Why should Pakistan observe neutrality when it can dominate the political discourse in the Middle East?

Published: July 5, 2017

If Pakistan really wants to play a leading role in the Muslim world, then it should aim to assert its military hegemony by preventing the Iranian and Saudi Arabian militaries from fighting each other.

The Gulf States have an existential reason to not make their armies strong because if they do, it would mean that the heads – quite literally – of the various kings, princes and other royals would be on the line.

Enter the United States (US) armed forces and the 600,000 strong land, sea and air forces of their strongest Muslim ally, Pakistan. While the presence of the US armed forces is known by all and sundry, a lesser known piece of information is how crucial Pakistan is to the precarious balance of power and peace in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia sees the Pakistani Army as the defender of the last resort. It is not for nothing that merely two months into his tenure, General Qamar Javed Bajwa assured the Saudis that the,

“Pakistan Army holds defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) at a par with its own.”

Such a statement would never come in support of Iran of course.

The only impetus for Pakistan to get the atomic bomb was that India had started conducting nuclear tests of its own. Similarly, shouldn’t the Saudi leadership have aggressively pursued nuclear technology after the success of the now disbanded Iranian nuclear program? They should have, but the answer is that they already have nuclear weapons; Pakistan’s arsenal stands at ready for the Saudis whenever the need arises.

There are rumours, unsubstantiated and unverified however, that in the case of an Iranian first strike, Pakistan would not hesitate in directing its missiles towards its Shia neighbour. It goes without saying that the Pakistani establishment clearly prefers Saudi Arabia over Iran in the Middle Eastern cold war.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states take Pakistan’s support for granted, to the extent that the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) minister of state for foreign affairs lashed out at Pakistan two years ago because our Parliament had the temerity to declare Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict. I concur with the state minister. Pakistan should not play a neutral role in the Middle East. Rather it should dominate the political discourse in the Middle East.

In the face of weak Arab forces, Pakistan has the physical and armed capacity to dictate policy outcomes in the Middle East. It does not matter if we opt for neutrality in the Middle East or support the Iranian camp or the Saudi camp. What is important is that our foreign policy be assertive. Much like the Americans, we should station our forces in various bases in the Middle East. While we do not have the economic clout that the Americans have, we do have the military muscle and wherewithal to out manoeuvre and maim whichever Arab or Iranian forces want to challenge us.

Despite our relatively greater military strength, our diplomatic policy has always been one of subservience to the Arab monarchs. That is true even for the period before their massive increase in wealth and leapfrog in economic growth.

Even though Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – one marvel of an airline in the 60s – established Middle Eastern airlines such as Etihad, Emirates, Saudi Air et al, and even though we not only trained Arab armies in the 60s and 70s, but also participated in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, we have always seen ourselves as somewhat inferior to the Arabs and shied away from playing a more dominant role in Middle Eastern politics.

Even with our Iranian neighbours, our posture has been very pliant, whether it is the Shah in power or Iran post-Ruhollah Khomeini. Friendly relations do not imply that Iran fire mortars deep into Pakistan’s Balochistan territory.

If Pakistan really wants to play a leading role in the Muslim world, then it should aim to assert its military hegemony by preventing the Iranian and Saudi Arabian militaries from fighting each other; or by breaking the back of the Houthi rebels. It can also stringently ask Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to improve their ties with Qatar. Thus, the government’s acceptance of retired General Raheel Sharif’s appointment as Chief of the Islamic Military Alliance is a step in the right direction.

I know that in the current scenario where Pakistan is cash starved and the army is engaged on multiple fronts against militants merely to assure the survival of the Pakistani state, it smacks of naiveté to suggest that Pakistan play a bigger role.

However, I daresay, what is wrong in suggesting that the Pakistani state – or the Pakistani Army leadership in other words – should look outwards rather than inwards, or that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) plan schemes of outward domination rather than merely tapping the phones of harmless politiciansSaudi Arabia and Iran would also benefit immensely from our increased assertive role in the wider Persian-Arab region; there would be a thaw in their acrimonious relations.

Shajeel Zaidi

Shajeel Zaidi

The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics. He tweets as @shajboi (twitter.com/shajboi) and can also be found on Instagram as shajboi (www.instagram.com/shajboi/)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • SamZedd

    Yeah sure go ahead and do get involved in a war with Iran, I dare you all.
    Either you guys really don’t under 21st century warfare, or you guys are born retards.
    There is no point in stating ,you Pakistanis with a collective I.Q. Of 3 , that in case of a war with Iran you as a geographical entity will cease to exist. I pretty am sure you ppl won’t understand this because of your myopic views. Therefore go ahead & fire off your unwarranted and idiotic rants.
    Everyone’s waiting.

