When asked whether he agreed with Donald Trump that president Putin ate “Obama’s lunch” over Syria, former Pakistani ambassador Karamatullah Ghori replied “yes”. Ghori, who is retired and presently lives in Canada, served as Pakistan’s envoy in numerous Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Algeria. His talk was chaired by the chairman of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA), Dr Masuma Hasan, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador in Vienna and also as cabinet secretary. Ghori began his hour-long lecture, which packed the PIIA’s historic library, by emphasising that the Middle East is the most sensitive part of the world. The recent mass beheadings in Saudi Arabia, which demonstrate the sheer brutality of the regime in that country, remained his alternative point of departure. Alive to the “new” Middle East crafted by the western powers – which is based on a dictatorial model of capitalism – he noted that our relationship with the oil rich kingdom is important because of the remittances sent by 1.5 million Pakistanis employed there.
However, he did not think that it was enough to make Pakistan lean in Saudi Arabia’s favour. In a two-day visit, Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir arrived in Islamabad arrived on 7 January to discuss Pak-Saudi relations with Pakistan’s leadership. The visit, the second by the Saudi minister in the past 12 months, also explored Pakistan’s potential role in Saudi led alliance against ISIS and terrorism. It is an oddity that the brutal Saudi monarchy – which tolerates no dissent and flogs innocent bloggers like Raif Badawi, keeps women shackled to servitude, has secret dealings with jihadi organisations – considers itself to be in a position to dictate terms to the rest of the world about what is or is not democratic and equitable for the international world order. Yet, despite these burning issues, Saudi leaders enjoy stratospheric levels of popularity in the west and are warmly received in western capitals.
How can the Saudis campaign for democracy in Syria and Yemen when they execute children? How can we trust them to protect women’s rights when Saudi women require the permission of a male relative to even leave the country? Rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh means that Pakistani interests are sandwiched between the foreign policy aims of these two extremely influential Muslim countries. In any event, the recent executions by Saudi Arabia mark a nadir in relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Instigated by the killing of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran and the diplomatic fallout from this event proves this point beyond any doubt.
Crucially, Karamatullah Ghori pointed out that the old order of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism sparked by Nasserist ideology and Arab historical narratives has evaporated. Arab secularism and populism are long gone. Instead, we have a world of what the likes of David Cameron and Barack Obama affectionately refer to as “our allies”, i.e. Saudi Arabia and the ignominious little satellite Arab monarchies that serve western interests and hegemony. In discussing Pakistani perceptions of the Arab world, Ghori’s talk was peppered with criticism of the Saudis and his arguments were soaked in condemnation of Israel’s action against the Palestinians, whose cause he felt had been sidelined by the war in Syria. He found the present state of the Middle East to be underpinned by the century old politics of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.
Press coverage generated by our event is available below and is followed by a short roundup by the blog editor.
With reference to the current Saudi Arabia-Iran crisis, Pakistan should play the role of a conciliator, peacemaker. We do not have to lean on one side. It would be a worrying indicator if we tried to take sides. This was said by Ambassador Karamatullah Khan Ghori in response to a question after delivering a talk on ‘The Middle East in Turmoil’ at PIIA on Friday evening.
Mr Ghori, who worked in many countries in the ambassadorial capacity for Pakistan, said while dealing with the Saudi Arabia and Iran conflict, we should follow the precedent set by Gen Ziaul Haq. He said when the Ka’aba was occupied by Salafi militants, Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for assistance. As a result Pakistan sent two of its brigades to Saudi Arabia, primarily for the protection of the royal family. When Iran began to have an upper hand during the Iran-Iraq war of the ’80s Saddam Hussein looked to Saudi Arabia for help, because of which Saudi Arabia asked Gen Ziaul Haq to send the two brigades to war. Gen Zia said no, our people were not mercenaries, and that we didn’t have any problem either with Iran or Iraq. Besides, Mr Ghori said, there were 1.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Ghori began his address by acknowledging the PIIA as his alma mater where he learned to research and analyse in the early 1960s. On the subject of the Middle East, he said it was a “complex situation”. The region’s history went back to thousands of years, but, he said, he would like to start from the 20th century. He said one could never discuss the Middle East without “appending” other actors, areas and factors to it. He said there were certain internal and external dynamics which needed to be taken into consideration before analysing the region.
