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‘Sin tax’ in the time of Gulf crisis

It will be disastrous if Pakistan joins the lineup against Qatar or Iran

‘Sin tax’ in the time of Gulf crisis

As if the sins of the Persian Gulf states were not enough, now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has imposed a ‘sin tax’ on its people. Announced on June 12, the tax is imposed on those who indulge in the sins of smoking and imbibing soft drinks. No mention has been made about hard drinks and the sins of more serious nature. Meanwhile, the foreign minister of Qatar was meeting the infidel sinners of Europe to garner support in the efforts to normalise relations with the neighbouring Arab countries.

With this new tax, the ‘sinners’ must pay almost twice as much as they were paying earlier for their nasty habits. This tax was expected as the KSA and other Gulf countries were facing an economic crunch in the face of the declining oil prices. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries had decided earlier that certain taxes would be imposed on ‘sinning items’ that are normally dubbed ‘luxury items’ in Pakistan. They have justified the term ‘sin tax’ by saying that most of the newly taxed items were injurious to health.

Irrespective of some other sins of the Gulf states, one must appreciate this tax which should also be imposed in Pakistan to make cigarettes and soft drinks beyond the reach of the common people, while they may be allowed to commit other sins such as lynching innocent people and making life miserable for ethnic, religious, and sectarian minorities, or for anybody who does not follow, or challenges, the narrative of the dominant category. Despite the financial crunch, most oil-producing countries especially in the Gulf have been reluctant to impose taxes on their people. A major reason for this hesitance is the unpopular nature of their authoritarian rules.

Most of these states are not willing to offer any democratic rights to the masses and a couple of selected royal families control almost all natural resources of these lands. In this usurpation, the United States governments, be it Democratic of Republican, have fully supported them. During the past seven decades or so, the US and other western powers have been selling arms and ammunition to Arab countries in droves. The bogey of Israel has been serving its purpose very well by constantly harassing the Arabs. The issue of Palestine has been kept unresolved for precisely such benefits.

The second major threat to the US interests in this region was the possibility of a political change on the pattern of Egypt and Iran of the 1950s when Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Mossadegh took a pro-people and anti-American stance. These were leftist and liberal leaders — essentially nationalist and secular — who could not be used in the name of religion against the Soviet Union. Hence, America gave an almost unconditional support to the kingdoms of the Arab states. Since Israel is well-settled, a Shia-Sunni conflict appeared to be the most useful bait, and of course Iran and Qatar that are relatively more open have been made to look like villains, instead of Israel.

Irrespective of some other sins of the Gulf states, one must appreciate this tax which should also be imposed in Pakistan to make cigarettes and soft drinks beyond the reach of the common people, while they may be allowed to commit other sins such as lynching innocent people

Now every effort is being made to push both Iran and Qatar to the wall so that any possibility of some fresh air can be stifled. Especially Qatar, with its relatively independent media, has been virtually blockaded. The shortage of food items is already hurting the Qataris and only Iran and Turkey have announced some relief flights to Qatar. On the other hand, the eastern city of the KSA, Qatif, has seen terrorist attacks once again. Qatif, called Al-Qatif in Arabic, is a city on the Gulf coast of the KSA, with Jubail in the north and Dammam in the south.

This entire region is part of the eastern province of the KSA called Ash-Sharquia. In terms of area, this is the largest province with its capital at Dammam. It touches Oman in the south and Iraq in the north. Population-wise it is the third largest province in the country. Having the largest oil reserve of the KSA, this is the province from where the Qatar peninsula juts out into the Persian Gulf. Across the Gulf, it has Iran, and this province has land borders with five countries i.e. Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

The lower half of this province is mostly dessert called Ruba-al-Khali (the Empty Quarter). Ash-Sharquia has around four million people of which one million are foreigners. Just Dammam has a population of over a million. Since the census data in the KSA does not keep the record of any sectarian affiliation, it is difficult to confirm the denominational composition of this province, but historically this region, especially Al-Qatif, has had a Shia majority. The Shia religious scholar Bakir Al-Nimr who was executed by the Saudi government in 2016 belonged to the same region. He was charged with treason and inciting people to rebellion.

He was protesting the high-handedness of the Saudi authorities against the local Shias. He was reported to have threatened that if the locals were not given their democratic rights, the entire eastern region of the KSA might secede to form a separate country. Though he never talked about the treatment that the Iranian government was meting out to the Sunni population in eastern Iran. The recent explosion in Al-Qatif took place in the town of Al-Awwamiya which is the native town of Al-Nimr, with a majority Shia population that has waged many movements against the Sunni kingdom.

In the first week of June too, there was a car explosion killing a couple of people. In 2015 also there had been an attack on a mosque and some terrorists claiming to come from ISIS attacked a Shia Imambargah and killed five people. This past week, there has been another news item about Qataris not being allowed into the holy mosque in Makkah. A newspaper in Doha released this news story, but the Saudi foreign ministry immediately contradicted this by saying that ‘the people of Qatar live in the heart of King Salman’.

Now the question arises if Qataris are so close to the heart, how could they be deprived of basic food items by cordoning off. Till the last reports, the Saudi border with Qatar remained blocked. In the meanwhile, the Qatari foreign minister has visited many European countries including the UK and France and met his counterparts. Now Qatar appears to be in great trouble, and rightly so, as hostile states surround its only land boundary. In this situation, Pakistan is in a dilemma after it was not allowed to speak at the conference of the 40-nation alliance led by the KSA, when Trump visited.

The prime minister of Pakistan is reported to have worked for hours on his speech with his colleagues which remained undelivered. Probably the KSA did not want to hear anything calling for restraint which Nawaz Sharif was likely to stress. Then he might have spoken about the Kashmir issue for which none of the 40 countries would have spoken or done anything. Pakistan should keep its own interest paramount which is primarily connected with its immediate neighbours i.e. Afghanistan, India, and Iran. Good relations with immediate neighbours should be the priority for Pakistan rather than dancing to the tunes of distant relatives.

Pakistan has already suffered a lot while trying to please the Americans and the Saudis. It has been over 40 years, since the times of General Zia, that none of the civilian or political governments in Pakistan have controlled our foreign policy properly, and we have paid a heavy price for this non-civilian supremacy. Whenever a civilian government tries to normalise relations with Afghanistan, India, or Iran something happens that derails the whole process. The acceptance of employment from the KSA by General Raheel Sharif is a case in point that was an ill-conceived decision riling Iran.

Now if Pakistan joins the lineup against Qatar, that will be another disastrous step, almost as bad as the decisions Pakistan made 40 years back. If our rulers are beholden to any foreign family, the people of Pakistan should not be made to pay the ‘sin tax’ as the cost of those obligations. Simply ‘no’ to any intervention in Iran or Qatar, full stop.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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