Inexperience, volatility, ambition and unrestrained power are elements that have come together in an equation of disaster

When it comes to triggering manmade disasters among people, there is hardly any difference between a monarchy and a democracy. However, while monarchy does it by royal right and the imperatives of imperial power, democracy does it on nebulous principles. That makes the imminent or ongoing rigour more sufferable but no less painful. While democracies have pretensions about the rule of law, human rights and being the elected voice of the people, kingdoms normally have no such reservations when it comes to royal indignation or an impolite divergence from the royal pleasure or preference. Were it not for the assassination of the archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, World War I would not have taken place. Imperial Austro-Hungarian dignity was hurt. That hurt turned out to be worthier than millions of lives lost, cities obliterated and countries destroyed.
Then comes World War II, a dreadful monument to savagery, mass extermination and unprecedented destruction of life and property to right the wrong suffered by leading democracies. This war also had the dubious distinction of letting loose the ultimate destructiveness of the nuclear holocaust. The world and regional powers, in the name of democratic principles, have devastated vast territories and annihilated very large populations. Afghanistan, Somalia, North Africa, Sudan and, finally, the cauldron of Syria/Iraq are but a few examples. It is instructive how some established democracies manufactured false intelligence as a leading pretext to invade Iraq. It is equally amazing how the US and its allies refused to regard the very basic lessons of Afghanistan’s military history before invading that country in anger. As a result, they have created a terrible mess, larger than ever before, for themselves and for the people of the region itself. No amount of diplomatic sharpshooting, strategic posturing or sublime negotiating skills, including the size of their purse, is going to help them carry their dignity intact out of this horrible destroyer of invaders called Afghanistan.
On a much smaller but nevertheless equally destructive scale, the Saudi Kingdom in the Middle East has chosen to confront Iran in the barren battlefields of Yemen. Yemen is a country that is a prisoner of its geography. “Geography is destiny,” as Robert D Kaplan says in The Ends of the Earth but let me add, “History is how it unfolds; however, the benefits are not guaranteed.” Madagascar and Oman reaped the fruits of their opportune location on the world’s major sea trade route between east and west for thousands of years but, with the Suez Canal, their honeymoon with destiny ended abruptly, reducing them to mere mentions in the sea’s travelogues and adventurer’s memoirs. Yemen had the opportune geographical location to benefit from this man-made change in the sea route.
The Red Sea became the world’s chosen watery highway and Aden the mighty port of call and strategic control. From a small time midway fishing port, Aden and Yemen were suddenly catapulted to the global stage, a transformation this essentially inward looking country and its limited commercial, social and military capacities could neither absorb nor handle. It was duly colonised and turned into an imperial naval bastion. On the other end of this trade highway, Egypt, having the privilege of managing competing interests of empires since the times of the Pharaohs, fared better but continues to grapple with attendant issues ever since.
Other countries and people along the Red Sea coasts were accidental beneficiaries of this floating bonanza but generally kept away from the unfolding global maritime struggle for supremacy over this vital sea route. A new and more unsettling phenomenon then occurred, again in the same region, which qualitatively altered the contours of strategic balance and regional alliances: oil. Ever since 1929, oil politics have tended to dominate global power manoeuvres where three countries out of this huge oil basin have continued to occupy centre stage: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Iraq has been effectively decimated into a burning island of instability. That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran to practice their mutually destructive art of ethnic rivalry and sectarian caprice, which is pulling the Muslim world into this huge black hole through the irresistible power of their petro dollars and ornate sectarian obstinacy. Sloppy control over purse strings and wild runs by their overzealous clergy were to give a horrible twist to this rivalry epitomised by al Qaeda, reactive but equally belligerent Shia militias in the Shia arch around Saudi Arabia and, finally, the most vicious of them all, Islamic State (IS). With the Houthis, backed by Iran, having ousted the Saudi-friendly government in Yemen, the worst Saudi fears seem to have come true.
This was a particularly inauspicious time for the Houthi adventure for two reasons. One, that the Houthis, like the Janjavids in Sudan, al Shabaab in Somalia, IS in Iraq or Boko Haram in Nigeria, are utterly incapable of handling responsibilities of national power and interacting constructively with fellow countries, being absolutely unacceptable state ideologies. Second, a momentous change in Saudi rulership occurred as Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz became the king earlier this year. His physical condition forced him to nominate his young son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as the all important defence minister, second vice regent and deputy prime minister besides many other important portfolios. He is regarded as the most powerful spark in the Saudi court and is the locomotive behind all his father’s policies. Experienced, senior Saudi princes were made to relinquish important ministries; they could have exercised a sobering influence over the youthful defence minister just as the Houthis in Yemen began their successful rebellion.
Inexperience, volatility, ambition and unrestrained power are elements that have come together in an equation of disaster. Saudi Arabia’s defence minister is just that and much more. He carries with him the insufferable arrogance of a royal brat and a strong indiscretion to bad mouth countries and entire people. It is open to question if he has had the occasion to face the business end of a gun, fired a shot in anger or handled any force in battle. This young colt is pushing the region into a bush war whose consequences he is quite incapable of assessing or controlling. However, he is the architect of a sputtering Saudi invasion of Yemen, which is turning out to be such an embarrassment for the might of the powerful Saudi military. As a matter of fact, their call for the Pakistan armed forces to join in the patchy invasion right in the beginning spoke of a serious military shortcoming and absence of determination to engage in serious fighting inside Yemen.
It is hard to understand where they got this unlikely idea of requisitioning Pakistani forces to fight against the Houthis in Yemen, a conflict that was never initiated with any consultation with Pakistan and in which our national interests do not appear to be served. No nation in the world would have entered a battle just for its sake let alone for another state just because it happens to be their royal pleasure. Strangely, this time, Pakistan had to not only contend with the organ grinder himself but also his little tweeting monkey. Personal equations based on gratitude for a favour done are very shaky foundations for building relations between nations. Responsible and wise national leaderships always keep national interest uppermost. Pakistan, as a friend, must insist that Saudi Arabia call off this misadventure and resort to diplomacy to resolve the badly knotted situation in Yemen.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan army and can be reached at clay.potter@hotmail.com

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