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Friday, March 11, 2011

Turbulence in West Asia and its Impact on Pakistan - Part I

I would interrupt the series on the connivance of the Pakistani judiciary in strangulating the conduct of the 26/11 trial in Rawalpindi to discuss another serious issue, the escalating tension in West Asia.

The ongoing turbulence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait cannot but leave its imprint on the rest of the Islamic countries, especially the Land of the Purest otherwise known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Before delving into the reasons why there should be an impact on Pakistan, let us look into what is happening in these four West Asian countries and why, especially Saudi Arabia which is the most important country not only for the Muslims but also for the entire world because of its strategic fossil fuel resources. A little background on KSA would not therefore be out of place.

The collapse and the subsequent dismantling of the Ottoman Caliphate in the 1920s convulsed the entire Islamic world, a convulsion from which they have not sufficiently recovered to this day. It caused different probelms in different countries. It led to the violent partition of India a quarter century later and thus created permanent division among the people of Bharat that has left an enduring hostility in its wake. It led to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in West Asia and prominence of Wahhabism, whose reverberations are felt all over the world today emanating from the terrorist hub of Pakistan in the form of terrorist tanzeems of the Salafi, Wahhabi and Deobandi ideologies. The death of the Ottoman Empire also created an ambition among several nations and their leaders to claim the now vacant title of Caliphate and Caliph, including among many Muslims of India who were taken in by the 'idea of Pakistan', an idea fabricated by the British for their geostrategic reasons and implemented with the help of the Muslim elites of the Ganga-Jamuna belt who, in turn, wanted to protect their power and their personal interests.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest in every which way in West Asia and dwarfs the neighbours in geographical, military, economic, political and demographical size and importance. Besides, it hosts the two holiest shrines for Muslims all over the world, Makkah-al-Mukarramah and Medinah-al-Munawarrah, so much so that the King of KSA prefers to call himself as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Some say that it was more to pre-empt the Hashemite King of Jordan from claiming this title, a title to which the Jordanian King is more legitimate than any King of KSA, he having been the ruler of the Hejaz area of modern-day KSA. In circa 1924, Abdul Aziz al Saud accused King Sharif Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan of having allowed the infidel British Christian army to have set its foot on the holy land of Hejaz, an accusation history would be a witness to repetition by a certain Osama bin Laden against Abdul Aziz's son, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, almost seven decades later. In between these two, there was another incident in c. 1979, when the Saudi King, this time King Khaled, a half-brother of King Fahd, had to seek the services of the elite French counter-terrorism forces to evict Saudi dissidents who did the most unthinkable act of seizing the Kaabah in Makkah and holding it for a fortnight. This time, King Khaled, decreed the Christians as Ahl-e-Kitab (People of the Book) and hence worthy of being sought out for help !

The Kings of Saudi Arabia have always ruled that country with an iron hand in collusion with the clerics. Dissent is not tolerated and nipped in the very bud while non-Sunni-Hanafi Muslims in general and non-Muslims in particular are treated worse than cattle on their way to a butcher's shop. KSA also gives asylum to scoundrels like Idi Amin of Uganda (since dead) and Ben Ali of Tunisia. Pakistan's own Nawaz Sharif and his family were extradited to Jeddah, the port city on the west coast which is the gateway to Makkah and a one-time capital of KSA, for almost eight years as part of a treaty brokered by the Saudi King with Gen. Musharraf. The Saudi royalty buys out opposition because of its deep pockets, as King Abdullah has decided to do now also with a generous announcement of USD 37 Billion package for social upliftment, and simultaneously banning all public demonstrations. How much of this generosity will actually reach the Shi'a of the Eastern province is a moot point.

A small digression here is worthwhile, I thought. The ongoing protests in KSA brought forth memories of a similar protest in the capital city of Riyadh during the time of the Gulf War in 1990. It was early November and the lovely winter was approaching. War preparations were in full swing all over the Kingdom and foreign jornalists had descended en masse there to cover the approaching war. CNN was just then becoming popular though there were very few satellite receivers in the Kingdom itself, a place where viewing TV was considered immoral and a game of Chess is officially banned even to this day (because the King is eventually checkmated !). For the American journalists, a visit to Saudi Arabia must have come off as a great shock because of the number of things that were prohibited in that country ! For example, a woman has to be completely covered in a black loose-fitting garb called abhayya except for the face (no such concession for a Saudi woman who can only reveal her eyes), a woman cannot drive, a woman cannot be seen in the company of a man unrelated to her as a mahram, a woman can work only in certain professions (like a teacher in a girls' school or as a nurse for women patients etc), a woman cannot travel without explicit permission from her husband or father etc. A group of Saudi women used the opportunity to highlight their plight through some helpful foreign journalists and drove their cars, in protest, from near the Old Airport (which was an American Airbase where several AWACS could be seen on the tarmac all the time, from the Al Mathar Road in Sulaymaniyah Distt.) to the Government offices. The much dreaded Muttawwa (Religious Police for the Propagation of Virtues and Prevention of Vices) did not know how to handle the situation. For one, they were not used to their women folk dissenting in public and for the other the foreign journalists were watching the unfolding events. Ultimately, they forced the husbands of these women to stop them and took both husbands and wives to the police station for interrogation. The husbands were threatened with dire consequences if they did not stop their wives from undertaking such perilous activities against the King. Some of the husbands lost their jobs and had to spend a long time under the scanner of the Istikhabarat, the dreaded secret services. Anyway, that protest ended soon thereafter though it created a ripple that took a long time to die down.

Then there was a cartoon from a famous cartoonist who depicted how shabbily the Shi'a-dominated Eastern Provinces (Al-Khobar, Dhahran, Al-Qatif, Jubail etc.) were treated while Riyadh was being lavished with the money minted from the oil fields of the Eastern province. The Persian Gulf coast of these West Asian countries is dominated by the Shi'as, from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Anyway, the presence of American troops on the sands of the Holy land incensed a lot of people in the Arab and West Asian countries. Many felt that the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussain was their own internal matter that did not need American intervention, even as the Kuwaiti royalty was ensconsced in the salubrious mountains of Al Taif situated in the Sarawat mountain range near Makkah. The then Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Aslam Beg, also voiced a similar opinion. Osama bin Laden, of the famous and rich bin Laden family (of Yemeni origin) and which is quite close the Royalty, openly expressed his displeasure for letting the infidel Army enter the Holy Land. He had to be ultimately thrown out of the Kingdom, stripped of his citizenhip. His family inserted advertisements in local newspapers condemning and disowning him. Osama bin Laden took refuge in the impoverished Sudan, where an Islamist regime of Hassan al-Turabi welcomed him. He would later take down the Al Khobar Towers, a building where US servicemen stayed, killing several American soldiers.

(... To Be Continued ...)

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