The Saudi royal reshuffle is bad news for Pakistan. King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s appointment of his nephew and son as monarchs-in-waiting is more than a simple break with tradition. Beyond ensuring his Sudairi clan’s foreseeable hold on power, this move provides continuity to the “Salman Doctrine.” This doctrine discards the Kingdom’s American security blanket, and reinforces what Anwar Gargash, the UAE Foreign Minister, believes: “Arab security…is the responsibility of none but Arab countries.” However, as former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates once quipped, the Saudis will only “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
On April 31, Saudi forces repelled a Houthi cross-border raid in the southern Najran province that killed three soldiers. Consequently, the only loophole in Pakistan’s “neutral” stance on the Yemen conflict blew wide open. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister (P.M) Nawaz Sharif had echoed the parliamentary resolution on Yemen by confirming “any aggression on Saudi Arabia will be dealt with strongly and effectively.” Now that said aggression has taken place, he can no longer dilly-dally. King Salman may have outsized ambitions but his military is unprepared. The FARS News agency recently reported that 4000 Saudi soldiers fled their border bases in anticipation of a ground assault.
It is now clear that the Yemen conflict is part of a larger paradigm shift. An Obama White House itching to pull away from the Middle East, and make peace with Iran, raises many red flags for King Salman. The Saudi annoyance at Iran’s creeping coup in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has for long been leashed by America’s own regional endgame. Sen. John McCain believes the Salman Doctrine is proof that, “Arab countries no longer trust the US and this is why they planned this alliance on their own.” This makes the war in Yemen a teething ceremony for Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy fangs.
King Salman’s domestic issues also rival Iran in migraine-inducing value. For starters, the Kingdom’s plethora of Princes will need placating. Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz immediately criticized the royal reappointments as “impulsive,” and pointedly tweeted “No allegiance to those who broke the laws.” Saudi Arabia also worries about the economic fallout of a sanctions-free Iran. If the ayatollahs toe the American nuclear line, Iranian crude oil could soon flood themarket and undercut the Kingdom’s already dwindling petro-profits. In anticipation of such hard times, the state oil giant Aramco was separated from the oil ministry on May 1 to “bring more flexibility.”
Pakistan’s role as the “Spear of Salman” in this Saudi-Iran cold war hinges on P.M Sharif. Now that the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia has, in theory, been compromised, does he start returning favors or keep pussyfooting around? The army’s stance is also unclear. Its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing has been strangely mum throughout the Yemen debate, barring a boilerplate “continuation of the conflict will have serious implications for regional security” statement. Saleh bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Religious Minister, hinted at the top brass’ waiting game when dismissing the parliamentary resolution as Pakistan’s “internal matter,” and saying the Kingdom “expects” better.
King Salman knows that Pakistan is an ideological state created in the name of Islam. If the country’s war-weary people are to accept their role in his war, he must appeal to a higher purpose than the defense of an ally. Thereby, the Imam of Kaaba, Sheikh Khalid al-Ghamidi’s recent trip was designed to rekindle religious reverence among Pakistan’s Sunni majority. Back home, 60% of the Saudi population is under 25 years of age, and some 2000 have joined the Islamic State (IS). By upgrading the conflict with Iran to a regional Sunni-Shia confrontation, King Salman can provide them with jihadist opportunities through the national military.
Realistically, if P.M Sharif is to honor his strongly voiced principles, then military assistance must go through to King Salman. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is a one-of-a-kind ally. Not even China throws unconditional aid Pakistan’s way, and any American money is accompanied by endless talk-downs.The $1.5 billion “gift” received in 2014 was the latest in a long line of similar Saudi bestowments. There is talk that Asif Zardari would have had an easier time saying no, but this is not about party politics. Pakistan has perpetually poor standards of governance, and requires frequent financial bailouts to stay afloat.
Then there are other, equally pressing variables to factor into this equation. The Iran-Pakistan “peace pipeline,” still a work in progress, is critical to managing the country’s crippling power crises through natural gas. Hence, any anti-Iran posturing right now would be economic dimwittedness. Furthermore, Pakistan’s increasingly activist civil society blames the Saudi-sponsored seminaries for the country’s terrorism and sectarian woes. In the end, a “once bitten, twice shy” mindset may bias P.M Sharif’s decision making. Considering the possibility of a future Musharraf-minded military takeover, does he dare deny his personal saviors’ repeated requests?