Published in Pakistan Observer:

President Donald Trump, in the recently concluded, much debated and criticized, Arab-Islamic-American Summit has made a long term financial commitment to fuel sectarian hostilities in the Middle East. Even if it makes a lot of commercial sense for the United States with the creation of jobs, jobs, jobs for the Americans, it makes little political sense. The message that has gone to the world is appalling.

The so-called coalition against terrorism comes across as the culmination of Iran phobia, initiated in 2010 by Israel and Zionist lobbies in the US. This pounding of Iran phobia drums happened post the popular uprising in the Middle East. It also stroked the fears of the authoritarian regimes in the region, most prominent being Saudi Arabia. The thrust was that the sources of all evils is Iran. Patriot Defensive Missiles were deployed by the US in Kuwait, Qatar, U.A.E and Bahrain.

The paradigm shift in Donald Trump’s policies from hating all the Muslims to hating only Iran seems like a regression to that. His favorite line “radical Islamic terrorism” is also now just confined to Iran. The slave-holders of the past are now the ones who will deliver a terror free Middle East by using arms worth billions of dollars. The return of the US to its traditional Saudi-centered Middle East policy, is too flawed to fly. It’s not synched with present day realities of the region.

The present day Middle East is very different from the Middle East of the past. The ongoing civil wars, the rise of terrorist groups like IS, the inability of Saudi Arabia and its collaborators to defeat Yemen, inspite of using excessive force, the deteriorating situation in Syria, the glaring fact that US and Iran forces together have been fighting the IS in Iraq. And last but not least, the re-election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani in Iran, who is the architect of the landmark nuclear deal, the Iranian voter has endorsed his moderate stance and commitment to change, are the new realities. In fact, these are all the facts that stare in the face this Arab-Islamic Summit, which goes completely against these emerging new realities of the Middle East. It also endorses and strengthen the autocratic and suppressive rulers of the region, completely ignoring the reality of its people’s sentiments.

The flawed premise of unilateral focus on Iran to address issues of extremism and violence in the region will only encourage sectarian warfare and fuel insecurities amongst Muslim dominated countries, including Pakistan. But perhaps more importantly, the fight against terror will not only get diluted, it will actually facilitate networks like Al-Qaeda and IS in the region and beyond.

Moreover, unlike the Obama administration, that on more than one occasion had knocked Saudi Arabia on exporting radical Islam. President Trump has given Saudi Arabia a license to do more of the same. The message is that US is not interested in addressing the root causes of violent extremism, nor in reprimanding those responsible for it. The unprecedented flow of arms to Saudi Arabia endorses the use of force as a policy to suppress descent. The entire focus seems to be on military solutions. The name Arab NATO is self-explanatory of the thrust.

Iran cannot be completely absolved of fueling the politics of proxy wars in the region along sectarian lines. However, there are no parallels to what the Kingdom has been doing. The United States could have used this opportunity more even handedly, reigning in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The thrust to only contain Iran will further inflame the situation not just in the Middle East, but also in South Asia and Europe.

Pakistan’s Middle East policy had elements of objectivity when it refused to participate in the Yemen war. The parliament’s resolution not to get involved in the Middle Eastern conflict was hailed by all. However, the walk on the ground has been against it. We have been unable to clarify our position on Iran. In fact, post General Raheel Sharif’s appointment and this summit, Pakistan has once again placed itself inextricably in the Riyadh camp. The situation on the Iran-Pakistan border is also not very pretty.

Pakistan’s neither here nor there policy vis-à-vis Iran is as flawed as US policy to revert to the traditional pro-Saudi stance in the Middle East. For Pakistan, addressing issues of sectarian violence in the country which has claimed countless lives to-date and threatens to tear the fabric of Muslim unity in the country, peace in Afghanistan and making progress on China Pakistan Economic Corridor and its overall fight against violent extremism stands compromised because of its landing back into the Riyadh camp. All of this calls for a serious re-visit of policy.

President Trump got a business deal in return for his support to Saudi Arabia. He also sees it as a way of getting out of domestic trouble. Why did Pakistan become a party to the Iran-phobia paradigm, is the question. We only stand to lose. Capitals can be cultivated by doing appropriate diplomatic footwork, without compromising on national interests and making decisions that are short-sighted and counter-productive. All we got in return was embarrassment on the diplomatic front and isolation in our own region.

(Dr. Huma Baqai is an Associate Professor in Institute of Business Administration, Karachi in the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts)

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