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The Curious Case of General Raheel Sharif

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Bedouins taking aim by Adolf Schreyer, 1828-1899; source: Bonhams

Ensconced deep in the story of Pakistan’s fall out with Saudi Arabia is a man whose name does not come up much these days. But he is impossible to ignore if you understand anything about this story.

Raheel Sharif was Pakistan’s army chief between November 2013 – November 2016. He is a unique character in Pakistani military history – an army chief who did not overstay his welcome, nor made attempts (at least overtly) to take over civilian rule in some form or the other.

But the real story, in a sense, is what connects him to the disillusionment between Pakistan and its old benefactor, Saudi Arabia. There has always been an understanding that Pakistan would provide its military prowess to the kingdom in exchange of urgent bail out cash and favourable terms for oil. This includes the services of its battle-hardened generals.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have traditionally had as close military ties as is possible between two independent nations. Exasperated by tardy assistance from the British, it was the Pakistani air force that the Saudis turned to for help in the 1960s. Pakistani jets even protected the southern Saudia Arabian border from incursions from Yemen in 1969. Pakistani naval men trained the Saudi Arabian navy. Whether in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or in the Gulf War a decade later, thousands of Pakistani soldiers formed part of the frontline of the Saudi Arabian defence forces. Pakistan has had similar ties in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The first three chiefs of the UAE air force were all officers of the Pakistani air force.

But things have changed. In the unending war in Yemen, the Pakistani loyalty seems split. Saudi Arabia and UAE want Raheel Sharif to play a leading role in ending conflict in Yemen. Sharif is seen as not only a competent general but an overall straight-talking soldier, more strategic than political, and a man who can deliver the peace that Saudi Arabia and the UAE so badly want in Yemen.

Yet, Pakistan refused Emirati requests to participate in the war in Yemen. And while Raheel Sharif became the military head of a thirty-nine country coalition called the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, modelled as a sort of Muslim NATO, involving UAE, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, it is unclear what he has achieved in that role (which he has held since 2017 after his retirement at army chief in Pakistan).

The plot has further thickened as suspicions have grown in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Ankara wants to play a pivotal role in the Yemen conflict to the detriment of the Arab powers.

This is no small matter. Delivering on military know how and leadership is the founding stone of Pakistan’s relationship with its benefactors in the Gulf – it is the core, and not a side story, of this relationship. That Sharif’s expertise is available but cannot be used by the richest and most influential countries in the Middle East in a war they are eager to end has clouded relations between Pakistan and its erstwhile patrons.

When the Saudis recently snubbed Sharif's successor General Qamar Javed Bajwa by refusing to let him meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it was not merely for cosying up to Turkey and pushing the kingdom on speaking up on Kashmir, it was also because Pakistan isn't playing its designated military role in Yemen. This is also the reason why UAE ignored Pakistan's angry pleas and signed a historic peace deal with Israel. Israel today might be a better security bet for the UAE than Pakistan.

It is unclear how Pakistan underestimates, if it indeed does, the criticality and sensitivity of Yemen in the Saudi imagination considering its own role in the history. And why it believes that its relations with the UAE will remain intact after it refused to assist it in the Yemen war. The answers to both, some believe, lie in Pakistan’s increasing bonds with Turkey (Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that he thinks of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a sort of political idol).

It is no doubt on Pakistan’s urging that Erdogan has started to take a position on Kashmir. As I pointed out in March 2019, Turkey is now a key ally of Pakistan. Or at least Pakistan thinks so as it tries to make up for its losses in the Gulf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Turkey and China.

But this is not going be as easy a relationship as Pakistan might imagine it to be. Erdogan’s Turkey cannot embrace Xi Jinping’s China without significant concessions – the Uighurs that China is accused of mistreating are of Turkic origin.

All this makes for a very volatile situation. As, taking cue from the UAE, more Arab countries seek to mend their ties with Israel, this will become even more precarious.

Read Part 1 of this essay here

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