    BTW, I am an ex-pilot who flew for Pakistan before you all go crazy labeling stupidities.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Pakistan should work on demostic problems and stop sponsoring terror rather than pretending to be a super power ,something it will never becomeRecommend

  • Muhammad Junaid Jamshaid

    because money is not everything, some things are worth more than money.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    You should realize that there is great security in remaining neutral in regional or global disputes! All should recall what happened to the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922, greatly reduced to modern day Turkey) when it sided with Germany in the First World War, rather than remaining neutral!Recommend

  • Purna Tripathy

    write only when sober.Recommend

  • Saad Salman Zia

    I’m sorry but that sounds like an imperialist dream. That would make Pakistan no better than the other powers at play in the Middle Eastern discord.Recommend

  • peter pan

    Are you angry or just plain mad!!!!
    Pakistan already has bad relations with India , Afghanistan and now you want us to take on all the Arabs and the Iranians!!
    Do you not know that an army cannot fight on an empty stomach.Recommend

  • curious2

    Chest thumping article which implies strength/power which doesn’t exist. Pakistan can’t defeat it’s own terrorist so how is it going to eliminate the Houthi rebels? Neither Saudi Arabia or Iran is intimidated by Pakistan and it’s unlikely that Pakistan could coerce either country. Further – even if Pakistan had the military/economic/diplomatic clout – wheres the upside in getting in the middle of the Saudi/Iran dispute?Recommend

  • Ahmar

    //I know that in the current scenario where Pakistan is cash starved and the army is engaged on multiple fronts against militants merely to assure the survival of the Pakistani state, it smacks of naiveté to suggest that Pakistan play a bigger role.\

    Naivete is putting it mildly. More like sheer stupidity.

    The Pak army is involved on enough fronts on the east and Afghan border. You want our army to be stationed in Arab/Gulf countries and be more assertive.

    How do you suppose Iran would react if Pakistan acted as Saudi/GCC bodyguard? I can imagine them increasing their border guard along Balochistan and siding with India in case there is a Pak-India conflict.

    And how would Saudi’s react if we started “telling them” how they should run foreign policy or stop trying to spread their influence in Yemen, Iraq and Syria?

    You seem to have a very high perception of Pakistan’s military capabilityRecommend

  • powayman

    Still haven’t figured out why acting like a bully and threatening either Saudi Arabia or Iran gains anything for Pakistan. I also don’t believe that either Saudi Arabia or Iran would be intimidated by Pakistan – big army doesn’t necessarily mean you can project power.

    I suppose it’s easy to threaten military power when your sitting comfortably at USA College?Recommend

  • Osama

    Shajeel Zaidi, couldn’t have said it better! As the only nuclear Islamic state, we must snatch the lead of the Islamic world from the squabbling gang of Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Our far-sighted leader Quaid-e-Azam would have been ashamed to see us still stuck in the South Asian shoe box. Our Ideology of Pakistan is a global heritage of mankind and that is what we must fight to turn it into. If old Pakistanis are too chicken-hearted to aim high, at least the bright young Pakistani shaheens must have this goal clearly in their sights.Recommend

  • Minaa Abdul Mannan

    I strongly disagree with the notion that Pakistan should deploy forces at the various middle eastern bases. Our armed forces are already engrossed with fighting off various threats within the boundary of our dear homeland. Our economy is already crippled under heavy debts. The true need of the hour is to fight the various noxious demons such as unemployment, lack of quality education and poverty. Only a country which is strong from within can adopt any vehement stance on the foreign front.Recommend

  • Tom

    pakistan armed forces were beaten by India in #4 wars and pakistan along with all the muslim warriors were beaten by Israel in 3 more wars… and pakistan air ways started all the Middle east Airlines, what a story you pakistanis tell,Recommend

  • Fahim

    Pakistan should realize its and using our military strength to bring stability in middle east and north African countriesRecommend

  • Vikramaditya Shakari

    This is one of the worst analysis seen in the Express Tribune. Pakistan is today unable to deal with its own internal problems, related to both security and economy. It is surrounded by three countries hostile to it. Arabs themselves view Pakistanis inferior. A much robust Iraq couldn’t do anything harm to Iran, and America would not tolerate shenanigans from any country in the Gulf, as the Iraqi experience proved. Recommend

  • ab

    Muslims were the sole super powers for centuries. when were the Hindus sole super power of the world or just super power.?Recommend

  • ab

    why did India quit the wars when it was winning?Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Iran and Saudi’s aside, its hilarious how Indians are quite intimidated by this article.Recommend

  • Adeel

    For God’s sake next before you try to pen down your immature dreams, please check on our gulf economic dependency in the form of man power, trade and the list goes on… not to mention india where exactly do you think, would be in such scenario? And wait a second you just compared yourself with the united states?. In short it was a nice attempt to atagonize almost everyone.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Pakistan wasn’t a super power and still isn’t.Arab Muslims may have been forceful in the past but look at your wahabi friends now,destroyed by IsisRecommend

