Persian Gulf gets a provider of security

The visit by Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa to Islamabad on Tuesday is a defining moment in the Persian Gulf chapter of the unfolding 'Arab revolt'. He met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar and the main agenda naturally devolved upon the great fluidity in the security of the Persian Gulf region.

The visiting Foreign Minister brought a message from King Hamad expressing Bahrain's happiness over Pakistan's “principled stand” on the situation in his country – namely, the Shi'ite uprising for empowerment and the government crackdown on protestors with the help of the intervention forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, Pakistan has taken an unequivocal stance on the Bahrain crisis. (This is quite unlike the approach adopted by India, for instance, which is nuanced and which has adopted an ambivalent stance toward the “Arab revolt”. India has been vocal about the surge of democracy in Libya or Egypt but tends to be reticent about the Bahrain developments.) Zardari told the visiting Bahraini dignitary: “Pakistan desires peace, security, and stability in Bahrain. Pakistan… would not like its stability to be upset in any way. Pakistan believes that it would be dangerous for regional peace and stability if the system was destabilized one way or the other”. Bahrain has not heard this measure of support except from within the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and is mighty pleased.

Pakistani nationals are working as security personnel in Bahrain and the local government has a policy of offering such migrant workers from Sunni countries Bahraini citizenship. The Bahraini Shi'ites, on the other hand, perceive them as “mercenaries”. So far, 5 Pakistani nationals have been killed in Bahrain. The growing antipathy toward the Pakistanis among the Bahraini Shi'ites (who account for 70 percent of the population) doesn't seem to bother Islamabad. The Pakistani bottom line seems to be that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shi'ite empowerment to happen in neighbouring Bahrain and, therefore, it is a sound investment to make politically to be with the winning side.

Economically, too, Pakistan will be a beneficiary if the status quo is maintained as regards the Persian Gulf regimes. If the GCC countries can be encouraged to view Pakistan as a provider of security, that can have many fall outs such as new opportunities for Pakistani expatriate workers in those countries, favorable terms for oil supplies, economic assistance from the petrodollar GCC countries and a privileged position for Pakistan in its extended neighborhood to the west. Moreover, Pakistan will also be chipping in to shore up the US' strategic interests in the region. (The US' Fifth Fleet, for instance, is based in Bahrain.)

Saudi Arabia has virtually taken into its hands the entire responsibility – political, financial and military – of shoring up the regime in Manama. Conceivably, Bahrain Foreign Minister’s visit to Islamabad has been undertaken with prior consultation and coordination with Riyadh. The Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has also been visiting important regional and world capitals drumming up support for its intervention in Bahrain. Although Saudi-Pakistani relations have been, relatively speaking, passing through a cloudy patch lately, Pakistan had been forthright in expressing its support for the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. This wouldn’t have escaped the attention of the Saudi leadership, either. Thus, the crisis in Bahrain provides a context for refurbishing the traditionally strong Saudi-Pakistani fraternal ties as well. (This can have interesting fallouts on the Afghan situation with regard to the Pakistani agenda of reintegrating the Taliban insurgents into the mainstream politics and government in Kabul.)

The heart of the matter is that Pakistan has brushed aside ideological cobwebs and has allowed cold logic of self-interests to prevail in its thinking toward the “Arab revolt”. The point is, Islamabad has enjoyed close and friendly ties with the Arab oligarchies and is far from convinced how the spread of the democracy virus in the Persian Gulf region would serve its interests. As the Pakistani newspaper Dawn put it, “Pakistan has been supporting Bahrain`s monarchy during the `Arab Spring` that saw massive uprising in Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries and believes that democracy protests could upset the stability in the region.”

Pluses and minuses

It is an eminently logical, clear-cut stance that gives great comfort to the regimes in the Persian Gulf. Not many big countries in the international community – except, perhaps, China or Britain – would be in a position to adopt such a categorical stance upholding regional stability at all costs and equating it with the status quo in the political structures of the countries of the region. Pakistan seems to have factored in that it has placed itself in a privileged position as a provider-cum-guarantor of security to the Persian Gulf regimes.

Admittedly, Pakistan’s position is unique. It has a huge standing army, which is professional but also overwhelmingly comprises Sunni soldiers and officer corps who are observant Muslims. Pakistani army has a long tradition of assisting in the security of the regimes in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Most important, there is no other Muslim country today, which can mobilize the political will to provide security to the Persian Gulf regimes. Turkey can be a provider of security in the Muslim Middle East, but it simply won’t assume such a role, given the complicated backlog of Ottoman history. Again, Egypt could have been a provider of security but its army is bogged down in the serious business of navigating the country’s own democratic transition. And countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia or Indonesia do not “belong” to the Persian Gulf region as Pakistan does.

The Pakistani authorities are reportedly working on a blueprint to bolster “defence cooperation” with Bahrain. Dawn quoted a senior Pakistani officials who is privy to the matter as saying, “Prime Minister Gilani had a proposal ready with him to offer the Bahraini foreign minister recruitment of retired Pakistani military personnel in Bahraini defence forces, but such an opportunity did not arise as talks primarily focused on the larger picture and not the details.”

Dawn added: “Pakistan-Bahrain defence cooperation is already in a very good shape. Pakistan had helped Bahrain set up its naval forces and 18 per cent of the Gulf state`s air force comprises Pakistani personnel. It is estimated that almost 10,000 Pakistanis are serving in security services of Bahrain and one of the key demands of protesters seeking an end to the monarchy has been the removal of Pakistanis from Bahraini forces. Bahrain had in recent past expressed interest in procuring defence equipment from Pakistan and its National Guards are currently recruiting security personnel through Pakistani military`s welfare wings Fauji Foundation and Bahria Foundation.”

One country that is going to be mighty displeased with the sight of Islamabad wading into the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf at this crucial juncture in the geopolitics of the region will be Iran. Pakistan’s muscle play in Iran’s backyard – especially in blocking the Shi’ite aspirations for political and economic empowerment in Bahrain – runs diametrically opposite to what Tehran has been espousing, namely, the imperative need of regime changes and democratic transition in the neighboring Persian Gulf states. To be sure, Pakistan is taking a big gamble by wading into the Bahrain problem with its sectarian overtones that are already causing ripples in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait.

Iran’s displeasure or wrath toward Pakistan in this regard, however, will be more than offset by a sigh of relief on the part of an array of powerful states in the international community – United States and its western allies, in particular, apart of course from Israel – that also happen to share Islamabad’s penchant for the status quo devolving upon the “pro-West” Arab oligarchies in the region. But the western countries are caught on the horns of a dilemma: they espouse democratic reforms in principle and may enthusiastically prescribe it for Libya, Syria or Iran, but are apprehensive of the spectre of representative rule in the Persian Gulf region. In any case, except through proxies, it becomes problematic for them to intervene in Muslim countries. Even in Libya, western powers desperately needed a fig leaf of “Arab participation” in the military intervention.

Pakistan’s entry into the Persian Gulf security brings to the fore the centrality of the country in the US’ regional strategies. Despite the rapidly developing profile of US’ strategic partnership with India and notwithstanding the American rhetoric about India’s pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region, the hard geopolitical reality remains to be that it is Pakistan which is uniquely placed to subserve the US’ regional strategies in key areas such as Central Asia or West Asia.