Saudi reforms: The realpolitik of change

Saudi reforms are a way to preserve its political order

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

April 9, 2018

The global media has been abuzz with the pace of reforms in Saudi Arabia. And rightly so. After all the country has come a long way. From being the world’s only country to bar women from driving, it has now even made abaya, a loose-fitting robe that covers a woman’s body, optional. The country’s gender-segregation rules have eased dramatically. Once restricted to public-sector jobs, women can now even join the military. The percentage of Saudi women in the workforce — 22 — is now slightly less than India’s 27 per cent. A woman is helming the first fashion show in April that will bring top international designers to Saudi Arabia, which was until recently one of the world’s most restrictive countries for women.

On the face of it, the feverish reforms look extraordinary. But they may not look so if seen in the backdrop of pragmatism Saudi rulers have followed since al Saud family patriarch Abdul Aziz founded the country in 1932. The kingdom was built with the West’s help on the ruins of the Ottoman Caliphate, whose caliph was considered as the global Muslim religious head. The threats to the Caliph’s sanctity had triggered the Khilafat movement in India.

Nothing illustrates Saudi realpolitik more than its deep ties with the US. The relationship survived the American betrayal of Arabs with Israel’s creation in Palestine with the US help in 1948. The betrayal counted for little in view of the protection the alliance with the US offered from rival Hashemite tribe in exchange for concessions offered to American oil corporations. By 1960s, the alliance was elevated to a level just below that of the Almighty. Crown prince, who took over as the king a year later, is reported to have told US ambassador Parker T Hart in 1963 that “after Allah we trust America”.

Common foes – secular Arab nationalists and Communism – cemented the ties. Use of Islam as a political and strategic tool became par for the course. President Dwright D Eisenhower assigned the Saudi king role of Islamic pope in the 1950s. The legacy injected the poison of sectarianism that was exported at a great human cost to counter the 1979 Iranian revolution. To cap it all, the promotion of a perverse form of jihad in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it unleashed nihilistic forces that continue to extract a heavy toll on Afghans, who are reaping the bitter fruits of the millions of dollars Saudis poured into the anti-Communist campaign. A large part of this money was used for preparing textbooks with violent imagery to radicalise a generation of impressionable young men.

The chicken came home to roost for the Americans in September 2001 and the so-called Islamic State (IS) reared its ugly head next door for Saudis in Iraq in 2014. The developments underscored the hydra-headed monster their adventures abroad had created. The IS’s rise has played a part in the Saudi course correction while it has more to do with ensuring stability and order the Saudi rulers have always put a premium on.

Conservatism was the state policy when the situation demanded so. The rulers have shifted their ground because it is in the interest of the maintenance of political order. The dipping oil prices have hurt the economy and affected the allocation of funds for welfare schemes and patronage, which have played a key role in the ensuring political status quo. Rentier economy is no longer viable, it must diversify to end the dependence on oil and keep the welfare schemes going.

Reforms are the key to the diversification along with the demographic realities that make them necessary. As many as 75 per cent people in Saudi Arabia are aged below 30 while the adult female literacy rate was 91 per cent in 2013. The people are conditioned to see the rulers as providers and the source of their luxuries, which make it easy for them to affect change. The clergy is no different. It has endorsed the reforms and has for instance conveniently linked issues like the ban on women driving to culture. Saudi Arabia earlier had the clergy even legitimise presence of 500,000 American soldiers in the country of Islam’s holiest shrines as a cushion against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and to end his occupation of Kuwait

Whatever may be the reasons. The reforms are better late than never. Their impact will be felt beyond the Saudi borders. The position of Saudi rulers as the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines gives them a unique leverage over Muslims globally. The positive developments will for instance hopefully accelerate the pace of women emancipation beyond Saudi Arabia. They will help end – in some cases – the less than equal status the export of their conservatism has legitimised for women. The success of the Saudi reforms would also have to be measured in terms of its impact in reversing the poisoning of minds and returning to the essence of Islam: Compassion.

