New Saudi Ambitions Have Cost It The Leadership Of Muslim Countries
Churchill said it of Russia but in the current geopolitical environment in the Middle East, it is quite apt to repeat it about Saudi Arabia: that it is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in the recent past has been confusing, for lack of a better word. Gone are the days of King Faisal, when Saudi Arabia took the mantle of leadership of the Arab world from Nasserist Egypt, when in a show of solidarity with Syria and Egypt, Riyadh participated in imposing an oil embargo on t he United States and the West for their unequivocal support of Israel in the Arab-Israel conflict.
Lately, rather than asserting itself on the world stage in any sustainable way, it seems more interested in chasing and killing dissidents and pounding weak and vulnerable neighbours. The tools of this new Saudi assertiveness are as blunt and ineffective as they are merciles: be it military means in Yemen or diplomatic in the case of Qatar.
Another indicator of Saudi Arabia’s current foreign policy ineptitude is the Kingdom’s jealousy of President Erdogan of Turkey. Their paranoia of him vying for leadership of the Islamic world, has led Riyadh even to ignore its strategic partnership with Pakistan.
It is very well understood in the corridors of power in Saudi Arabia that Pakistan, especially in the era of Prime Minister Imran Khan, has a strategic obsession with Kashmir and will not let go of this issue until it is resolved for good. To pacify Pakistan, all that Saudi Arabia’s leadership needs to do is utter a few platitudes against Indian atrocities in Kashmir. Yet, they have failed to do even this much. They have also categorically rejected holding an Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) foreign ministers’ summit on the Kashmir issue. The UAE’s leadership has not fared any better. After the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir last year, rather than voice their objections, the UAE awarded Prime Minister Modi with the Order of Zayed – their highest civilian award!
In the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the thought process and decision-making at the highest echelons of power are geared towards one issue: economic considerations and financial incentives. These are now always given weight over all other foreign policy agendas. This was not such a simple equation in the days of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) led by leaders such as Nehru and Nasser, when the post-colonial Third World countries, while rejecting the dogmatic adoption of either capitalism or communism, put the greatest focus on uplifting the masses that they had power over.
In the Cold War era, foreign policy was dictated not only by economic considerations but also considered the countries’ moral agenda, their sense of nationalistic and religious pride. After the 1973 oil embargo, Saudi Arabia lost a large chunk of its oil market because the United States made being energy independent its cornerstone policy. Thus, King Faisal stopped sending oil to the United States, not for the sake of greater riches, but for strategic-ideological considerations of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism.
This is a different world that we live in, however.
After the ex-Indian President Abdul Kalam’s visit to UAE in 2003 and Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to India in 2006 where he signed the Delhi declaration, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pivoted more towards India and see any altercation between India and Pakistan as a nuisance to their long-term economic strategy. This is because both the countries have realized that since the demand for oil from the West is shrinking, India and China will constitute the bulk of demand for oil in the coming future. In fact, according to a report by the International Energy Agency, India is poised to overtake China in oil consumption by mid-century.
India, with a population of 1.3 billion and relative political stability, also offers great investment opportunities for wealthy Persian Gulf countries. These opportunities, from the perspective of the GCC monarchies, cannot be squandered over Kashmiri rights being violated – especially when they are able to ignore the atrocities being perpetrated in Arab Palestine, which is much closer than Kashmir in terms of language, geography and culture.
Ahsan Iqbal can tweet all he wants, but here is how matters stand: Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s interview to ARY and then the Foreign Office’s explanation to the media next day were not hasty moves. They were a deliberate and well-thought-out strategy that has the full backing of the country’s powerful security establishment. In December 2019, Imran Khan was stopped by the Saudi Crown Prince from attending the Kuala Lumpur Summit, which the Saudis viewed as an alternative to the OIC. In fact, the Pakistani PM appears to have been called to Riyadh and reprimanded by the Crown Prince.
Then, later the same month, the Saudi Foreign Minister visited Pakistan and assured its leadership that in return for Pakistan not going to the said summit, Saudi Arabia will convene an OIC Foreign Ministers’ meeting over Kashmir. This promise was not kept and amidst worsening relations between the two countries, Saudi Arabia recalled its $1 billion loan early. Pakistan then used Chinese money to pay off the Saudi loan.
This context is what prompted Foreign Minister Qureshi’s harsh reaction.
While the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have grand ambitions, the reality is that Saudi Arabia has stopped any pretense of demonstrating sympathy for Muslims whether they be Rohingya, Uighur, Palestinian or Kashmiri. And thus, because of its unabashed pursuit of economic gains over moral victories, the Kingdom has lost its stature in the Muslim world – with political and strategic consequences to follow.
The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics.