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Pakistan-Saudi Spat: Hitting the Kingdom Where It Hurts

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A rift between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia throws into sharp relief deepening fissures in the Muslim world. Coupled with the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and a myriad of other conflicts in the Middle East, the dispute poses serious challenges to Saudi Arabia’s quest for geopolitical and religious leadership of the Muslim world.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi has stirred a regional hornet’s nest by challenging Saudi leadership of the Muslim world.

Complaining about lack of support of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that groups 57 Muslim-majority nations for Pakistan in its conflict with India over Kashmir, Mr. Qureishi suggested that his country would seek to rally support beyond the realm of the kingdom.

In doing so, Mr. Qureishi was hitting Saudi Arabia where it hurts most and at a particularly sensitive moment in the kingdom’s quest for religious and regional hegemony.

Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is seeking to counter Turkish and Iranian quests for dominance.

Mr. Qureishi threw down his gauntlet eight months after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan withdrew under Saudi pressure from participation in an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur convened by the kingdom’s rivals, including Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

Adding insult to injury, the Pakistani-Saudi spat evolved as the kingdom was coming under pressure to follow the UAE in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who stage managed the UAE-Israeli move, insisted shortly after the announcement of the diplomatic move that “it is an inevitability that Saudi Arabia and Israel will have fully normalized relations.”

The UAE-Israel agreement may not have taken Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank de jure off the table but could do so de facto.

Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that his plans, suspended as part of Israel’s deal with the UAE, would only be implemented with US endorsement. A UAE threat to rupture diplomatic relations if Israel were to move ahead would likely prevent the US from giving a green light.

Saudi Arabia, however, is certain to want a de jure rather than a de facto end to any prospect of annexation – a demand that is key to Palestinian re-engagement in efforts to end the conflict with Israel.

In a twist of irony, Arab News, the kingdom’s foremost English-language newspaper, this week celebrated Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, as “the pioneer in the establishment of friendly relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.”

Perceptions of that relationship have clearly changed over time.

“Pakistani elites have a bad habit of taking Saudi support for granted given what Saudi has done for Pakistan over the decades. Well the party is over, and Pakistan needs to deliver value to this relationship. It’s no longer a free lunch or a one-way street,” tweeted Ali Shihabi, a former banker and analyst who frequently echoes the kingdom’s view.

Following in the UAE’s footsteps without some resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is supported by Palestinians could magnify the challenge to Saudi leadership posed by its regional distractors.

Saudi Arabia fears that any challenge to its leadership could fuel demands that the kingdom sign over custodianship of Mecca and Medina to a pan-Islamic body.

The custodianship and Saudi Arabia’s image as a leader of the Muslim world is what persuaded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in the first place to reach out to Israel primarily to use that as well as his embrace of dialogue with Jewish and Christian groups to bolster his tarnished image in Washington and other Western capitals.

Pakistani persistence in its challenge of the kingdom is likely to persuade the UAE to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid by increasing pressure on the South Asian state. Like the kingdom, the UAE was quick to help ease Pakistan’s financial crisis shortly after Mr. Khan’s 2018 electoral victory

The UAE response would be driven less by solidarity with Saudi Arabia and more by its own geopolitical and religious soft power rivalry with Turkey and Iran, two countries that reacted vehemently to the Emirates’ recognition of Israel.

The criticism came as supporters of the move encouraged the UAE public to report critics to the public prosecutor’s office.

“If you see anyone (inside the UAE, citizens or expats) violating Emirati moral regulations such as promoting #antisemitism, disrespecting the UAE decisions or its leadership on social media – REPORT to Attorney General Office via official👇App of @UAE_PP,” tweeted Emirati businessman Hassan Sajwani (The tweet has been deleted since).

Prince Mohammed is likely to see Mr. Qureshi’s challenge as an attempt to exploit domestic Saudi sensitivities. For all his efforts to shift legitimization of the ruling family from religious to nationalist endorsement, he still feels that he needs clerical support for his at times controversial actions.

Saad Al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence operative who fled to Canada, charged in a recent lawsuit in a Washington court, that MbS had sought a fatwa or Islamic ruling justifying his assassination by a squad that included agents suspected of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia has denied the allegation, suggesting Mr. Al-Jabri had fled the kingdom to duck allegations of corruption.

Analysts believe that Mr. Al-Jabri was referring to an opinion issued weeks before Mr. Khashoggi’s killing by Saleh Al-Fawzan, one of the kingdom’s most prominent Salafi scholars known for his anti-Shiite views. The fatwa allegedly justified the killing of those who disobeyed the Saudi ruler but made no mention of Mr. Al-Jabri.

Subtle clerical resistance to the government’s handling of the pandemic highlights the sensitivity of Mr. Qureshi’s questioning of Saudi Arabia’s religious leadership.

The government has cracked down on religious figures who failed to toe the line of overall clerical support for its efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities reportedly arrested in March Sheikh Abdullah al-Saad, an Islamic scholar, after he posted online an audio clip criticizing the government for banning Friday prayers. Mr. Al-Saad argued that worshippers should be able to ask God for mercy.

An imam in Mecca was fired at about the same time after he expressed concern about the spread of the virus in Saudi prisons.

Mr. Al-Saad and the fired imam were believed to reflect a broader sentiment in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment that has largely been cowed into acquiescence and submission.

Scholars Genevieve Abdo and Nourhan Elnahla reported that the kingdom’s Council of Senior Clerics had initially drafted a fatwa describing the closing of mosques as a violation of Islamic principles. They said that government pressure had persuaded the council not to issue the opinion.

By targeting one of the Saudi Crown Prince’s greatest sensitivities, Mr. Qureshi hoped to persuade him that supporting Pakistan was in the kingdom’s interest.

Mr. Qureshi’s challenge may not do the trick, but it did get MbS’ attention.

Last week, the Saudi Crown Prince sent a plane to Pakistan to pick up Maulana Tahir Ashrafi and his family for a visit to the kingdom, according to well-placed Pakistani sources.

A prominent Pakistani cleric with close ties to the kingdom, Mr. Ashrafi arranged for a fence-mending trip to the kingdom by General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s powerful military commander.

The measure of General Bajwa’s success may be expressed in dollars and cents rather than in an official statement. Financially-strapped Pakistan has so far waited in vain for a response to a request for a delay on payments for Saudi oil imports.

Author’s note: This story was first published by Inside Arabia

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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Middle East

International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine

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Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))

In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.

The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.

The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).

The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.

On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.

We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.

The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.

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Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

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Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

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