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Changes in Middle East and Pakistan

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Muhammad Arif

The great part about predicting events in the Middle East and Pakistan is that if you wait long enough, on any important issue is almost proven right. One simply has to wait.
Pakistan recently announced and confirmed in Feb 2018 that it has sent military personals to Saudi Arabia to fulfill advisory and training roles. It seems Islamabad and Riyadh’s longstanding relationship is getting better. Former Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif has already been made the head of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.

Pakistan is also worried about at this point of time of its own deteriorating relationship with the US. Washington has not only withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid to Islamabad, but is taking further punitive actions to press Pakistan to do more over alleged Taliban sanctuaries.

In spite of this, amazingly, Pakistan seems to have acted smartly in the Middle Eastern crisis. It refused to take sides in the latest crisis. Pakistan has also offered to play a role of mediator to end the latest Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia-UAE and Qatar and even between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan has many geostrategic, political, and economic restrictions which have forced it to take a rational stance of neutrality in the Middle Eastern crisis. It can be assumed that it has acted smartly in the Middle Eastern crisis rather than helplessly.

Destabilization is the most common and least specific term used to describe anything of consequence in the Middle East and 2018 will be no exception. A vast range of happenings from Morocco in the west across to Iran in the east are said to destabilize the area, even though the region is anything but stable to begin with.

Atop the list of concerns is the overarching sectarian war that is playing out from Lebanon to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The original seventh-century dynastic dispute over leadership of the Islamic community still determines who is shooting at whom on battlefields from Aleppo, Syria… Mosul, Iraq… Sanaa, Yemen… and other, less well-known cities. The sectarian feud remains the single biggest driver of armed conflict in the region. And it’s being played out through a series of vicious proxy battles that have caused thousands of casualties already.

Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all endure some level of internecine conflict or suffer terrorist violence because of the sectarian divide. The so-called Arab Spring, which sought to overthrow the tyrants who had been a cornerstone of the American stability-first strategy in the region, has if anything exacerbated this 1,400-year-old feud. Without the iron-fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak or Saddam Hussein, long-simmering hatreds have bubbled to the surface. What we are seeing today is score settling over a thousand years in the making.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two main powers funding this conflict.
With the decline of Egypt, the Saudis are now positioned as the great protectors of Sunni Muslims – roughly 85% of Islam globally.
They’ve been arming to the teeth in recent years with the most expensive military hardware they can get. They’ve pursued a policy of cozying up to America, while also managing to be the single greatest exporter of Sunni jihadist ideology (like that espoused by Al-Qaida) on the planet. The U.S. has been willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to our Saudi “frenemies,” given their oil and usefulness as a check on Iranian ambitions.

Fast-forward to today, Iran has never been in a stronger position for asymmetrical warfare. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Assad regime in Syria, and the all-too-powerful militias in Iraq are clients of the Tehran. Add to this the more recent Iranian overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Iran has an ability to project power from the Mediterranean all the way to the Arabian Sea.

Up to now, the Saudis and Iranians have refrained from direct military confrontation. But the devastating civil war underway in Yemen has brought these regional powerhouses closer than ever to an overt act of war.

Enormous body counts and vast destruction for all parties involved aren’t always sufficient impediments to war in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter.
Iran is said to be the primary backer of the Houthis, a rebel group that has overrun a large part of Yemen. The Saudis, meanwhile, are backing the Houthis’ opponents, the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. As part of that effort, the Saudis have engaged in an air campaign that, while largely ignored in the West, has been remorselessly destructive. Yemen is now both a war zone and a failed state that could bring the Iranians and the Saudis to blows.

It is most likely that we will not achieve peace in the Middle East in 2018. To the contrary, it will be a victory of sorts if we can make it through the next 12 months without seeing yet another major war erupts within the Islamic world.
In Syria, the government will continue to reconquering its territory, but will not be able to expand its control across the entire country.

There are four reasons for this.
First, regime opponents who have borne the brunt of the regime’s brutality for the past seven years know better than to throw themselves on its mercy now. In the past, they have treated government offers of amnesty with scorn. They will continue to do so.
Second, the government is too weak.

Third, the overwhelming majority of opposition groups within the confines of a single province. This indicates that they are local forces under the control of a local power broker. Having experienced the lighter hand of the government for the past six years, they are unlikely to willingly surrender their hard-won autonomy.

Finally, the Syrian civil war has been a proxy war with the West and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies supporting the opposition. While that aid will certainly decline as a result of donor fatigue and logistical problems, it will probably not end. As a result, the opposition will not surrender from sheer exhaustion.