The focus needs to shift to the Islamic mandate of the creation of an egalitarian society based on kindness and forgiveness. The focus should go back to the bigger jihad, the struggle against evil within and to dissuasion from fighting (qital or harb) that features in the Quran 70 times against the reference to jihad (41 times). This real spirit of Islam underlined by the Quranic verse that calls the killing of an innocent akin to slaying the entire humanity must now prevail. And at all costs to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism and Islamophobia it encourages.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

The realpolitik of change

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How Jaish turned on the Pakistani state

JeM hit the Pakistani army where it hurt the most by targeting its chief and engineering dissents within its ranks a year after it was banned following the attack on the Indian Parliament

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Jan 10, 2016

The windshield of Pervez Musharraf ‘s armoured car was damaged as two suicide bombers rammed their explosive-laden cars into his motorcade in Rawalpindi on December 25, 2003. The military ruler escaped unhurt. But the second attempt on his life in 11 days shook Musharraf beyond belief.

The abortive bids to cripple Pakistan army’s command and control forced Musharraf to turn to his trusted aide, Rawalpindi Corps CommanderAshfaq Pervez Kayani, to probe the conspiracy behind it. His worst fears were confirmed as Kayani sifted through the evidence and concluded the bids on his boss’s life were an inside job, leading to the arrest of 56 Pakistani soldiers.

Five of the soldiers, including air force technician Adnan Rasheed, were sentenced to death as they were found guilty of sharing information with banned Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) for Musharraf ‘s assassination.

Rasheed, whom Taliban freed after attacking a prison in Bannu in 2012, confessed to having been trained at a JeM camp. It was also revealed that explosives used in the first assassination bid were stolen from an air force station.

JeM had hit the army where it hurt the most by targeting its chief and engineering dissents within its ranks a year after it was banned following the attack on the Indian Parliament. The crackdown on the outfit that followed has clearly yielded little as JeM proved its lethality by attacking the Pathankot airbase.

JeM’s history should make it easier for PM Nawaz Sharif to make good on his promise of “decisive” action against the Pathankot attack perpetrators. His assurance of cooperation after two meetings with top officials, including Army chief Raheel Sharif and National Security Adviser Nasir Janjua, appear to be the steps in this direction.

Groups like JeM are also covered under Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP), which was formulated after an all-party meeting in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre to root out terrorism of all hues.

The anti-Taliban operations intensified as part of the NAP have yielded significant gains and led to a major decline in violence. JeM turned its guns on the Pakistani state after Musharraf signed up for the US war on terror in 2001. The group was riled further when Omar Saeed Sheikh was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to death for journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder.

Sheikh was released from an Indian prison along with JeM founder Masood Azhar in exchange for a hijacked Indian Airlines plane in 1999. Azhar, who went underground in 2008, is believed to have made common cause with the Pakistani Taliban as they emerged as a formidable force seeking to overthrow the Pakistani state. JeM was reported to have trained Taliban guerrillas in Swat valley when they briefly overran the region in 2009.

In 2014, Pakistani media cited a 2011 intelligence report warning Azhar’s seminary in Bahawalpur was “actively fanning radicalism” and counted Taliban faction Ahrar-ul-Hind’s Umar Qasmi among its alumnus. Qasmi had claimed responsibility for attacks like 2014 Islamabad district court bombing.

Earlier in 2009, JeM was reported to have tied up with groups like Lashkar-eJhangvi, whose leader Malik Ishaq was killed along with his two sons in an “exchange of fire” with police in July 2015. Sharif ‘s aide, Shuja Khanzada, a former ISI field officer in charge of the NAP in Punjab, was killed in retaliation to Ishaq’s killing a month later.

The context makes JeM a compelling target under the NAP. Backsliding is not an option as the greater goal of mutual coexistence and better future of South Asia is at stake.

Courtesy: The Times of India

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Fixing India-Pakistan antagonism: Cross-border religious tourism is lowest-hanging fruit

The 2005 restoration of Katas Raj temple complex in Pakistan’s Punjab provides the blueprint for taking the process forward

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Dec 26, 2015

Singer Anup Jalota’s bhajan ‘prabhuji tum chandan hum pani’ played in the background as a saffron-robed priest purified Krishna, Radha and Hanuman’s idols with milk for their installation at Lahore’s Krishna Temple in February 2007. The temple on Ravi Road in Pakistan’s cultural capital was packed with devotees, many of whom occupied the corridor and stairs to witness the unusual murti sathapna amid Hindu chants.

