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marches to Saudi tune By Brian
Ties between Saudi Arabia and
Pakistan are long-standing but for the most part
have not stood out in the turbulent affairs of the
region. However, increased tensions with Iran, the
Arab Spring, and growing disenchantment with the
United States are making the relationship more
expansive, more prominent, and more dangerous.
The Saudis are supporting the Pakistani
army's militant client-groups, hiring its
soldiers, and seeking to benefit from the
country's nuclear weaponry. This is bringing
increased tensions with both Iran and the US - no
mean feat today given their adversarial positions.
Madrassas and elites Saudi Arabia, as is well known, has been
in Pakistan since at least the 1980s, when they
were veritable boot camps indoctrinating young men
to take up the fight against the Russians in
Afghanistan. Support continued after the Russians
left in 1989, and today the madrassas are the only
schooling available to most Pakistani boys.
Saudi funding has little influence on the
content of the schooling. That is shaped by the
indigenous Deobandi movement, which parallels the
Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, especially in
austerity, militancy, hatred for Shi'ism, and
hostility to the West. The Saudis do not seek to
win converts; they seek to win allies - the
generals and the Deobandi faithful.
Pakistani generals find the faithful to be
more enthusiastic participants in militant groups
than less pious and increasingly secular
Pakistanis. It is the pious who fervently support
the insurgency in India-administered Kashmir and
the suppression of Shi'ite and Christian groups at
home. Sunni zeal, both countries realize, can be
channeled into useful directions.
struggle with Iran Strains between Saudi
Arabia and Iran were held in check while the shah
was in power, as each figured in the US's "dual
pillars" program for Gulf security. Neither was a
major military power, but both were ambitious arms
purchasers. With the accession of Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini and his calls for Islamist
revolution under Iran's aegis, the two states
became bitter rivals.
The Saudi fear of
Iran is a veritable obsession. They see Iran as a
rising power determined to dominate the Gulf area
and establish a "Shi'ite Crescent" stretching into
Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis are determined to
prevent this by confronting Iran wherever
possible, including in Afghanistan where Iran is
tied to northern, non-Pashtun peoples.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan collaborated
with the US to fight the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan (1979), but their interests diverged
from those of the US after the Soviet withdrawal
(1989). In the chaotic aftermath, Pakistan turned
more directly to its Indian foe, and Saudi Arabia
to its Iranian foe. Both foes had appreciable
influence in the government then in Kabul.
Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Services
Intelligence - ISI) and Saudi counterparts
supported a coup led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - a
ruthless Pashtun warlord who fought his mujahideen
rivals as much as he fought the Russians. The coup
failed, in part due to US opposition, but
Hekmatyar remained available for other intrigues.
Saudi Arabia surreptitiously supports
Pakistan in its surreptitious support of Afghan
insurgents, though both efforts are becoming
increasingly apparent. Various insurgent groups -
the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar), and the
Haqqanis - are fighting Western forces, but are
being groomed for continued service against other
countries, including Iran.
not share Saudi Arabia's overt hostility to Iran,
but its cooperation with Riyadh may lead to
increased hostility from Iran. This will be
especially so if ISI and Saudi counterparts
continue backing the Jundullah - a Baloch
separatist group responsible for terrorist
bombings in southeastern Iran.
distance from the US Pakistan was irked
when the US abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet
Union left. The sanctions imposed by the US when
Pakistan developed nuclear weapons were resented
as an affront to an ally since the early days of
the Cold War. The US intermittently sees the need
for democracy in the land, and much to the
Pakistani generals' irritation the US is now in
one of those intermittent periods.
Saudi-US relations are reaching new lows.
Riyadh was keenly disappointed four years ago when
Washington backed away from military threats
against Iran's nuclear program and refused to aid
Israel's preparations for a pre-emptive strike.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an imminent danger; the
US is daunted by Iran's ability to retaliate in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf.
Saudis are gravely alarmed over the Arab Spring
and outraged that the US pressed for president
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down. Saudi Arabia
has embarked on a program of supporting
authoritarian rule in Syria, Yemen, and most
notably Bahrain, where Saudi troops brutally
suppressed calls for reform.
see autocracy as an appropriate and religiously
sanctioned form of government and one essential to
their security. The US has intermittently seen
autocracy as unjust but now sees it as an outmoded
and doddering institution foredoomed to fall
throughout the region.
The Saudis warned
the US not to oust Saddam as it would bring to
power a Shi'ite majority beholden to Iran. Iraq's
new army, now rid of its Sunni commanders, will be
predominantly Shi'ite and allied with Iran's
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - a partnership
that goes back to the insurgency against the US
and even to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Indeed, the Saudis fear that Iran is
directing a Shi'ite resurgence across the region
and will soon brandish nuclear weapons.
Exasperated with the US, Saudi Arabia is building
ties with Sunni states and peoples - increasingly
by hiring their soldiers.
cooperation Pakistan, though overwhelmingly
Sunni, has millions of Shi'ites. Pakistan does not
offer a precise percentage but Western
intelligence estimates say 20%, or about 34
Pakistan's lack of candor
on its Shi'ite population betokens official
concern that the Shi'ites are disloyal and look to
the Iranian ayatollahs - a concern that after the
Iranian revolution of 1979 led to the ISI's
organization, in conjunction with the Deobandis,
the Sipah-i-Sahaba militant group charged with
intimidating the country's Shi'ites (and the
occasional Christian as well).
most Saudi men has entailed a good deal of leisure
and privilege - the result of oil wealth flowing
into the kingdom. Almost effortless prosperity has
left Saudi boys with outlooks inconducive to
military discipline and incompatible with the
extreme rigors that extended combat imposes.
It is not for nothing that the
hardscrabble fields of Sparta and Prussia brought
forth powerful armies, or that the soldiers from
the tough lands of North Vietnam prevailed over
those from the more prosperous South, or that US
combat troops today come far more from
working-class backgrounds than from affluent ones.
The Saudis recognize this and saw it in
their less-than-remarkable performance in the
First Gulf War of 1991 and before that in the
inability to retake Mecca after the 1979 uprising.
There are concerns that tribal discontent might
spread into the national guard, which comprises
numerous tribal militias the likes of which (the
Ikhwan) rose against Abdul Aziz - a distant event
but one with lasting concerns.
service has been part of the lives of young men in
the Pakistani Punjab at least since the British
East India Company set up indigenous forces 200
years ago. It was Punjabi soldiers who later
became the backbone of the British imperial army
and who served Britain in both world wars.
Soldiering for foreign powers, then, is an honored
are no longer chiefly found in Pashtun regions in
the northwest. They have proliferated in the
Punjab in recent years and are becoming boot camps
indoctrinating young men to take up the fight
against Shi'ism and other enemies of Saudi