The expanding Shia-Sunni conflict in the Muslim world is exposing vast gaps in popular understanding of the schism. For example when Zaine El Abedine Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman was ousted, people thought a Shia dictator had fallen. From this they extrapolated that the Arab Spring was an anti-Shia plot.
On the Muslim world’s centre stage, the Nayef-Brzezinski duet roped in Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq for a mass production of Mujahideen in Afghanistan. These would fight the Soviets and be a bulwark against Shia Iran. Zia would help Arabize Pakistani Islam and wrench it from India’s composite culture.
Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt were given severe sentences because that is the way the Saudis wanted it. The Qatari channel was always an eyesore to the Saudis but was recently being tolerated, even encouraged, by Riyadh for the limited purpose of stalling the Arab Spring. A channel built on liberal, democratic values owned by the Emirate of Qatar is a colossal contradiction in terms.
He must also place West Asia on his radar because this vital part of our near abroad is in rapid change. A new West Asia is emerging. We must engage at the highest level and help shape this change, taking heart from Raees Amrohvi’s optimism many moons ago.
The present hostage crisis, therefore should be accordingly dealt with. One cannot intervene in a sovereign state without invitation, as it has long-term consequences, specially in context of West Asia where long term energy imperatives are involved. Nevertheless, a mix of diplomacy backed by demonstration of military muscle (not intervention) can achieve the desired results. What good is INS Vikrmaditya for, if it cannot support Indian diplomacy at this critical period and that too in the region.
Visits to New Delhi by leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran in quick succession would seem to suggest something new is happening in West Asia to which Indian attention is required. Some historic changes have already placed the region on a path of hope: the election of President Hassan Rouhani, his historic telephonic "hullo" with President Barack Obama, positive movement of the Geneva process on Iran’s nuclear programme, etcetera.
Riyadh and Jerusalem, hand in hand, are imploring Washington to go slow on Iran and certainly not to invite Iran to the Conference on Syria, Geneva II. Kerry is walking around the minefields with great skill. “Iran has not been invited” says he, or words to that effect. And he is not telling a lie. Iran has not been invited, “not yet”. It will be different situation when the nuclear deal with Iran is set into operation on Monday. Kerry has made it clear on several occasions that he accords a higher priority to the nuclear deal than to Iran’s stand on Syria.
Saudi Arabia has in the last few days seen its hold on the GCC countries loosen. To keep himself and his Kingdom in play, Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal, addressing the GCC, suggested that the Kuwait Foreign Minister lead the group to Washington protesting against the deal. Kuwait refused as did the UAE Foreign Minister who, instead, travelled to Moscow to sign different another affidavit. There are two different appraisals of Saudi vulnerability in the context of the deal. First is the power struggle behind the curtains, a fierce war of succession. A regime so divided and debilitated is more likely to acquiesce in the new arrangement of power in the Middle East. But the opposite can also happen. A regime weakened internally is unlikely to be able to resist the ultra conservative clergy.
Saudi refusal of the rotating Security Council seat has been seen for what it partly is: a tantrum. But it is also a clue to a coming political reality: West Asian politics may well be reverting to normality. The frenetic pace at which events moved in the Bush years after 9/11 when the United States could ride two horses, Israel and Saudi Arabia at the same time, on the gallop, is only possible on an extensive “straight”. This was the delusionary part of the neo-cons thinking. They thought the US would be on the “straight” forever, having defeated the Soviet Union. But now there is a bend in the race track.