kufr” on the Islamic land. India’s growing friendship with Israel and the defence deals between the two nations is projected by Pakistan as a challenge to the Muslim world, forgetting that Pakistan served a conduit for the supply of Israel’s arms and ammunition consignments to Iran during Iran-Iraq war. The invitation by the Saudi ruler to the then Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to address the OIC session upset Pakistan to the hilt. Islamabad thought the Saudi monarch was disregarding the fundamentals of Islamic Armageddon.

Thus Pakistan began to work with like-minded regressive Islamic states to bring about a change in the policy and functioning of the OIC. However, it had to move slowly owing essentially to Pakistan’s weakening economy, rising debts and defamation incurred by soft-peddling with the terrorist and Islamic radical organizations at home. In particular, Saudi monarch — familiar with the compulsions of modern scientific age, did not want Pakistan to join its voice with Iran or Turkey in upbraiding the US for “interference” in the affairs of regional Islamic powers.

It will be reminded that in the OIC summits many liberal Arab states would ask the members to discuss along with Kashmir the freedom struggles of Muslims elsewhere like Balochs, Pushtoons, and Uighurs. The Saudi monarch believes that India with the second largest Muslim population with democratic dispensation has a right to be included in the OIC since the welfare of Muslims world over is the objective of the organization.

Finding that it was difficult to break the solidarity among the Arab members of the OIC, Pakistan looked out of the box. Turkey, Malaysia and Iran, all of these non-Semitic Islamic States, could find a common cause of defiance against the Saudi and the UAE “hegemony” at the OIC. The medieval type orthodox Islam versus the liberal Islam argument seemed to be revived in the 21st century.

New Delhi’s J&K Reorganization Act 2019 landed Pakistan in a somewhat precarious situation. Kashmiris understood that Pakistan’s patronization of their separatism had become meaningless. Pakistan’s Kashmir bombast over the decades was blunted. Islamabad tried many options, UN, EU, British Parliament, nuclear threat, acceleration of terrorist attacks in the valley, intensifying bombing and shelling of the border to help infiltration by jihadis. Together with it, Pakistan undertook a massive propaganda campaign to the extent that Pakistan foreign ministry ceased its normal function and became its Kashmir cell.

Not able to settle the score with the US, Pakistan and the non-Semitic Islamic States now found it expedient to target Saudi Arabia. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that Islam disallowed monarchy and that the Saudis had no right to claim as the sole custodians of the haramayn-e-Sharief meaning the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The non-Arab Islamists subtly began to move in that direction.

The Saudis condemned the last winter Kuala Lampur meet of 53 Islamic countries and even summoned Imran Khan to Riyadh to be chastised for becoming a party to anti-Semitic Islamic states and the OIC.

At the root of Saudi dislike for Turkey is that during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire Saudi Arabia had come under the suzerainty of Turks who also controlled the holy shrine of Mecca. Saudis had played a role in supporting Great Britain against the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, refusal of the EU to admit Turkey has also been taken as a snub by Turkey and thus she wants to assert via Islamic channel. As far as Mahathir of Malaysia is concerned, he is the classical running dog of hegemonic China. The case of Iran is different. Iran can be called the odd man in the non-Arab Islamic fold. Iran knows that she will never be accepted by the Muslims (to whatever fold they belong) as the leader of the Muslim world because of deep factionalism eating into the entrails of the Islamic body.

Frustrated that Saudi monarch was not prepared to call the OIC foreign ministers’ meet in which Pakistan would move a resolution against India on Kashmir, the Pakistani foreign minister has threatened that in case Saudi king did not call the foreign ministers’ meet, Pakistan would call the meet on its own. The battle lines are drawn. Saudi ordered stopping of oil supplies to Pakistan and demanded the return of the loan money to the tune of $3 billion. China has come to Pakistan’s rescue and given it one billion dollars to pay off the Saudi loan. If relations deteriorate, hundreds of thousands of Pakistani labourers working in the Saudi kingdom may be asked to go back home. Pakistan has openly taken up cudgels with Saudis and this could not be done without a subtle hint from Beijing.

The rumblings in the Islamic fold is deep and its consequences will be of far-reaching significance. This all explains that Kashmir is not the catalyst to the split between the Arab and non-Arab Islamic states. It is a war between radical and conservative Islam strongly supported and upheld by the non-Arab Muslims against the more westward-looking Arab Islamic states. The immediate question before the Saudi monarch is who should he invite to serve as the prestigious royal bodyguard as he is about to send back the Pakistani brigade. And for Pakistan, it appears that she itself is headed towards isolation among the Muslim countries. Pakistan Army higher echelons have realized the consequences of antagonizing the Saudis. The Pakistani Army chief called on the Saudi Ambassador in Islamabad and is trying to convince him that Pakistan will not be part of the split game. We have to watch what can be the impact of Pak-Turkey bonhomie that has developed recently.

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