On Sunday, 24 Nov, a significant trilateral “commercial” meeting took place in Tehran involving Iran, Turkey & Qatar. The next day, in Riyadh in contrast to the Tehran meeting, in the full glare of the world media, a meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) Defence Ministers took place.
The meeting in Riyadh was quickly dubbed the “Arab NATO” as it comprised about 40 countries that have a dominant Sunni Muslim population. However it is neither quite Arab nor an alliance. The steel frame of the alliance is founded on Pakistan whose recently retired army chief heads the alliance’s military forces- mainly Saudi with chip ins from the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, & Oman. No Pak military troops have been involved as yet. Saudi has long been seen as the Chief Financier & incubator of “Islamic Terrorists” who were nurtured, trained & indoctrinated in SA funded Madrassas mostly in the NW & Punjab regions of Pakistan. Of late, both these countries face a predicament, in that the birds have come home to roost & both find themselves under intense international pressure following the US led “war on terror” gaining renewed impetus under the Trump Administration in Washington.
Both countries are also under significant economic stress. With foreign exchange reserves rapidly declining in SA due to falling oil prices there is also an ongoing struggle for ascendency within the SA royal family that has assumed an uncharacteristically vicious nature with over 200 influential people including perceived royal rivals being detained recently in Riyadh in an anti-corruption drive led by the Crown Prince Mohd bin Salman, son the present Saudi King. Pakistan has suffered steep cuts in US aid & its newly reaffirmed links with old friend.
Deep seated social tensions in both countries have also unsettled the ruling elites in both countries. In SA the long standing understanding between the SA Royals & a deeply conservative clergy that had long lent legitimacy to the rulers is now under strain producing demands for “reform” that the young Crown Prince is attempting. In Pakistan also the long simmering tensions between its “deep state” (Armed Forces & ISI) and the civilian elected govt in Islamabad have recently boiled over with the abrupt removal of the PM on corruption charges by the courts as well as the more recent stand- off between religious extremists wherein the civilian govt gave in to the demands of the radicals ostensibly in a peace deal brokered directly by the Army Chief.
SA is also facing a complicated situation externally. A Shi’ite empowerment in Iraq, a quicksand in Yemen, defeat in Syria, loss to Hezbollah in Lebanon, volatility in the oil market and above all a reluctance on the part of the US to fully back up the Saudi Royals as before in any domestic upheaval. It must also be remembered, that the SE portions of the Kingdom, the oil rich provinces also house SA’s Shia minority. There is no direct external threat to SA. How effective will the IMCTC will be in countering an internal threat to the regime? Also how many of the IMCTC countries would go to war in defence of the Saudi Royals? for further details https://imctc.org/English
In simple words, the SA regime has resorted to its old ploy of throwing money at a problem to shoo it away. The IMCTC will not be able to save the house of Saud if push comes to shove for internal or external reasons. The IMCTC gives a false sense of security & reminds one of the extravagant show put on by the late Shah of Iran in 1971 to celebrate the 2500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State of Iran in Persepolis, even as the enemy was at the gates of Tehran to sweep away his dynasty into the dustbin of history. In contrast the low key affair in Tehran where Iran Turkey & Qatar struck a deal will impact local & international security. The agreement provides for secure routes to ship goods into & out of Qatar. This signifies Qatar’s defiance of SA leadership role in the ME with the open support from Turkey & Iran. It also undermines the GCC since Iran shares cordial relations with Kuwait & Oman In addition the Turkey-Russia-Iran understanding over Syria & Lebanon gives Iran confidence to stand up to US-Israel bullying. Iran is not isolated in any sense. The commercial cooperation between Qatar & Iran will also have profound impact on the global gas based energy market. Russia, Iran & Qatar together account for over 55% of the world Gas reserves.
Iran has had a history of out-smarting the Saudi Royals in the past through quick thinking & adroit diplomacy. That seems to be repeating. Fundamentally, the Turkey-Iran-Qatar alliance supported by the Russia-Syria-Lebanon coalition has re set the ME balance of power by openly challenging SA’s hitherto unchallenged role. This has forced Pakistan also to relook at its stated position with the ME Sunni powers. India also has to move smartly in an area where it already enjoys much good will cutting across the religious divides.
Col B R Nair retired from the Army Intelligence Corps in 2004. In his service of over 30 years he has led Military Intelligence operations in various conflict zones like Mizoram, Tripura & other parts of the NE, J&K and Sri Lanka where our armed forces were involved.
He can be reached on email@example.com