Mr Ghori attached importance to two factors: one, the mode of governance in Arab countries; two, the conditions in which the people were forced to live in those countries. About the former, he said the countries were ruled by autocratic regimes, by rulers who had not been elected. The absence of democracy was one of the factors that came as a surprise in the form of the Arab Spring, though it was not entirely a product of such an absence. Another factor was the denial of fundamental rights to the people, something taken for granted in the western world. There’s no country in the Arab world where the people had the freedom to express themselves, he said.
Speaking on the external dynamics, Mr Ghori pointed out two things. The Arab world had three-fourths of proven oil reserves of the world and Israel. He said oil was discovered in the Middle East in 1908. In 1917 following the Balfour Declaration the role of oil in the future of the world signified the imperial interest of the British Empire. Israel also created a nexus of commercial and strategic interests of the west in the Middle East, he said. In 1973, when King Faisal took the first oil embargo decision, it prompted a tough response from Henry Kissinger who said:
if necessary, we will land our forces on oil fields of Arabia.
Mr Ghori said at the time Iran was the policeman for the west in the Gulf. In 1975, King Faisal was killed and the Islamic Revolution in Iran came as an unexpected development for western strategists who, in order to neutralise its effect, goaded Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. Consequently, in the eight-year war, three million people lost their lives. It then triggered tensions between Iraq and Kuwait which led to the first Gulf War. Basically, the idea was to make Israel a powerful country to ensure western interests, he said.
The second surprise for western strategists, Mr Ghori said, came in the shape of the Arab Spring. He, however, said the first democratic movement took place in Algeria in 1988 (the movement for Islamic Salvation Front inspired by Maulana Maududi’s ideas) which was “snuffed out” by the Algerian army in collaboration with France and the US. The 2010 movement that started from Tunisia, too, surprised western strategists, he said.
As to why the Arab Spring wilted before it could reach its blossom, he said, the autocratic regimes were not prepared for it and feared they would get toppled, and also because external powers found it easy to talk to one person than to an entire assembly.
After that Mr Ghori shifted his attention to the conflict in Syria, which he claimed was nowhere near a settlement. He termed it the proverbial case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, as there were quite a few actors involved in it. He gave a detailed background to the whole situation, including the fact that the Saudi and other potentates of the Gulf had been unhappy with the Baathist regime considering them as secular. To counter that they financed the rightist elements, which also included the “rightist of rightist” Salafis. Later on, Turkey got involved in the conflict because Tayyip Erdogan was unhappy with Assad, whereas Iran had a soft spot for the Baathist in Syria, he said. This created a total impasse in Syria, he said, with the following human cost: 250,000 people killed, six million internally displaced and four million becoming refugees elsewhere in the world.
Mr Ghori called the Saudi Arabia-Iran spat “a hot potato”. Again, going back in time to describe the friction between the two countries, he said, after the Iranian revolution, Iran was blamed for ideological expansionism. Saudi Arabia also thought that Iran had a plan to produce an atomic bomb, therefore both Israel and Saudi Arabia did not approve of the idea of any deal for a nuclear programme with Iran. He cautioned that we should be concerned about the sectarian element as well. Alluding to the Saudi foreign minister’s recent visit to Pakistan, he said it would not be hard to put two and two together as to what Pakistan was likely to do. He said Saudi Arabia and Iran had been fighting their proxy wars on our soil for a long time, making the sectarian fault lines obvious.
Pakistan’s role in the Iran–Saudi Arabia imbroglio should just be that of a peacemaker and not an actively aligned party as the latter could boomerang on its interests. This was the advice given by former Pakistani ambassador Karamatullah Ghori during an address to members of the PIIA, the media, and Karachi’s intellectual elite on Friday evening in the institute’s library. Talking about the Middle East situation in general, he said it was a particularly complicated affair and termed it an “enigma wrapped in a riddle”. He explained:
We have no problem with Iran. Besides, we share a long border and are culturally more akin to Iran than to Saudi Arabia. As for Saudi Arabia, it is a matter of economic expediency. There are 1.5 million Pakistani expatriates working in Saudi Arabia who remit hundreds of thousands back home, thus buttressing the foreign exchange reserves of the country. As such, it would be utter folly if we were to get involved in a military campaign.
