Saudi bailout & jihad as a foreign policy tool

Pakistan’s finance minister has proudly announced that a friendly country has deposited $1.5 billion in our reserves and more is likely to follow. The impact of this cash injection has been the stabilisation of the rupee and its dramatic appreciation in the past few days. This may prove to be good for arresting inflationary trends and decreasing energy prices. However, the underpinnings of this generous assistance are lesser known. Usually, bilateral agreements operate under a legal framework and there is a semblance of transparency. However, this case remains mysterious thus far. The government needs to tell parliament and the people as towhat the deal with the friendly government entails. Recent developments on our foreign policy  “hostage to worn-out doctrines” may provide some clues.

In recent weeks, there have been high-profile visits of Saudi officials and the joint statement issued on the visit of Deputy Prime Minister Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, in February 2014, indicated a shift in Pakistan’s approach to the ongoing Syrian crisis. Discarding the earlier policy stance, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, in addition to the usual diplomatic platitudes, agreed on the formation of transitional governing body with full executive powers enabling it to take charge of the affairs of the country. This, essentially, means the ouster of the Assad regime.

States choose their positions and set relationships based on what is perceived as a ‘national interest’. In the case of post-1971 truncated Pakistan, national interest was set by the populist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with a vision of unifying the Ummah and rhetorical anti-imperialism. With the ouster of Bhutto in 1977, the military adopted his policy architecture and added ‘jihad’ as a central pillar. Since then, we have had an uninterrupted penchant for jihad and to create demand for it, popular education and narratives were reset on why it was necessary to support or in the least, tolerate the semi-private jihadi infrastructure.

The events of 9/11 came as a rupture to Pakistan’s policy environment and there were substantial reversals to the jihad policy as well. But in Afghanistan, the reliance on the Taliban as a just and friendly force continues to inform the way we look at the post-Nato region. Such has been the acceptability of jihad that the offshoots of the Afghan Taliban, i.e., their Pakistani counterparts, are now widely considered as legitimate stakeholders in the country. A new battleground, Syria, has emerged where Pakistan is considered a potential player, in the old US-Saudi-Pak triumvirate.

A recent story in the Gulf News, which was later denied, stated that Saudi Arabia was seeking anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to aid the Syrian rebels. Another statement from the head of the Syrian opposition announced that new arms would be arriving soon. It would be unfair to assume that this story is true unless there is official confirmation from our side. However, given our history and the foreign policy matrix, this may just fall into the realm of possibility.

For decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy has ignored the imperatives of regional cooperation due to the ‘threat’ from India. The relationship with China is hardly economic in nature and suits the purposes of the national security apparatus. Energy deficiency has cost us losses in GDP and the need to buy expensive oil to run power plants has resulted in chronic stagflation. Yet, we have almost ended the Iran pipeline project that could have been a rational response to the energy crisis at home.

Trading with India is also stalled and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was cited by the UK’s The Guardian, (February 13) that security agencies in Pakistan were opposing the PML-N’s quest to open trade with India. Sharif’s office issued denials but the message had been sent across. It might be useful to remind Pakistan’s elite that China and Taiwan trade goods and services worth $200 billion. Similarly, India and China’s trade volume is close to $70 billion per annum. On the other hand, we are stuck with military cooperation, bailouts and fighting the bogeys we have created for ourselves.

Whatever hope one had for the Sharif Administration to reset foreign policy goals is waning fast. Pakistan faces a unique situation in the region, where Iran, the US, Afghanistan, India and the Central Asian states are fast converging on common interests. Given the besieged civilian government, it is unlikely that the foreign policy ambitions and priorities will change, at least not in the short term. We are an ideological state after all.

Published in Express Tribune as ‘Our increasing reserves’

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