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COAS, the Saudis and CPEC

Daily Times

OCTOBER 19, 2017

It may or may not be significant that the COAS stopped off in Saudi Arabia on his way back from the Muscat powwow on Afghanistan. And thought it may please certain elements to believe that this was nothing more than a sit down chat to discuss what to do about Nawaz, this likely wasn’t the case. More’s the pity.

Things are heating up in the Saudi backyard and here in ours, too. The Riyadh-led war of aggression in Yemen is still ongoing, as is the kingdom’s efforts to isolate and choke Qatar. Yet most importantly for Pakistan is the Saudi announcement that it plans to join CPEC. And it is here that we should tread carefully. For we both know full well that such a move has nothing to do with returning the favour of the three million or so Pakistanis, whom Riyadh claims are contributing to the kingdom’s economy; and who, in reality, are treated largely as cheap and disposable labour. No, CPEC is about profiting from trade routes in the scramble to ‘own’ the extended region’s natural resources.

Yet that is not all, at least not from the Saudis’ perspective. For them, it is about regional hegemony. And as a close US ally, it is about trying their best to make sure that Iran and Russia don’t get a free slice of the CPEC pie. The kingdom has long had its own battle with Tehran for Middle Eastern supremacy, one that Pakistan — home to the world’s second largest Shia population after Iran — has for the most part managed to avoid. Indeed, Islamabad has gone out of its way this year to repeatedly reassure Tehran of its commitment to brotherly ties given prevailing suspicions that the Saudi-led and US-backed Islamic Military Alliance is an anti-Shia bloc with a mandate to target Iran. Indeed, the question of Iranian proxies is what provoked Riyadh’s disproportionate attack on Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the world.

And then there is Russia. Whom the Taliban have said, in a move designed to taunt Donald Trump, is funding its war against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan by supplying them with free fuel. Here, too, it is in the American interest to counter Moscow, which has proved time and again to be on the wrong side of the fight against ISIS in Syria. Though, of course, President Putin, too, wants to see the terror group defeated. Indeed, he stole the show in Damascus when he secured a tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish agreement on final de-escalation zones last month. And in increasing recognition of Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East — Israel had a not so quiet word with it about not tolerating an Iranian presence in Syria; leaving Saudi Arabia well and truly out in the cold. In fact, it is now being said that the Russians are going the way of the Americans in terms of not pulling out. Meaning that Putin has done a deal with al-Assad, whereby he gets to keep his military airbase in Syria for the next 50 years or so. Not bad going. So, we can’t help but wonder whether the bromance with Trump was nothing but a summer jam, after all. And whether CPEC will be the next battleground as this Great Game enters into a new chapter.  *


Published in Daily Times, October 19th2017


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