The India-Pakistan detente (2003-2008) had allowed a group of Indian pilgrims’ to carry out the first sathapna at the temple since partition virtually emptied out Hindus and Sikhs of west Punjab and Muslims of the region’s eastern part.

The sathapna was perhaps the little-known high-point of the thaw before the attacks on Mumbai derailed the process in 2008.

The inclusion of religious tourism now in the recently-announced India-Pakistan dialogue should allow the two countries to pick up the threads on this front to promote greater people-to-people contact.

The 2005 restoration of Katas Raj temple complex in Pakistan’s Punjab provides the blueprint for taking the process forward.

Ex-deputy prime minister L K Advani’s choice for inaugurating the restoration project was highly symbolic and contributed to goodwill during that period.

It showed the willingness to move beyond the toxic legacy of partition and Advani’s Babri Masjid demolition campaign, which triggered anti-Muslim violence reminiscent of the grisly bloodbath in 1947.

The first religious service at Katas since partition was held with much fanfare in 2006. But tense India-Pakistan ties have left its religious tourism potential unrealised.

Religious tourism is perhaps the best way to engage the religious right, which is seen to be most resistant to altering status quo in bilateral ties. It is the lowest-hanging fruit that could be harnessed for a positive impact on solving more fractious issues.

Cross-border Muslim and Sikh religious tourism has thrived for decades. And the addition of two shrines associated Hindu triumvirate’s third god, Shiva, to it in Pakistan — Katas and Hinglaj — can potentially generate unparalleled goodwill.

Katas’s importance to the Hindu mythology could draw Indian pilgrims in droves if they are encouraged like Sikhs. Seven temples in Katas are dedicated to Amar Kund. It is one of the two sacred ponds believed to have been created after Lord Shiva’s tears fell on the earth at Katas and Pushkar as he mourned his consort, Sati.

Even Mahabharata protagonist Yudhishthira is said to have passed his wisdom test at Katas to bring his four siblings to life during their exile there.

Over a thousand-km away, Mata Hinglaj Temple in Baluchistan’s remote mountains is one of 52 shaktipeeths believed to have been created at places where body parts of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, had fallen.

In Hinglaj, Parvati’s forehead with vermillion mark had fallen after Shiva took her corpse around following her self-immolation.

Muslims revere the shrine and call it Nani Pir. This was evident when then Baluchistan chief minister late Jam Mohammad Yousaf refurbished the shrine in 2007.

Accounts of pilgrimage to Hinglaj date back to the fourth century. It was among the toughest pilgrimages, which took 45 days via Karachi before partition. A Uttam Kumar-starrer Bengali film captured the perilous journey to Hinglaj in the 1950s.

Ex-defence minister Jaswant Singh had led a group of Indian pilgrims to Hinglaj for the first time since partition in February 2006.

The fresh peace process could boost reopening of shrines like Sharda Peeth, dedicated to Goddess Saraswati on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, and become symbols of enduring peace if India-Pakistan ties do not take the familiar schizophrenic trajectory.

Courtesy: The Times of India

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Nawaz Sharif cedes more ground to the army

Sharif has had a series of run-ins with the establishment over his three tenures that have led to removal from power twice

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Dec 13, 2015

When Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua was appointed as national security adviser (NSA) in October, it signalled tightening of Pakistani military establishment’s control over the country’s security and foreign affairs.

The appointment had been in the works for months and was effected in particular to ensure the establishment had its man in the thick of engagements with India that restarted with Janjua’s meeting with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, in Bangkok on December 6. The need for someone like Janjua was felt after Sharif was seen to have given in again following his meeting with Indian PM Narendra Modi in Ufa, Russia, in July.

The establishment was aghast to see its key concerns like Kashmir missing from the joint statement issued after the meeting and forced it to prevail upon Sharif to have Janjua replace his loyalist, Sartaj Aziz.

Aziz has been the odd one out as the only non-military NSA Pakistan has had so far.

Janjua fits the bill also because he retired as the chief of Pakistan army’s Quetta-based Southern Command, where he led anti-insurgency operations in Baluchistan.

His expertise is believed to be crucial as Islamabad seeks to counter allegations of fostering terror in India with accusations of India’s backing of Baluch insurgents.

Janjua was involved in Azm Nau (new resolve) war games as well. Azm Nau is a response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine that seeks to launch conventional strikes against Pakistan before the world comes to know about it without provoking a nuclear attack.

