Arab feud: Binary positions
In an address to the Congress on September 20, 2001, Former US President George W. Bush had famously said, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists", reducing the complexities and complicities of the past to narrow binaries. Similarly, the Pakistani enthusiasm on mediating in the recent Saudi-led fracas with Qatar, was met with an eerily familiar binary counter-question from King Salman, who asked Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, "Are you with us or Qatar"?
Often such over-simplistic and convenient binary logics of, 'either with them or with us', belie complex histories, existential fault lines and multiplicity of factors that ensure that such bravado is counter-productive in the long run. While kowtowing to both Riyadh and Doha is understandable for the Pakistani establishment, given the petro-doles from both the nations and also the personal equation of the Sharif family to the royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the House of Saud was responsible for bailing out the Sharif family post the Musharraf-led coup in 1999.
The more recent political crisis of 'Panamagate' corruption, is bed-rocked on a crucial letter sent by the Qatari Prince, to bail the beleaguered Sharif family. However, while that explains the ostensible neutrality of Islamabad, Riyadh is in no mood for rapprochement or counsel, least of all, from a country that it believes it can conveniently arm-twist into toeing its line. Sensing the heat of the moment, the Pakistanis quickly rubbished speculation on deploying troops in Qatar. Evidently, the financial muscle of the Saudi-led Arab bloc, the recent appointment of General Raheel Sharif as the head of Saudi-led IMAFAT (Islamic Military Alliance To Fight Terrorism) or even the services of the previous Pakistani spymaster, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who after heading the ISI, was bankrolled as the advisor to the UAE government, would ultimately force Pakistan to drop its neutrality and tilt in favour of the Saudi-led bloc.
But, no such binary clarity or coercion of the 'either with them or with us' line is expected to come from Saudi Arabia towards the Donald Trump administration, which, even after the Saudi-Qatar fracas, signed a letter of agreement with Doha for the sale of F-15 fighter planes worth $12 Billion. Irrespective of the intra-Arab disputes and intrigues, the US administration is an irreplaceable necessity for regime survival in all Sheikhdoms. Many US bases are dotting and protecting Saudi Arabia (including one for the UAV's/drones), with the mainstay at Riyadh Air Base that houses the Military Training Mission, components of the USMTM division of the US Air Force and the Extended Training Service Specialists. Whereas, the largest US military base in the Middle East region is in Qatar. The Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar houses an estimated 11,000 combatants at the 'nerve centre' of US Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) – the nodal base for providing command and control throughout the Syria-Iraq theatre and 18 other countries, including Afghanistan. With such strategic US deployments and investments and the reciprocal need by the ruling monarchies in both Riyadh and Doha, ensures that the US is conveniently spared the binaries of 'either with them or with us' line of clarification. The 'Arab Spring' was a rude wake-up call for the Sheikhdoms.
Arab royalties need critical protection by the presence of US military boots, from the radicalised Islamist organisations like the ISIS, as indeed, from the spectres of popular democratic uprisings that could upset the age-old applecart of the illiberal and undemocratic monarchies in the region. Amidst the intra-Arab intrigues, the US maintains neutrality and readily signs lucrative Defence Agreements with all – just like in the earlier times, when the US made weaponry in the hands of the Arab armies were ironically of the same make, as in the hands of its principal nemesis, Israel.
Such oversimplified binaries vitiate the environment in the Middle East, even further. The conflict needle has moved from the traditional positions of anti-Zionism (Israel versus the rest of the region), to sectarian angularities (Shia-Iran led block of Iraq, Syria and its proxies like the Hezbollah and Houthis, versus, the other Sunni-led countries), to the existential crisis amongst the established regimes from the hardline Islamist groups and forces of democracy – to the latest dimension, wherein, fractures emerged with Sunni Arab ranks in Doha, versus the other Sunni-regimes in the Middle East.
Traditionally, Middle East has suffered and succumbed for the poor comprehension and corrections of past acts of omissions and commissions by the various local dispensations (monarchies and dictators), puritanical ideologies, suppressed instincts and the undeniable complicity of the Western powers, which selectively ensured the status quo for its material-financial-energy considerations. Selective amnesia, alliances and dalliances with extremist elements have all contributed to the proverbial chickens from coming home to roost. While Saudi Arabia has a lot of unanswered questions about its role in financing extremist ideologies and infrastructure – it naively and conveniently accuses Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups.
In recent times, the cash-flush Qatar willy-nilly threatened the established order (hypocrisy?) by attempting to 'normalise' its expected hostility against Israel and Iran, encourage relative freedom of press via Al Jazeera, and bankroll its own set of regressive proxies in the region. This was met by unprecedented alacrity, ferocity and coercion of binaries. The fact is, all nations and stakeholders have much to answer for their previous and ongoing acts, however, for one to come completely clean could expose the historical wrongs, inaccuracies and excesses that could leave all these regimes, red-faced.
The message from the recent Arab fracas is clear i.e. complicate the already complicated but retain the 'established order', as is. For Donald Trump the thawing with Iran with the parting efforts of the previous Obama-regime too, tantamount to dangerously changing the 'established order' and risking, exposing the invested hypocrisies and inconsistencies. So, status quo is preferred and maintained, and the conflict is deliberately sustained and allowed to mutate further, even more dangerously.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retired) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal.