The rising power of the Gulf

Spearhead Analysis – 28.08.2015

By Moiz Agha
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pak-IranSeminal events are certainly taking place in the Middle East. For as long as one can remember Saudi Arabia has been the sentinel of the US in this region, toeing its diktats as one would follow Scripture. Notwithstanding this historically rooted bonhomie, it seems changes are in the offing. According to Forbes, a major bust looms large around the Saudi economy. With almost complete dependence on oil, fracking with its relatively extremely low levels of capital costs is believed to inflict dents of gargantuan proportions on the Saudi economy in the near future. Predatory pricing it is believed is only sustainable on a temporary basis, since in order to balance its budget Saudi Arabia needs to keep the price of a barrel of oil at $106. To make matters worse its major oil fields and petrochemical industries are situated in its Eastern provinces, inhabited by a disgruntled Shiite majority. IS has been targeting this minority, with attacks on mosques taking place several times over the past few months. The sentiments of the Shiites, who believe that the kingdom is not all that interested in providing them protection, were further inflamed by Saudi Arabia’s onslaught of air strikes against the Shias in Yemen. Numerous checkpoints in Shiite dominated towns like Qatif, designed to pre-empt the eruption of protests, in contrast to the relaxed security at Shiite mosques in mixed Sunni-Shiite cities in the Eastern Province, only reaffirms the Shiite beliefs that the state is little concerned about their security and more interested in ruling them with an iron fist. Hence unrest amongst the minorities seems to be brewing.

With signs of instability raising their heads in the Saudi kingdom, the US appears to be trying to balance its relations with other major players in the region. The most influential player in the region by far, that offers an image of stability and a huge potential in economic growth is that of Iran. The US has already agreed upon the Nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions seem imminent. The formerly autarkic economy of Iran will now find the markets of the world open for it. Though the sanctions are believed to be lifted in gradual steps, nonetheless a huge potential for growth lies ahead and it appears that Iran will in all probability become the strongest state, economically as well as militarily, in the Gulf. At a time when even the US is offering concessions to its former foe, perhaps in anticipation of the changes brewing in the Middle East, it is in the greater interest of Pakistan that it too should make all efforts to strengthen its ties with its south- western neighbour. The re-launching of the Quetta-Taftan railway link, in order to increase trade and connectivity was a positive step. A meeting between the ambassadors of the two nations is also being planned in order to sign an agreement which envisages the expansion of bilateral trade to USD 5 billion. Currently Pakistan’s exports from Iran amount to USD 43 million while imports are worth USD 186 million. All such developments do indeed augur well, but it would be in Pakistan’s interest if efforts on a larger scale are undertaken to further improve relations with the rising power. Interaction between the top echelons of the government of both states would for instance serve as a powerful gesture of strengthening relations.

 Pakistan has a lot to gain from Iran. Energy, security, communications and infrastructure are sectors where bilateral cooperation can immensely benefit both countries. Iran can play a pivotal role in overcoming Pakistan’s shortcomings in gas, oil and electricity. In addition to this, Pakistan already has a belligerent neighbour on its east with whom relations seem to become ever more hostile. Relations across the Durand Line also seem ambivalent, with intermittent cross firings taking place, despite attempts at reconciliation. Friendly relations with its neighbour across the Goldsmith Line seem imperative at this moment. Pakistan just cannot afford to have antagonistic relations all across its borders. Anti-Shi’a militants have it is believed taken refuge in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, using it as launching pad for attacks in Iran. Groups like Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl, have played havoc along the Pak-Iran border, resulting in cross border firings. Saudi Arabia has time and again been considered to be involved in the financing of such groups. It is known that they invested heavily in Salafi madrassas and mosques in Balochistan, particularly in districts running along the Pak-Iran border. The National Action Plan (NAP) which imposes a ban on terrorist groups and regulation of the madrassas has so far experienced little or no enforcement in these regions. There is an urgent need to control this sectarian violence and cut off all external and internal funding to such terror groups if Pakistan desires to achieve cordial relations with Iran in the future. Concurrently managing relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran will also require great tact and diplomacy for friendly gestures towards our Shia neighbours is bound to irk our Sunni friends. What is important is Pakistan should take into considerations its own economic and strategic interests, rather than pandering to any particular state’s behests. Pakistan has managed to control to a large extent, violence and terrorism in FATA and Karachi. It has also made attempts at normalizing and creating cordiality with Afghanistan. Perhaps the time has come when Pakistan should also concentrate on controlling terrorist elements in Baluchistan and make greater attempts at bolstering bilateral relations with the rising power of the Gulf.