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Kashmir: A battleground for Middle Eastern rivals

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Thought that sectarianism was a pillar of the Saud Iranian rivalry? Think again, think Kashmir where the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry and Turkish ambitions cross sectarian lines.

With Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey competing for Indian Kashmiri hearts and minds, Iran and Turkey’s embrace of Kashmiri nationalism is winning them sympathy among both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

The two countries’ perception of Kashmiri aspirations as nationalist rather than religious gives them a fighting chance to counter long-standing Saudi influence in the troubled South Asian region.

The Kashmiri competition, like Kazakhstan where a Saudi-inspired apolitical and loyalist strand of ultra-conservative Islam has gained popularity, suggests that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has not given up on religion as a soft power too despite who seeking to root his legitimacy in newly found Saudi nationalism rather than the kingdom’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

Prince Mohammed, since coming to office in 2015, has significantly cut back on funding and converted the kingdom’s major funding vehicle, the World Muslim League, into a group that sings his praises and propagates tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

Nevertheless, the crown prince  views the promotion of Madkhalism, a particular Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and sees the kingdom as the model of Islamic governance as a way of countering Iranian activism and the notion of an Islamic republic that recognizes a degree of popular sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia invested an estimated US$100 billion in funding of religious seminaries, cultural and higher educational institutions, media organizations and in a handful of countries militant groups as part of a more than 40-year religiously cloaked, globally waged covert war with Iran.

More recently, Turkey has sought to lay claim to leadership of the Muslim world by funding mosques and other institutions across the globe and seizing up Islamic causes like Jerusalem.

The funding, coupled with diplomatic pressure, also aims to counter the far-flung, embattled empire of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of having staged a 2016 failed military coup.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s identification of Kashmir as a battleground points to the increased importance they attribute to South and by extension Central Asia.

In a twist of irony, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be embracing the Sufi Menzil sect, one of the largest and most powerful Sufi orders in Turkey, that is far more liberal than Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservatism but shares with Madkhalism a rejection of politics.

Menzil Sufis have filled vacancies in the government bureaucracy and security services created by Mr. Erdogan’s mass purge in the wake of the failed coup of alleged followers of Mr. Gulen, according to journalist Timur Soykan, who recently published a book on a more controversial Sufi order.

Like Madkhalis, Menzils, with a history of support for the Turkish state and its military, potentially could serve as anti-dotes to Iranian Shiites’ activism in places like Kashmir where Iran is targeting the Shiite minority who account for 15 percent of the region’s population.

Iran and Turkey’s emphasis on nationalism rather than religion compensates to some degree for Saudi Arabia’s first starter advantage, allowing Iran in particular to make significant inroads in Kashmir.

Portraits of Iran’s late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, loom large on billboards in Shiite neighbourhoods whose streets are named after Shiite martyrs. Saudi Arabia’s execution in 2016 of a prominent Shiite cleric sparked anti-Saudi protests in Kashmir.

Unlike Iran, Turkey, eager to expand economic cooperation with India, has restricted its focus in Kashmir to verbal support in international fora rather than the funding of mosques and/or schools. That has not stopped separatist groups from embracing Mr. Erdogan even if that doesn’t challenge Saudi influence on the ground.

Indian journalist Asit Jolly estimated as far back as 2011 that 15 percent of Kashmir’s population was  affiliated with some 700 Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative mosques. A Sufi organization put the figure ten times higher.

Ahl-e-Hadith, South Asia’s oldest Saudi-backed religious group, is believed to have funded some 150 schools, colleges, orphanages, clinics and medical diagnostic centres in Kashmir.

“Practically every village along the picturesque, poplar-lined, 60-km stretch northwest of Srinagar towards Gulmarg has one or more Ahl-e-Hadith-funded mosques. The new mosques and their attendant madrassas make for a contrasting picture with the hundreds of dilapidated mosques built over centuries in the age-old Sufi tradition,” Mr Jolly reported.

“The Wahhabi influence is not new to Kashmir as followers of this Islamic practice have been there since the last 100 years. But the phenomenal growth in their influence and their far and wide reach now can be attributed only to the funding the local ‘Ahle Hadith’ have got from Saudi Arabia in the last 30 years,” said an Indian intelligence official more recently.

Added analyst Abhinav Pandya: “Kashmir is becoming the ground zero for a new geopolitical race for influence: Iran and Turkey have deep, sometimes overlapping interests, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure a return on its financial and ideological investment… The question is whether these states…will weaponize those supporters in a future proxy conflict between themselves, or between separatists and India itself.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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