A lesson And A Few RemindersMarch 12, 2010
The Saudis, in their national interest, can get into a tighter hug with Pakistan’ archenemy without fearing as much as a raised eyebrow in Islamabad, because Saudi Arabia is a giver and Pakistan is a taker
Imagine Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaking to the National Assembly of Pakistan and saying the following: “We seek cooperative relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Our objective is a permanent peace because we recognise that we are bound together by a shared future. If there is cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, vast opportunities will open up for trade travel and development that will create prosperity in both the countries and the Middle East as a whole. But to realise this vision, Saudi Arabia must act decisively and stop supporting terrorists who operate in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. If Saudi Arabia cooperates with Israel, there is no problem we cannot solve and we walk the extra mile to open up a new chapter in relations between our two countries.”
Even before anyone can say ‘go’, Pakistan shall have all its special economic and diplomatic privileges withdrawn by the illustrious Kingdom, and its entire civil and military leadership summarily summoned and lined up in the King’s court for an explanation and apology. Admitted, Saudi-India relations cannot be equated with the Pakistan-Israel equation, which diplomatically does not exist. But seen from the security point of view, India is to Pakistan what Israel is to Saudi Arabia — a lingering, permanent danger, whose core intent is hostile, whose propaganda is relentless and actions are exceedingly provocative.
Yet, the entire Saudi Majlis al Shoura intently listened to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s usual refrain about Pakistan’s non-cooperation in the field of terrorism, implying this was the main hurdle to peace and prosperity in South Asia. The perfect hosts graciously overlooked the fact that the honourable guest was in gentle violation of the third country rule (no one country’s soil can be used against another country for propaganda), and that he could perhaps have avoided mentioning Pakistan directly while illustrating his vision. But then it would have been silly to put in a tedious spot the representative of a country with whom Saudi Arabia has forged strategic ties, produced by decades of hard diplomatic work, and which now span the varied fields of defence, security, technology, science education and a dozen other areas.
Also, Saudi relations with India are not subject to Delhi passing the Pakistan test. With a burgeoning bilateral trade of over $ 25 billion, Saudi oil sales to Delhi touching $ 3 billion, plus an expatriate community nearing two million set their bilateral relationship on a footing that is self-sustaining and impervious to extraneous considerations. We should not forget that in 2006 the Saudi King Abdullah came to Delhi as a special guest on the country’s Republic Day, which the Kashmiris mark as a black day. There he described India as his second home.
In 2010, the title bestowed on the visiting Indian delegation was “our dearest friends”. Quite naturally, besides inking various agreements, the two were in line with the Riyadh Declaration, issued at the end of the visit: both “discussed the situation in Afghanistan” and found themselves in complete harmony over the road to stability in that broken country, including protecting the people of Afghanistan from “exploitation by the terrorist organisations…” This detailed reference to Afghanistan is seemingly benign, but the two paragraphs do endorse India’s say in Afghanistan — something that Pakistan is completely opposed to.
What does the visit mean for Islamabad? One easy-to-understand lesson, and a few timely reminders. The lesson is that Delhi is pulling its full diplomatic weight to establish an outreach in areas where Islamabad traditionally had an edge. Delhi’s relations with Iran, its presence in Afghanistan and its deepening engagement with China now have a thickening layer of diplomatic initiative on the Saudi front. This throws a ring of soft offensive around Pakistan’s immediate and important zone of influence. In all the friendly capitals, the battle for the hearts and minds is now going to get tougher for Pakistan. India’s defence spending increases, military purchases and its visceral vileness is one part of the challenge facing Pakistan, the other is the expansive nature of India’s proactive, forward-leaning diplomacy that it is increasingly being used to build a case for its stance on terrorism and Pakistan’s role in it.
And now the reminders. One is that the age of ideology in foreign policy is long over. While much of Pakistan’s worldview has become pretty down-to-earth and is immersed in hardcore realism, the hangover of being part of the Ummah continues to hover around like a patch of bad cloud. The visit’s various facets tell us that co-religionists can be perfectly incompatible in the alliances they forge in pursuit of their national interests and there is nothing wrong with this.
The other reminder is that when these interests converge, countries come together, and when these diverge, countries move away from each other. There is no lifelong bonding to any one country, nor can one be beholden to the other.
The third reminder is that economic power is the real foreign policy pedestal of countries. Those who are economically sound can have greater foreign policy room to manoeuvre. Besides size, the one thing going for India in its foreign policy is the state of its economy, which, in turn, is related to the quality of leadership and a national vision projected over decades. With money in its pocket, and glory on its mind, Delhi is capable of heightening its diplomatic surge.
Conversely, this is precisely the reason Pakistan is struggling. It is cash-strapped and is led by a floundering pack. The Saudis, in their national interest, can get into a tighter hug with Pakistan’ archenemy without fearing as much as a raised eyebrow in Islamabad, because Saudi Arabia is a giver and Pakistan is a taker. Oil has made one rich. Its rulers have made the other dole-dependent. And dependence, we know, is a super-stripper of dignity, a destroyer of self-esteem, and a breaker of spines. It ties your hands to your feet and hurtles you down in the abyss of choices that are none better than the other.
Foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics, the economy included. A country that is domestically disturbed can, at best, put up a brave face abroad and not wince when its friends make friends with its enemies. And that is exactly what Pakistan is doing in response to Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia.