Chess board of Yemen by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

For quite some time now international media is reporting that there is a simmering conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance of Middle East. In this developing situation Pakistan got directly implicated when Saudi Arabian Ambassador to US announced that a coalition of 10 countries has been formed to intervene militarily in Yemen to deal with Houthi uprising. Before we comment on this specific situation it is important to understand that Persian and Arab struggle for dominance is almost 1400 years old.

During the reign of Khalifa Umar ibn Al-khattak (RATA) Islamic Empire expanded at the cost of neighboring Persian Empire. Present day Iraq and portions of Syria were part of the Persian Empire. Muslim forces defeated them which resulted in the influx of captured Persian slaves to the city of Medina which was the capital and seat of power. Persians despised Arabs because of their defeat and reluctantly accepted the rise of a new power. Abu Lulu, a slave of a Muslim master and the assassin of Khalifa Umar (RATA), was one of those people who arrived from Persian lands. Similarly one of the co-conspirator Hermuzin was a former governor of a Persian province and was assassinated by son of Umar as a revenge which created a difficult situation for new Khalifa Uthman (RATA). When a new political group Shian of Ali (friends of Ali) was formed it comprised a substantial numbers of Persian converts among its ranks. It was because of that reason that Khalifa Ali (RATAA) moved to Kufa in Iraq which was a former Persian province.

For next 600 years the seat of power toggled between Arabs and Persians in the Middle East until the emergence of Turkish Ottoman Empire. Since Ottoman’s controlled most of Arab Middle East and Persians struggled as a regional power there was not much of a competition. But in the 20th century most of these Arab lands got independence from their former colonial masters including French, Italian, British and Turks. The current struggle for dominance is the revival of an older struggle because now Arabs and Persians enjoy financial and military resources at their disposal. This conflict should not be viewed as a Shia-Sunni conflict but rather a historic Persian and Arab nationalist struggle. Saudi Arabia, as leader of Arabs, would prefer to have a defining moment of checking Persian rise in Yemen than anywhere else.

West has been promoting the idea of a Shia-Sunni conflict in all theaters of Middle East whether it is Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen. Western policy makers and media have been promoting this narrative relentlessly and they are succeeding in it. There are many reasons for adopting this narrative. First they consider Shia Islam to be more moderate and quite similar to Catholicism. Second most of the oil reserves are located in Shia dominated areas of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Third an internal conflict in Islam would reduce chances of a united front to challenge Western influence. But a major risk from this approach is that there is no Muslim country that is entirely Sunni or Shia. Coloring this conflict as a Shia-Sunni could result in civil wars in many of these countries that have non-representative form of government.

Iran and Saudi Arabia as leaders of Shia and Sunni sects respectively have not been helpful in preventing this perception to become an established fact. Iran which has almost 12-15% population as Sunnis do not have a single Sunni scholar in the central shura that works with the leader Ali Khamenei. Saudi Arabia on the other hand has been funding and promoting the intolerant Sunni Wahhabi school of thought. There have been reports that both these countries have been providing funding and weapons to militants as proxies to increase their influence. The crisis in Yemen is mostly an internal political issue but has been converted into a defining battle by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia should realize that any military intervention could destabilize their South Eastern regions of Asir, Narjan and Jizan which were forcefully annexed by her in 1934. These regions could become Crimea of Middle East and will have far reaching consequences. Another aspect that should worry Saudis is that there are around 4 million Yemeni migrant workers that might get anxious destabilize the country as the war anxiety spreads.

Egypt has long history of military intervention in Yemen on the Saudi side. In early 1960s Egypt contributed 70,000 soldiers to intervene. This time they are not just doing it for Saudi Arabia but also for Russia. Both Iran and Egypt are on opposite sides of this crisis but interestingly both are strategic partners of Russia. Russia has supported the Iranian position but did not prevent Egypt to Join Saudi coalition. So the question is what is Russian interest? The answer lies in price of oil. Gulf of Aden handle almost 40% of oil supplies passing through it as well as provide a major trade flow passing through Suez Canal. A crisis at the mouth of Gulf of Aden will result in rise in price of oil. On the first day of Saudi air strikes the price of oil rose by 6%. This will benefit Russia and Iran because their economies are dependent on it. China as a strategic partner of Russia and Iran would support their position rather than Saudi Arabia. But will prefer to remain neutral until the stakes are too high that it could become risky to her own economy.

Another interesting thing to note is that all members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have joined the Saudi coalition except Oman. Why is that? There could be multiple reasons for that. First Oman has emerged as a close ally of USA for back channel diplomacy. Secondly it has the presence of US bases. Thirdly it sits at the mouth of Persian Gulf which is the second most used channel for flow of oil. Creating crisis at both oil supply arteries has the potential to have ripple effect on world economy.

Turkey and Pakistan had the potential to lead diplomatic efforts but unwise statements from their leaders has resulted in a lost opportunity. President Erdogan has publicly supported the Saudi position while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is considered a close friend of Saudis and his statement to offer military resources if Saudi sovereignty is at risk will be looked down upon by Iran. Both Turkey and Pakistan have borders with Iran while none is a direct neighbor of Saudi Arabia. This could make Iran feel being encircled from all sides reducing any chances of fair diplomatic negotiations. Saudi Arabian fear that Iranian nuclear talks is risking balance of power can be contained by converting the negotiations from P5+1 to P8+1 including Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as members of the negotiations.

The crisis in Yemen is a local political issue and must not be escalated into a regional conflict through outside military intervention. Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia should lead diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions using the platform of OIC. The social media is buzz with the sentiment that Pakistan should not get involved in a military adventure that does not concern it directly but rather pursue a diplomatic course. But the government of PML N Nawaz Sharif seems to be making promises to Saudi’s that will be at the cost of Pakistan’s own national interest. If Iran is pushed to the wall they can become a source of funding for Baloch separatists as well as fan sectarian conflict in the country. Our focus should remain on dealing with our own internal issues of terrorism, sectarianism and extremism rather than get distracted by an international conflict.

Developing foreign policy position without considering its historical perspective can result in short sightedness. We must consider all factors before plunging our country into it.

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