The former envoy stated that the main bone of contention in the Iran-Saudi conflict was the Saudi fear of Iran becoming a nuclear power. He also highlighted the fact that, today, Saudi Arabia was one of the top clients for US weapons.
Speaking about the Iraq War, Ghori maintained that the plan to attack Iraq was based on a purely trumped up issue (the weapons of mass destruction) and was a design of the US Neocons who were looking to use Iraq and its oil wealth as a launching pad for total world domination. He said that Iraq was anathema to the US because of her progressive policies. During Saddam’s tenure, he said, 6oo Iraqis were sent every year to western universities for technical training and higher studies and, as such, the US Neocons wanted to see Saddam out.
Talking about the Arab Spring, Ghori held that it didn’t result from just a lack of democracy, but also because of the absence of fundamental rights.
He said that in a meeting with a Saudi envoy, Muhammad Al Faqih, the latter had said that nothing like the Arab Spring could ever occur as the Arab governments provided their citizens with all the basic necessities of life.
Ghori claimed to have countered the argument by quoting as an example the thousands of Arabs who went overseas and found the freedoms and fundamental rights taken for granted in western countries glaringly absent at home. Such realisations, he said, would certainly raise questions in their minds which could find an outlet in the form of discontent with their governments.
“That is precisely what happened,” according to Ghori, “It was the denial of fundamental rights that precipitated the Arab Spring.”
Comparatively speaking, he said that people in Pakistan had all the freedoms, hence, there were no chances of an Arab Spring here.
The former ambassador also highlighted certain external dynamics shaping things in the Arab world; firstly, the fact that the Arab world was home to three-fourths of the world’s oil resources and, secondly, the presence of Israel.
Ghori pointed out that Arthur Balfour, then serving as United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, could sense the role oil would play in the future of world politics, hence, he wrote the letter to Walter Rothschild that came to be known as the “Balfour Declaration”. He remarked further:
That created commercial interests in the Arab world which was, to a great extent, a factor that constantly contributed to destabilising the region.
The lecture evinced such a lot of interest among those present that there was a prolonged question-answer session after the talk.
As seen by the appearance of the new replacement for Jihadi John, there is never a dull moment in Middle Eastern politics. One reason that so many foreign fighters are attracted to the Syrian jihad is that they are paid guaranteed earnings (reportedly $1000 per month from ISIS for example) for their participation. Rather than Iraqis pursuing higher advanced studies abroad, these days the inverse is true and radical Islamists travel to Iraq to learn the way of guerilla warfare and terrorism. In the final analysis ambassador Ghori lamented that the Arab Spring had been hijacked by the jihadis and he concurred with the blog editor that, albeit with Russian and Iranian help, Bashar al-Assad is the one dictator who has clearly cheated the mass uprising that swept through the Arab world and led to the toppling of longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
This lecture was a part of the PIIA’s initiative to increase awareness of Middle Eastern affairs in Pakistan. Other recently posted articles on this blog about the Middle East are available below:
Pakistan has strong interests in the Middle East. Because of Zia’s drive to Arabise Pakistan, shades of some of the extremities associated with Arab monarchies can be seen in Pakistan. However, despite our cultural and economic links with the Arab world, we should be extremely wary of ceding territory to Arab notions of freedom because we share common principles of the rule of law, democracy, secularism and human rights with the west. If anything, rather than supporting its brutality, we should use collectively use our influence to protect the world from the predatory Saudi regime which promotes intolerance and injustice.
In other words, we must not abdicate our long-term foreign policy objectives to please al-Jubeir and King Salman simply because our citizens work in Saudi Arabia. After all the Saudis are not exactly keen to get their own hands dirty in the maintenance of their kingdom. They are dependent on cheap/reliable Pakistani labour just like the world is dependent on their oil. In the process of talking some sense into Riyadh’s head, perhaps Pakistan should consider exploiting their acute dependence on our trustworthy people.
Please note that the views articulated in blog posts are merely the views of the blog editor and are not in any way, shape or form representative of the views of the PIIA and/or its members.