Janjua is seen to be the ideal person to keep Sharif on a tight leash vis-a-vis his India policy and deal effectively with his assertive Indian counterpart.

The establishment has long been suspicious of Sharif over his unilateral goodwill in defiance of its desire for parity with Delhi.

Janjua’s appointment is the latest compromise Sharif has made with the establishment since he faced third unceremonious removal from power when opposition leader Imran Khan led a campaign against him over “poll fraud” last year. Sharif has had a series of run-ins with the establishment over his three tenures that have led to removal from power twice.

He appeared to be once bitten twice shy when the army appeared to be the force behind the campaign to remove him in 2014. The army had booted Sharif first out of power in 1993 before he had his way briefly during his second stint.

Sharif forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to quit before the bid to sack his successor, Pervez Musharraf, boomeranged, leading to his exile.

He has acknowledged his India policy was partly responsible for his downfall in 1999 and his attempts to pick up the threads from where he had left then made things difficult for him in his current term. He backed good ties with India with calls for unilateral visa-free travel for Indians and Siachen demilitarization when he returned to Pakistan in 2007.

Sharif fought the 2013 election promising peace with India and declared his victory was a mandate for building bridges. He described peaceful relations with India as “the cardinal principle” of his foreign policy in his 2014 Independence Day speech.

Sharif earlier visited India to attend Modi’s inauguration defying hawks, whom he enraged further by defying the norm and not meeting Kashmiri separatists.

 He instead chose a meet a steel tycoon, who later reportedly arranged his secret meeting with Modi in Kathmandu.

The alleged meeting gave grist to the rumour mill in Pakistan that Sharif ‘s steel business interests force him to bend over backwards to please India.

Courtesy: The Times of India

Resurgent Pakistani army cuts Nawaz Sharif to size

The army had somewhat lost its sway after the lawyers’ movement ousted Pervez Musharraf from power in 2008 and Osama bin Laden’s killing in its backyard

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Nov 28, 2015

Pakistan army chief Gen Raheel Sharif spent a day with Strategic Plans Division commandos, guarding the country’s nukes, before flying to the US for a five-day trip on November 15.

The optics reaffirmed — if at all there was any doubt — who really matters in Pakistan by addressing the key nuclear security concerns.

Gen Sharif‘s visit followed that of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s US trip a month earlier during which nuke safety was among the points stressed in a joint statement.

The army had stamped its authority days before PM Sharif’s visit with Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua’s elevation as the national security advisor in place of his loyalist, Sartaj Aziz.

Gen Sharif had riled PM Sharif four days before his US by reminding him about the need for good governance after a corps commander meeting.

The army chief’s muscle-flexing underlines his rising stock since he brushed aside PM Sharif’s reluctance and launched an all-out operation against the Taliban in June 2014.

The operation showed immediate results with civilian casualties going down to 159 in 2014 against 1,116 when the Taliban insurgency peaked in 2008.

The casualties have gone down further substantially in 2015 and created a sense of euphoria that prompted The New York Times to call Gen Sharif “the most popular man in public office”.

Gen Sharif’s popularity, underlined by the use of his pictures in electioneering, has legitimised the army’s stranglehold over foreign, security affairs and altered PM Sharif’s zealously conciliatory India policy.

The army had somewhat lost its sway after the lawyers’ movement ousted Pervez Musharraf from power in 2008 and Osama bin Laden’s killing in its backyard.

The resurgence has forced PM Sharif to accept his diminished stature, which he had earlier fought valiantly and lost power twice over it. His capitulation has been described as a silent coup without the risks of an overt takeover.

Gen Sharif’s family history, too, adds to his popularity, which offers consolation to many Pakistanis in the otherwise disastrous history of wars with India.

His uncle, Major Aziz Bhatti, enjoys a legendary status among war heroes, whose heroics are taught in schools. Bhatti was killed preventing Indian soldiers advance after they crossed the Wagah border in 1965 and had the Lahore cantonment within the range of their tanks.

Gen Sharif’s brother, Major Shabbir Sharif, followed his warrior Rajput family tradition by receiving highest military gallantry award posthumously like Bhatti after the 1971 war.

