The Emerging Military Alliance between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi: What are the Implications for Islamabad?

In early December 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced the formation of a new military alliance that would oversee all aspects of strategic military, political and economic relations between the two countries. Just a week earlier, Riyadh had also witnessed the official launch of the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) under the command of former Pakistan Army Chief of Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif. If these two new alliances were not enough, KSA and the UAE also announced they would spend more than $100 million on the newly formed G5 Sahel force, which is aimed at countering terrorism in Western Africa. Historically speaking, KSA and the UAE have had no military involvement in West Africa, so this announcement raised some eyebrows. However, viewed from an American prism, KSA and the UAE may have been doing this in conjunction with American plans in the region. Even by 2017 standards, a year in which military diplomacy took on a new meaning with the arrival of Donald Trump, the UAE and KSA in particular have given forceful mediation a new meaning. The Pakistan army, which many academics argue has been the nuclear guarantor of security for both countries, seems to be phasing out its participation as Trump and his private enterprise take hold.  So how does the emerging independent Saudi–Emirati military partnership challenge Pakistan’s military relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? The answer probably lies between President Trumps’ policies and the Pakistani military distancing itself from a Saudi-specific foreign policy. The main reason for Pakistan distancing itself, albeit slightly, has been the possible domestic backlash from being perceived as KSA’s poodle.

During his bid for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump said that his Arab allies, and most notably KSA, had fleeced the American people for too long, and that they would need to take security in their own hands and pay the Americans far more to provide security to them. To be precise Trump’s exact words were that ‘Saudi Arabia wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for the Americans.’.  Since Trump has taken office, KSA and the UAE have led the assistance to Trump in carrying on America’s fight against terrorism in the Middle East. This also coincided with a renewed emphasis on the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood.  Trump came good on his promise and on his first major overseas visit, signed $350 million worth of arms deals and saying he had urged the Saudis to take the lead on ending terrorism in the Muslim world. Soon after the Riyadh summit, KSA and the UAE launched a total boycott and blockade on Qatar and demanded the rest of the Arab and Muslim world follow them. It is no secret that the Saudis and Emiratis were not happy with Qatar’s foreign policy; they had withdrawn their ambassadors in 2014.  The GCC had failed to be a cohesive unit for some time now; indeed, one can trace back to the first Gulf War when member states could not come up with a policy for how to tackle Saddam Hussein’s request for repayments to Iraq for the decade long war that Baghdad fought on behalf of the GCC against Iran. It led to the disastrous invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent deployment of American troops to protect KSA. This is what Donald Trump refers to when he says KSA would not exist without the Americans: this was the beginning of a complete reliance on the Americans for protection of the Gulf. Fast forward to 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq – KSA and the UAE were unable to mount any effective objections and the GCC more or less seized to be a cohesive military unit. The fall out of the Iraq war and the fragmentation of the major Arab states has meant that KSA and the UAE are now relying even more on American weapons and private military contractors to protect themselves. KSA has increasingly used private defence companies for their security and it has also been alleged that the latest round of arrests and torture had been planned and executed by American companies.  The UAE’s alliance with former Blackwater owner Eric Prince is well documented; it was Prince and a few hundred Australian, British and American mercenaries that have been running the Yemen war for Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zaid. It can be viewed as a failure on behalf of the UAE to coerce the Egyptian and Pakistani armies to fight on their behalf thus resulting in a close private partnership with Prince. It has also been disclosed that the Emiratis were campaigning on behalf of the young Saudi Crown Prince in DC so that a new military and geostrategic alliance could be formed. Eric Prince and the UAE also did diplomacy on behalf of Trump and the Russians: this also coincided with increased Emirate activity and the opening of military bases in the Horn of Africa, which is another Prince-UAE project. So the launch of the new African military alliance in West Africa with UAE and Saudi money is no surprise. This all fits in with Trump’s pre-election promise to make the Saudis and Arabs pay more for American services as well as fighting their own battles. So where does this leave the Pakistan army’s relationship with the Saudis and GCC more broadly?

A Pakistani general coming the helm of a Saudi-led alliance dubbed the ‘Islamic NATO’ was the culmination of more than three decades of Pakistan providing a security umbrella to the GCC. Pakistan was the second largest provider of troops in the coalition against Saddam in 1990; the Pakistanis at one point had almost 15,000 troops in KSA. Since then it has also provided thousands of soldiers to protect the Saudi-Iraq border and the Yemeni border. However since their refusal to actually fight in Yemen – the Saudis and the UAE became at one point became extremely suspicious and angry at Pakistan. Even General Raheel Sharif’s appointment was not what the Saudis thought it would be – he made it clear he would not make this coalition anti-Iran or against any particular sect. The current Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Bajwa has reached out to Iran, is furthering ties with Qatar and making sure Pakistan does not take side in either the Saudi-Qatar spat or Riyadh’s war with Tehran.  The Pakistan army under its new chief has made it clear to KSA and the GCC that it shall no longer fight or get involved in wars on their behalf. Indeed the last time was when the Pakistanis on behalf of KSA and the UAE suppressed thousands of unarmed protesters in Bahrain. Pakistan has thousands of soldiers in Bahrain as a protection force for the Bahrainis. However, under Bajwa, the Pakistanis are no longer willing to succumb to Saudi pressures and are increasingly attempting to balance relations with Arab militaries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Qatar. Saudi defense policy has always considered Pakistan an important component of its defence. However Pakistani refusal to fight wars on behalf of the UAE and KSA has meant that the newly formed IMCTC could practically be no more than a phantom alliance. Egypt has also refused to fight on behalf of the Saudis and the UAE in Yemen and Syria. Hence, this new military alliance between the UAE and KSA could be an admittance by the two countries that all their other military measures have failed and they are on their own with the support of Trump and his business cronies such as Eric Prince. However, the recent fragmentation of the GCC has a negligible impact on Pakistan’s military relations with the other countries in the bloc because the bloc was always de facto fragmented. And despite the Pakistan army’s reluctance to fight against Iran, the Saudis in particular still want to keep its military in Riyadh’s close orbit.  

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