March 29, 2014

OBAMA YATRA & THE HOLY LAND: My Opinion just before the visit

Filed under: Uncategorized — sharafs @ 7:12 am


This gesture has many meanings

This gesture has many meanings

The instrumentalism of springs and autumns has taken a toll on US-Saudi relations. When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this month, no amount of briefs and dossiers will be enough to prepare him for the challenges facing him. The Saudis will demonstrate their mistrust and lack of confidence in his leadership. Strong bonds with Israel and architecture of nuclear diplomacy with Iran will weigh heavily on his pep talk. With just two legs, he will have to perform a balancing act between three centres of power in the region. Israel, the most trusted ally and an outpost of US interests in the region; Saudi Arabia, edging to define its dominating role; and an emerging Iran, high on the priority list of the State Department. In the backdrop will be the successive waves of springs become autumns, influx of battle hardy militants in Syria and Iraq, and the growls and grunts of a Russian bear awakening from its hibernation. A globalised and shrunk world, though economically feasible also means that the ripples of localised conflicts travel at lightning speed to all corners complicating politics. In a primordial Arab world, fractures run deeper than technology can fathom.

Though Middle East and West Asia mean the same, the names suggest a gulf of differences between the Arabs, Persians and many religions and ethnicities that inhibit this region. First, the Middle East connotation relates to origin of Abrahamic religions within the Arab ethnicity. This reflects a mind-set of superiority ably demonstrated by oil rich Arab kingdoms, the only bastions of dictatorial rule. Secondly, Western Asia is considered a Eurocentric term disliked by Arabs. It represents an era when countries like Turkey and Persia through trade and proximity were more relevant to British imperialism than the very poor Bedouins yet to benefit from the rich resources of oil. However to Americans sitting across the Atlantic, the Arab world with Israel in centre, extending towards Central Asia was more in proximity and hence the term Middle East. Now they too have awoken to European reality.

Arab-Persian rivalry is deep rooted in history that successive Muslim Caliphates failed to quell. The mutual rivalries crisscross amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions such as Manichaeism, Yezidi, Druze and Yarsan in Arab lands, and Mandeanism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, and the Bahá’í Faith in Persian areas. The ethnic groups in the region comprise Arabs, Turks, Persians, Balochs, Lurs, Mandeans, Tats, Jews, Kurds, Somalis, Assyrians, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Azeris, Maltese, Circassians, Greeks, Turcomans, Shabaks, Yazidis, Mandeans, Georgians, Roma, Gagauz, Mhallami and Samaritans. These diversities and their linkages complicate the sensitivity of the region, spread and coalesce in turmoil to create new dimensions.

The area despite being the centres of civilisations, religions and commerce has remained restive throughout history.  For almost three millennia, the region was ruled by one or two powerful states including, Asian and European based polities that included Assyrian, Babylonians, Achaemenids, Israelites, Seleucids, Parthians, Romans, Sassanid, Byzantines, the Pious, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates and Safavids. Post Great War, the stability in the region remained temporary and subject to outside powers filling the vacuum through local allies and changing geographies. The French and British in the past and Americans of recent provide artificial stability to this cradle of religion and civilisations.

Though the post Khomeini revolution isolated Iran, the spring policies also led to instability in Iraq and activation of Shia populations in Arab States. By 2014, Iran emerged from its isolation, militarily stronger and politically more credible. It has also strengthened its linkages with major Shia and ethnic groups in Middle East that irk Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. Its nuclear capability poses a direct threat to Israel. Combined, President Obama’s walk on the razors edge will be testing with unknowns. Aaron David Miller of Woodrow Wilson Centre sums up this dilemma by writing, “Conflicting interests and views concerning Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine have created big rifts in the relationship. Unless the President is prepared to alter his approach to these issues, and be more careful about what he says to journalists about supposed Saudi difficulties with accepting ‘change’, the best he can do is contain the damage. Even this won’t be easy.”

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been over taken by events. Uncertainty about the ‘oft on oft off’ visit added to the mystery. American suspicions of strong Saudi linkages with terrorists were addressed by Saudis through a series of royal decrees that denounced terrorism on one hand and banned Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Some analysts believe that strong Saudi backing to the military regime in Egypt and banning of Brotherhood did not auger well with USA. It was followed by a series of discreet counter allegations by Saudi Arabia and its propagandist media against the very personality of President Obama and his relatives. As a gesture of trust building, President Obama cancelled his combined meeting with heads of Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Qatar, a country supporting the Brotherhood. Either Saudi Arabia does not understand the limits of its leverage or it is prepared to go to any extent to pursue its interests in the region.

These developments cast doubts on the success of this visit. As written earlier, the purpose of this visit was primarily a redone Palestinian peace plan with Saudi approval in lieu for allowing Saudi Arabia a free hand for regime change in Syria. But events leading to this stuttering visit have complicated the situation. If the US intelligence assessments are correct, then Saudi Arabia has already embarked on limited defiance that could make Obama pliable. These include the high handedness against Brotherhood in Egypt, isolation of Qatar and fresh influx of Al Qaeda aligned militants in Syria.  It appears that diplomacy may be rocky and the meetings marred by anything from implied or direct implications.

But both sides seem unprepared to call the bluff. Policy differences will not result in a cut off. In all probability, the couple will fight over their differences, mutually ignore and agree to meet again. As Miller has commented, “Divorce isn’t an option. Couples therapy is unlikely to work. But mutual dependence will prove its mettle. The relationship will remain troubled but still at least clingingly functional in a region where that may be the new norm in America’s ties with all its Arab (and perhaps even its Israeli) allies.”

Pakistan and its rulers must stay away from the events in the country’s best interests.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson.

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