Most likely, like Somalia, Syria will have an internationally recognized government and permanent representation at the United Nations. It will continue to issue and stamp passports and, if it so chooses will send a team to the Olympics. However, like the government of Somalia, the government of Syria will reign, not rule, over the entirety of its internationally recognized borders.

Going on Saudi Arabia’s ‘reforms’ may fizzle or survive, nobody knows. Saudi Arabia will continue to make reforms under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but those reforms will be purely cosmetic.

Although the crown prince has been portrayed as a reformer, it is important to remember that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, once played that role as well.
The crown prince will continue to try to consolidate power in his branch of the ruling family. So far, he has imprisoned other princes and economic elites on charges of corruption, while spending US$300 million on a house in France.

He has also taken power away from another pillar of the Saudi ruling group – the religious establishment. In fact, the so-called “loosening” of restrictions in Saudi Arabia – allowing women to drive, opening entertainment centers, stripping the religious police of the power to make arrests and promoting a “more moderate” Islam – are all aspects of his campaign to divest the religious establishment of its power and centralize power in the hands of his immediate family.

Only by releasing prisoners of conscience from Saudi jails and ending the barbaric war in Yemen can prove that crown prince is a true reformer.
The crown prince’s push to liberalize the Saudi economy may also fail. Two years ago he announced his “Vision 2030.” It includes a list of off-the-shelf neo-liberal recommendations intended to turn Saudi Arabia into a market economy within 14 years.

The implementation of Vision 2030 would mean ending a governmental tradition of buying the loyalty of Saudi citizens through subsidies and employment. It would mean ensuring a free flow of information in a country that, in 2017, Reporters without Borders ranked 168th of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

It would mean dramatically increasing female workforce participation from 22 percent to a stated goal of 30 percent – still well below the global norm of 49 percent – and adding 2.5 million private sector jobs. Finally, it means changing attitudes toward work in a country in which 11 million guest workers literally do all the heavy lifting.

But what about ISIS as a movement? Some IS fighters have already given up. They have tried to melt into local populations or return home, although they have met resistance from population’s vengeance and fearful foreign governments.

For the rest, there are two likely scenarios. First, since a significant number of IS fighters from Iraq, along with their leaders, joined IS because they harbored grievances against the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, it is entirely possible that they will continue to wage an insurgency against that government. This is just what the Taliban in Afghanistan did after the Americans overthrew their government.

Second, it is even more likely that former fighters and freelancers will continue their attacks globally, with or without organizational backing. The world is not lacking in gullible and disturbed individuals.

Nevertheless, because IS will lack a base from which to disseminate its sophisticated propaganda, and because the appeal of high-risk but ineffectual ideologies wane over time, so too will IS’ appeal.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and Israel are now in de facto alliance against Iran. The Palestinian issue has dropped by the wayside and another incentive for Israel to make peace has disappeared.

Down the road, the most important underreported crisis in the Middle East is the war in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia, with American support, is waging against an indigenous uprising. There is no end in sight.

The Saudis claim the Houthis – rebellious members of the dominant clan who live mainly in the north of that country – are Iranian proxies. The Saudis have thus entered the war on the side of a government that took power after a rigged “national dialogue” and an election won by the only candidate – a Saudi-supported candidate – allowed to run. The Houthi rebellion in fact began in 2004, long before the Saudis noticed Iranian conspiracies throughout the region.

The Saudis have engaged in a massive bombing campaign of civilian areas and have blockaded the ports of a country that is dependent on imports for 90 percent of its food. Yemen is the poorest Arab country. As a result of the Saudi campaign, which not only has killed 12,000 Yemenis but has kept a civil war going, 50,000 children faced starvation at the end of 2017. Between April and August 2017, 20,000 Yemenis died of cholera.

The United States supports the Saudi war effort. Yet, like Saudi Arabia, it accuses Iran of being the greatest purveyor of terrorism in the region.

Pakistan is going to see huge changes in 2018 with a structure of controlled democracy through coming election in 2018. Its main stake is on CPEC and China with making checks and balances on all its borders. This would result in great challenge for every institution in Pakistan creating chance for emergence of new leadership under some deals. But that leadership under controlled democracy suits US and Saudis in the region. Apart from its attraction for some people, negatively it would derail accountability structure further as has been done already in its 70 years history.
So with this scenario whole Middle East including Pakistan would remain under threats of strife and chaos in the near future.

The writer is the Chairman Centre of Advisory Services for Islamic Banking and Finance (CAIF), former Head of FSCD SBP, former Head of Research Arif Habib Investments and Member IFSB Task Force for development of Islamic Money Market, former Member of Access to Justice Fund Supreme Court of Pakistan.