The gesture of demonstrating neutrality over the conflict which has spawned in the Middle East marks a watershed moment in the history of Pakistan’s politics in many ways. Contrary to the widely-held and circulated premonition, the Pakistan government withstood the pressure exerted by the Arab states and particularly Saudi Arabia expecting our army to fight virtually on their behalf against the current incumbent of Yemen.
This is a very bold move that has also given the lie to many suppositions which were based on the historical nature of the relationship between the two countries and then Sharif family’s more than friendly relations with the Ibne Saud family and, more importantly, Pakistan’s status as a client state of the oil-rich kingdom.
But the point worth underscoring is that while wealth is a very powerful instrument, sadly it is not all-powerful. Analysts have correctly referred to the importance of the cheque book in matters pertaining to its foreign policy, but that tried and tested policy has not worked this time.
In the print media, we have seen two starkly opposite positions, some in favour of the resolution of Pakistani parliament, others opposed to it. But it is important to comment on the significance of the policy, not only in terms of its far-reaching impact on the politics of the Pakistani masses, but also on their identity. Interestingly enough, by showing its neutrality in passing a parliamentary resolution, the Pakistan government has in fact honoured the public sentiment, which was not in favour of Pakistan’s engagement in an undertaking that is not its immediate concern.
It is a blessing of the democratic dispensation that public sentiment does count. Had it been a dictatorial regime, public opinion would not have counted at all; Pakistan’s joining the American-sponsored war on terror being a case in point. Thus in this rag-tag democracy which is barely sustaining itself, parliament has prioritised, to the consolation of many, our own national interests instead of succumbing to the arbitrary demands of a friendly country which also presumes itself to be the very core of the Muslim Umma.
This claim is advanced quite vigorously particularly when its own interests are in jeopardy, otherwise Saudi Arabia is simply another nation-state by every account. Besides, Pakistan government’s display of neutrality has distanced itself from an ultra-rightwing narrative underpinned by pan-Islamist ideology, imagining Pakistan to hold a subservient position to the wider interests of the Umma.
Therefore in such Umma-centric discourse, Pakistan’s status as a nation-state is to all intents and purposes subordinated if not completely sacrificed.
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Generally speaking, with reference to our history, the theoretical stance of the subcontinent’s luminaries about Muslim politics for the last hundred years had quite an ambivalent position on the nature of the Muslim state. The general opinion has vacillated between a Khilafat and a nationalist form of a polity. But the Muslim political imagination had mostly been pan-Islamist.
When the rubric of Muslim separatism was conjured up, opinion remained divided because the idea of a nation-state could not sit easily with the theorists engaged with the Muslim political. Even Iqbal, through his poetry, as the John Hopkins-based anthropologist Naveeda Khan argues in her brilliant work, Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan, addressed the individual Muslim as a member of the Umma and not exclusively as coming from the subcontinent.
Up until the creation of Pakistan, the political thrust remained pan-Islamic. Thus the disconnect between the widely held notion of Muslim Political and the quest for Pakistan was quite palpable throughout. That probably is the reason that General Asad Durrani, in a debate at Oxford University, described Pakistan as “not a normal country” — because Pakistanis don’t balk at going to any nook or cranny of the world to fight along with their Muslim brethren, be it Chechnya, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Syria.
This is a very dangerous propensity which ought to be set at rest. Thus the recently-passed resolution is most important for its assertion of Pakistan’s status as a nation state.
Another extremely important factor is the changed perception of the general populace about Saudi Arabia, and particularly its role in exacerbating sectarian animosity in Pakistan, which has sown the seeds of disquiet among many. In a bid to scuttle Iranian influence, it has pumped in huge sums of money by circumventing the machinery of the Pakistani state in a bid to enhance its own influence in the region.
The current malaise that Pakistan is plagued with is a result of Iran and Saudi Arabia using it as a battleground for their proxy war. Saudi Arabia’s bid to spread its own version of Islam has been catastrophic for a plural country such as Pakistan. Now, after suffering horrendous bloodletting in the name of religion for so long, much of which was Saudi-sponsored, the Pakistani people seem to have realised the disastrous fall-out that their people and society have been made to endure.
Pakistan’s disenchantment with Saudi Arabia will be augmented if it resorts to any punitive measure, like forcing even some of the Pakistani expats working there to pack their bags. Such measures will have serious repercussions. It is certainly true that when the chips are down for the Saudi Kingdom, only Pakistan has the competence and (military) resources which can rescue it. Anybody equipped with a smattering of knowledge of International Relations can foresee that the trouble has started brewing up in Saudi Arabia and also in the neighbouring states, trouble which is likely to recur indefinitely.
In such a scenario the indispensability of Pakistan for Saudis must not be underemphasised.
However, the major worry for Pakistan is on the economic front. With hardly any internal resources to mobilise, Pakistan is forced to rely on foreign aid and Saudi Arabia has been quite munificent in the past and has bailed Pakistan out on several occasions. There is, therefore, an ordeal ahead for those looking after Pakistan’s foreign policy to dispel Saudi misgivings. They will have to play their cards right so that Saudi Arabia and its partners don’t turn their back on us.