Pakistan’s New Global Alignments

By Ashok Handoo

New Delhi, Sept 3, 2020 (Syndicate Features): Pakistan’s Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s latest rumblings have evoked huge controversy at home and abroad. His unusually harsh language against the country’s long-term patron, Saudi Arabia, has made Qureshi subject of intense criticism and condemnation. Participating in a TV discussion Qureshi warned Saudi Arabia that if, as the leader of the organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC, it continued to fail to call a meeting of foreign ministers of 57-member nations to deliberate on the Kashmir issue, Pakistan would call the meeting on its own. He went on to declare that Pakistan would no longer be able to wait indefinitely and would even ignore diplomatic niceties in this regard.

Already simmering after Imran Khan accepted in December 2019, an invitation from the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad to attend the Kuala Lumpur Assembly of Islamic countries, Qureshi’s statement was enough for Riyadh to retaliate. The fact that Imran Khan cancelled the Malaysia visit at the last moment made no difference. The Saudis not only refused to renew the 2018 agreement of deferred payment for $3.2 billion worth of oil, but also demanded repayment of one billion of the three billion dollar advanced to help Pakistan to tide over its fiscal hardships. Islamabad had to turn to its iron-friend China to provide it the money which it did, enabling Pakistan to repay the loan.

As a damage control measure, Pakistan sent its Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Riyadh but he and his ISI Chief Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed received a smart snub with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman refusing to give them an audience. Even his conveying Imran Khan’s regret could not melt the ice.

Saudi Arab has been coming to Pakistan’s rescue at every crisis the country has faced. It has also been providing financial support from time to time. The remittances by four million strong Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia have been a significant source of income for the perennially cash strapped Islamabad. Why did then Qureshi indulge in taunting the Saudis? Or was it a case of simple miscalculation? Or simply was he going by the script? Well turn of events show Qureshi broadsiding ended up as a self-inflicted wound for the land of the pure.

Considering the fact that Imran Khan had accepted the Mahathir invitation for the Kuala Lumpur Islamic conclave, seen as a rival to the OIC, Qureshi’s statements seem to be in line with the script.

Besides, Imran Khan also made a statement that China is the only friend which remained politically steadfast with Pakistan in good times and bad times. He also grandly stated Pakistan’s future stood with China.

It appears that Pakistan is under pressure from China to play a major role in snatching the leadership of the OIC from Saudi Arabia and hand it over to Turkey. This is notwithstanding the silence the Saudis and under their influence other OIC countries have adopted on Uighur issue. The aborted Kuala lumpur Islamic conclave was part of this grand strategy. It could serve China in two ways. One, since Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, weakening Saudi Arabia would in effect mean weakening the US itself. Second, it would give China greater access to the Islamic countries and widen its sphere of influence.

Having realized what Saudi Arabia’s annoyance would mean for Pakistan, Islamabad is now at pains to mend fences and deny any rift between the two. It has now been praising Saudi Arabia’s role in helping Pakistan in difficult times.

In the process, Pakistan is riding two horses as it has been doing in dealing with terrorism. It kept on providing safe havens to the terrorists and at the same time gave the world an impression that it was in the forefront of the war against terrorism. In the present case it wants to keep Saudi Arabia in good humour while playing a second fiddle to China in executing its mandate.

Now that it is tantalisingly close to FATF black list, the pitfalls of riding two horses should be visible to Pakistan. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. That is clear from foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi meeting with the Ambassador of Qatar in Islamabad on the very day Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was in Riyadh on a fence mending mission. Qatar is among the countries along with Malaysia, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia engaged in forming a parallel group to the OIC.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi has since visited Beijing for a fresh round of consultations and advisories. It is too early to predict what his visit had fetched for Pakistan. But one thing is clear. By taking yet another major leap towards China at the cost of its long-standing friendship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is putting all its eggs in one basket. Whether it is the right course to follow is for Islamabad to decide. But if it thinks that by doing so it can get Kashmir, the hope is quite misplaced. At the end of the day, every country is particular to safeguard its own interests rather than worry about other’s interests. Pakistan seems set to learn the lesson the hard way. (Syndicate Features)