  • Abdul Rehman

    Shajeel Zaidi you have explicitly highlighted, through numbers of instances, that the establishment of Pakistan is tilted to the Arabian States. You must know that Pakistan’s relationship with the Arab world, is and never was, at the cost of Iran. All the more mark is that, Pakistan have demanded Saudi Arabia to mandate Raheel Shareef, a role of intermediary, when it comes to its rift with Iran.
    Pakistan has always maintained brotherly ties with Iran. But what was and what is the response of Iran? How Iran has supported anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan? How Iran has allowed India to articulate its counter-Pakistan activities in Baluchistan? How much Iran has supported India over the Indian occupied Kashmir issue; now, it is only the Pakistan’s inclination to Gulf that Iran has supported Kashimris’ stance.
    Please, do not exaggerate that Pakistan has intentions to support Saudi Arabia, in case of Saudi-Iranian conflict. If Pakistan is that ardent to support anti-Iranian sentiments, do you know how many Iranian influenced Shiats are serving in atomic infrastructure of Pakistan? Is there any report or statistics that there is any sect based discrimination in Pakistan, during recruitment? How many Arabs are serving in Pak-Army and its nuclear sites?
    Pakistan has never craved to sit aside and making strategy on the rubble of brother countries’ conflicts, yet, it does not mean that Pakistan should not shuffle its cards, when it comes to its own threats and opportunitiesRecommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Arabs do not even consider Pakistanis as real Muslims. Let alone give them leadership role.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was a waste of time…….utterly immature view.Recommend

  • Asif

    Dumbest article ever published on here.Recommend

  • Gp65

    India does not covet other people’s land. In 1965 war stopped when Pakistan managed to get a ceasefire at a time that India had gained far more Pakistani land in Punjab than it had lost in Kashmir and its arms and ammunitions were dropping sharply. In 1971 war stopped when Pakistan surrendered unconditionally. In 1999 Pakistan declared unilateral ceasefire but India did not stop until it had reclaimed every inch of Indian land.Recommend

  • Seriously?

    .You were on the losing side. The invading armies found no resistance until they reached the Rajputs. What makes you so proud of a history which actually brings shame?Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Winning total war against Pakistan would mean that India would get Pakistan back! Why would any country want to be responsible for taking care of Pakistan?Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    All should search for the June 2017 pentagon report “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” to read how Pakistan is trying to “dominate the political discourse in the region” via terrorist proxies!Recommend

  • Fruck Off

    The kid has a point. Or maybe, a few.Recommend

  • Aman K. Chandran

    Thanks for a good laugh in the morning. Recommend

  • ab

    you, modi, Indian’s ,Israelis’s, Americans’s, Zionist all have obsession with us. there should be something special in Pakistan. Israel’s prime minister David ben gurion was afraid of Pakistan . you are killing Muslims everywhere but still you are afraid. why it is that?

    i will not keep replying the thread as i have other things to do unlike you.Recommend

  • Milind A

    You queue up in the front of American agencies and then curse America..Recommend

  • Milind A

    What a waste of time.. Compare this to Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s article few weeks back, wherein he advised Pakistan to steer clear of Middle east and focus on self development. That’s the kind of guidance Pakistan needs more… Peace with neighbours, resolving political issues politically, rather than military or terrorism.Recommend

  • ab

    plus our corrupt politicians begged.I know we are a mess (very much like you) but , it’s burhan wani’s sahadat anniversay today. good luck in Indian held Kashmir. Why do you people always act everything is good news in India?Recommend

  • rationalist

    LOL! A beggar wants to dominate those to whom he bows down to and begs for crumbs. By the way does this author know Pakistanis as perceived by the Arabs? Like inferior dirt!Recommend

  • Karsus

    Not even the US can really defeat terrorism, even with vastly greater resources.

    Militaries aren’t well suited to dealing with small and agile enemies. That would take a complete paradigm shift, and you’d need to be willing to lose tons of people.Recommend

  • Karsus

    Well, the Arabs considering non-Arabs (incl. non-Arab Muslims) inferior, is definitely true.Recommend

  • Karsus

    Military power is much less relevant than it once was (as long as you can keep your borders safe).

    Wars are also horrible wastes of money, that drain away from the future of one’s country.Recommend

  • Karsus

    Speaking in pure theory, power decides many things in people’s minds. The Turks of the Ottoman empire, not the most Arab lot either.

    However, Pakistan doesn’t have the kind of power needed to dominate.

    Much of Arab areas are really more under US influence. Trying to take economic and military control from the US, would be… Impossible.Recommend

  • Karsus

    That’s probably more akin to the standard relationship between the rich and the poor. Even if it is through oil money that they didn’t exactly earn, the Arabs have the power to make others move… For a while longer.Recommend

  • Karsus

    Pretty much all countries try to maintain their influence and security. It’s not exactly safe to let new systems form that give strength to forces that oppose you.

    However, it’s not easy… Thus the US bungling the Iraq war and accidentally creating the environment that gave birth to ISIS.

    Shaping another country’s future, isn’t something even the very rich and powerful can do well.Recommend

  • Karsus

    The ability to destroy something does not imply a superior moral quality.

    And Jinnah would hardly have favored an uncivilized future for his people.

    It’s not about the land you control, it’s about the quality of your people, and whether that is improving.

    Do you see how far China has advanced through their hard work and sacrifice?Recommend

  • Karsus

    Since Pakistan lacks the power to create stability, it would need to be asked to help and support Arab forces, on their terms, and towards their goals.Recommend