His battlefield heroics are part of the country’s folklore. More so, as they were a rare ray of success in a war in which Pakistan was routed, demoralised and dismembered.
Shabbir was killed in Punjab’s Fazilka sector after legendary hand-to-hand combat with Major Narain Singh. The two wrestled with each other while other soldiers were ordered against intervening. According to the Pakistani version, Shabbir killed Singh in the fight after he charged on their positions, lobbed a grenade and prevented Indian soldiers from firing. An Indian T-54 tank shot hit Shabbir and killed him the next day.
The Indian account refutes the version saying Singh did not die in the hand-to-hand combat. He died while being taken to a medical room after a hail of bullets wounded him as he charged at Pakistani positions.


Courtesy: The Times of India

Pakistani leaders strike the right note on Diwali

The Pakistan Peoples Party counts Hindus among its committed vote bank

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Nov 16, 2015

• Pakistan leaders echoed each other in supporting minority rights at separate festivities

• PM Nawaz Sharif Nawaz Sharif told Hindus he will stand by them if they are in distress

• Imran Khan promised equal citizenship for minorities at a rally

In an inherently adversarial political culture, very rarely do rival Pakistani politicians speak in one voice. Diwali was one such rare occasion when leaders of three top political parties, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, echoed each other in supporting minority rights at separate festivities.

Sharif flew to Karachi on Wednesday to take part in Diwali festivities amid a war of words with military establishment after it put him under pressure again by publically ticking him off over tackling terror.

 An unfazed Sharif spoke passionately about minority rights, insisting all religions in Pakistan enjoyed equal rights while pledging to safeguard them at a function, where Gayatri Mantra was recited along with the Quran. He told Hindus he will stand by them if they are in distress. “Even if a Muslim commits an injustice, I will stand with the victim,” said Sharif.

“Minorities are part of Pakistan and it is my duty to protect them,” said Sharif, who became the first prime minister to attend Diwali festivities. He said he had long been asking his Hindu friends to invite his to Holi festivities. “Do invite me and splash colour on me.”

Sharif underlined he is prime minister of all communities. “Minorities are part of Pakistan and it is my duty to protect them,” said Sharif, who became the first prime minister to attend Diwali festivities. He said he had long been asking his Hindu friends to invite his to Holi festivities. “Do invite me and splash colour on me.”

Sharif called Diwali a celebration of struggle against evil while announcing the construction of a hospital named after spiritual leader Bhagat Kunwar in Hyderabad (Sindh).

His arch-rival, Imran Khan, promised equal citizenship for minorities at a rally amid fireworks in Hindu-dominated Umerkot a day after Diwali.

He said treatment of minorities would be exemplary in the ‘New Pakistan’ he promises to build. “We will take such care of minorities; make them equal citizens that Narendra Modi would be ashamed of himself over what is happening in India,” he said amid loud cheers.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joined the Hindus for Diwali festivities in Hindu-dominated Mithi in Tharparkar, where he cut a cake and enjoyed dandia performance.

Bilawal expressed happiness that every house was lit up with diyas for Diwali while claiming religious freedom and harmony was being destroyed in India.

He said the PPP considers Diwali as its own festival, but Modi does not even celebrate Eid while assuring his party would not discriminate on the religious basis. “We will continue to celebrate Eid and Diwali together, all under the flag of the PPP and the flag of Pakistan.”

The outreach comes ahead of next week’s local bodies elections in Sindh; where over 90% Pakistani Hindus live.

Most of the Hindus are concentrated in Umerkot (49%), Tharparkar (46%) and Mirpurkhas (33%). The Hindu population varies from 8-19% elsewhere in Sindh, where PPP rules and counts Hindus among its committed vote bank.

In Tharparkar alone, 500 Hindus are contesting the elections and Bilawal made it a point to ask voters to vote for his party.

Bilawal even likened his rival in the region, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, to Ravan while promising to rid the region of his influence and celebrate Diwali again when the election results would be announced on November 19.

Political expediency aside, journalist Beena Sarwar, a lifelong champion of minority rights, insisted the outreach was genuine as part of the efforts to change the narrative, which threatened to tear apart the country before an apparently successfully zarb-e-azab operation was launched to root out extremism in 2014.

Sharif has his work cut out as minorities face myriad problems, including negative portrayal in textbooks that ends up othering and promoting ill will against them.

Courtesy: The Times of India

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