By the pricking of my thumb…


The Middle East cauldron heats up


Though the worst-case scenario has yet to appear in the Middle East (ME), events are hurtling towards a conflict having necessarily a sectarian overtone. Omens in this regard are many. The formation of the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) in December 2015 was the first sign while the recently held US-Arab Islamic Summit is the second one.


In Riyadh, the summit attended by the heads of US and about 50 Muslim countries – having Sunnis as their majority population – has made the intent of any such alliance clear. First, it may be generally against terrorism such as perpetrated by the Daesh but it is specifically against Iran. Second, the exclusion of Iran and other Shia dominant states of the ME (such as Syria) from both the IMA and the summit is not by chance but on purpose.


Interestingly, by holding the summit, both the US and Saudi Arabia were supposed to find out ways to “counter and prevent the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism around the globe through promoting tolerance and moderation” by “building more robust and effective security partnerships,” as per the summit’s official website, but the summit has ended with censuring Iran. It is apparent that the conclusion had already been drawn by both the US and Saudi Arabia; they did not bother to share their conclusion with the rest of the attendees before the summit. In other words, both the US and Saudi Arabia had already concluded that Iran was the real culprit and they just invited certain Muslim countries to announce the same. Both the US and Saudi Arabia safely assumed that the rest of the attendees including Pakistan would submit to the conclusion.


The operative part of the speech of US President Donald Trump could be this: “Terrorism has spread across the world, but the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land. America is prepared to stand with you, in pursuit of shared interests and common security… Muslims countries have to take the lead in the fight against terrorism…The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this evil for you. Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism, to meet history’s great test and conquer terrorism”. There is no problem with this statement. The problem lies somewhere else. That is, the US-Saudi Arabia trade deals amounting to 380 billion dollars and the defence deal amounting to 110 billion dollars were bilateral in nature. However, these deals were made at the summit to show case the strength of US-Arab (Sunni) collaboration against Iran. While it is known that both Saudi Arabia and Iran vie with each other for political domination in the ME, the summit has added the insidious tinge of sectarianism to the rivalry. This is the single most dangerous dimension of the summit.


By hosting the summit, Saudi Arabia has achieved three objectives. First, it has achieved the sense of leadership of Sunni Muslim states of the world. Second, it has aired a message to the US to take it seriously because most Muslim countries stand united under its banner. Third, it has tried to assert its supremacy over Iran in the ME affairs. Interestingly, the common thread connecting all the three messages is that Saudi Arabia counts on its allies mostly external to the ME.


By attending the summit, the US has also achieved three objectives. First. It has secured huge contracts worth billions of dollars for running its domestic manufacturing sectors (both arms and common utility industries), to reify the slogan of America First. Second, it has allayed the fears of most Muslim countries about the anti-Muslim stance of Trump during his election campaign in 2016. Third, by targeting Iran publicly, it has sent a portentous message to Russia supporting the Assad regime of Syria. However, the US has overlooked two important facts about the ME. First, the ME is one of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world. Instead of resolving the ME issue with engagement, the US has not only pleaded with the “nations of conscience” for the isolation of Iran but it has also pledged to pump more weapons into the region. Second, anti-US sentiments, which are already rife in the ME, have the potential for flaring up a populace against the other. Instead of intoning the chants of pacification, the US has driven a wedge between sectarian disagreements coinciding with political divergences in the ME.


Condemning Iran publicly by both the US and Saudi Arabia at one platform is not only unprecedented in recent history but it is also perilous. In response, driven by the ensuing sense of insecurity and smarting from rebuff, Iran is bound to do something to protect itself. There are two main choices left with Iran. First, Iran may ask Russia to offer it a comparable defence deal. Second, Iran may revisit its nuclear deal with the US. Both these choices, whether availed individually or collectively, have the potential for further destabilising the ME.


Unfortunately, the Daesh could not seek much denunciation. The summit has given the impression as if the Daesh were also a product of Iran’s shenanigans. In fact, at the summit, animus against Iran dwarfed the rest of the malaise. In this way, the summit has made two points clear to Pakistan. First, Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, and five thousand serving troops were hired for fighting primarily against Iran, as the Daesh could be handled by local forces. Second, Pakistan was not worthy of taking into confidence on the conclusion of the summit.


The summit has put Pakistan on the horns of a dilemma. That is, Pakistan’s engagement in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Pakistan’s involvement in the ME affairs offer paradox. Whereas the former is meant for peace and prosperity, the latter is meant for conflict and devastation. Auguries of the restiveness are more than the signs of peace. Any combat between Saudi Arabia and Iran is bound to do two things. First, it is bound to destabilise the ME and complicate its issues further. Second, it is bound to send the waves of sectarianism out of the ME engulfing Pakistan as well.


In short, whereas the summit has pitted one group of Muslim countries against the other, Pakistan is fast running out of time to decide whether or not it wants to continue with its participation in the ME affairs.