Saudi Arabia: Quest for the Ultimate “Political Play-Off”


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at the following link: )

The British Empire, long masters of the Persian Gulf and the wiles of playing-off nations; met their match in Ibn Saud (1880-1953) the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. At the turn of the last century, Whitehall was concerned with the growing cosiness of Germany with the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, a strategic project was born from this snugness, a Berlin-Baghdad rail axis that envisaged a central terminal at Kuwait. The plan was for it to evolve into a pivotal Control and Logistic sea-land hub that could threaten the Suez Canal and in turn the British Indian Empire. Ibn Saud saw in the emerging geopolitical contest an opportunity to ‘play’ the protagonists to his advantage.

While consolidating his powerbase, Ibn Saud, never lost touch with the orthodox teachings of Muhammad Ibn al Wahhabi, who in the 18th century deeply influenced his forebears into enforcing a unity, based on the brotherhood of Islam. However, the tribal origins of the Al-Saud, its nomadic population and harsh conditions never permitted a strategic view of geography. It took Ibn Saud’s geopolitical acumen and the opportunity that the collapsing Ottoman Empire presented that inspired his return to puritanical Islam and most critically an acceptance of “Political Islam”. Ibn Saud attacked the nomadic structure of his society and combined the aggressiveness of the Wahhabi ideology with the unquestioning nature of his followers to penetrate the vast Arabian Peninsula. He weakened tribal allegiances and replaced them with loyalty to Allah and the Amir. He established a new communal identity of ‘Ikhwan’, a Wahhabi religious militia to form a significant military force. The Ikhwan not only played a crucial role in instituting him as ruler of most of the Peninsula, but also placed him in a favourable power-bargaining position with both the Sultan and the British. Ibn Saud made it known to the latter that the Ottoman and other powers were also interested in establishing treaty relations with him which he would have to conclude if he had no other means of support. The veiled threat to British interests was not lost on Whitehall.

With the Ikhwan at his side, Ibn Saud set out reconquering his family lands. In 1902, he captured Riyadh by assassinating the governor of the city. In one stroke he drew the tribes to rally to his call. Within two years of Riyadh’s fall, the Najd lay at his feet and he was in a position to threaten Ottoman designs for Kuwait and their Berlin-axis.

British policy towards Ibn Saud changed metamorphically when it coincided with the Admiralty’s doctrine to convert their imperial navy from coal to oil-fired. At the time their allies the US and Russia produced almost all of the world’s petroleum. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy with the prospect of the Navy’s strategic dependence on foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, it concluded lay in control at source. In the meantime, Ibn Saud finessed his relations with Britain through the Treaty of Darin (1915). The Pact became a corner stone of Imperial policy that made Ibn Saud an equal ally in the War and his state a protectorate of the British Crown. The minor sheikh from the desert had played his cards well, from tribal chieftain he was transformed into a revered king. By 1932 his nation, Saudi Arabia, was courted by world governments.

As for the strategic Berlin-Baghdad rail link, it remained unfinished, limiting its use during the First World War.   

The Second World War was by no means as important for Saudi Arabia as the First had been. Ibn Saud remained a supporter of the Allies and yet stayed neutral. After the War, European powers that held sway in West Asia were exhausted. They could do little to prop their crumbling empires, thus, ending their influence in the region and giving impetus to a world order dominated by the USSR and the USA. Sensing the incipient power-vacuum in the region, Ibn Saud welcomed the USA into playing a more substantial role in his domain.

Cold War American interests worked to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in the peninsula. Ibn Saud now manipulated circumstances to win Saudi Arabia financial and security guarantees in return for access and oblique control of the world’s largest energy reserves.  “The USS Quincy Memorandum”, ensured the legacy of the House-of-Saud through the reigns of Kings Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and the current king, Salman. Solidarity with the Wahhabi’s, oil wealth and American guarantees were the keys that enabled dynastic continuity.

In 2017, King Salman appointed his son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) as Crown Prince and heir apparent. The young Prince has set about launching sweeping economic, social, military and foreign policy reforms. Given the complex power structure and its vulnerabilities, success of these reforms is predicated on, how they affect the status-quo. Critically three challenges confront MbS. Firstly, the entire political, juridical and social system that is defined by the Wahhabi ulema and had sealed the kingdom’s founding compact with Wahhabism, must change; but any break with the Wahhabi Clergy will tantamount to a de-coupling of politics from its sub-structure of Wahhabism. The second challenge is a contemporary interpretation of the Koran that permits moderation, an idea that, till announcement, would have been blasphemous. Thirdly, MbS has taken a cue from his illustrious forebear, Ibn Saud. He has daringly chosen not to pick sides between Washington, Beijing and Moscow nor have a selection thrust on him.

Meanwhile, the US in their Saudi Policy has vowed, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” However, China has in its report Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era roundly denied the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in West Asia. It would appear that the “Quincy Memorandum” for guarantees that eventually led to the policy of crude export revenues denominated in US dollars, the “Petro-dollar” deal and total dependence on the American security blanket may have outlived their shelf-life. The US-Saudi Jeddah Communiqué   may even suggest an outline for MbS’ new vision of a more versatile strategic relationship with the US that finds place for Beijing and Moscow.

But there remain three nagging doubts; can Saudi Arabia wean itself away from the luxury of the petro-dollar? Will the lifting of the US security blanket leave the kingdom in the cold? And lastly, will the dynasty survive without the Wahhabi ideology or as the, Economist put it, how to change what God said? 

Pakistan Elections 2013: On the Far Side


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in May 2013.

Keywords: Pakistan elections 2013, Pakistan political tradition, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan military, Political Islam, Punjab-centricity, ‘One Unit Scheme’, ‘Ayub’s Basic Democrats’

Recently, in the run-up to the general elections in Pakistan, one of India’s more reputed TV channels hosted a panel discussion on its outcome and the wider ramifications of the vote. Strange was the readiness of the panellists to set aside the actualities of Pakistan’s situation. To every critical predicament that the Anchor pointed to, the debate slewed on how people-to-people (Indo-Pak) engagement and the youth surge would overcome all; forgetting for the moment that it was this already strained human relationship that had to be cultivated and nurtured beyond the jhappi-pappi rhetoric. As for the youth, the speakers did not think it of importance to either underscore the magnitude of the uneducated or the state of joblessness and therefore the lure of the radicalized Madrassa. Was it the ‘ardour’ bit of our enduring love-hate relationship with that country at play? The panellists would have appeared to have surrendered reality for unfounded romanticism.

So, what in this situation, consistent with the affairs of that State, sways and bears upon Pakistan polity? I would posit that four considerations will have disproportionate impact on Indo-Pak relations:

  • The nature and tradition of egalitarianism and political beliefs in Pakistan.
  • The emergence of a radical strain of Political Islam and the far reach of fundamentalists.
  • Impact of the impending American pullout from Afghanistan.
  • The invasive and persistent influence of the military.

Taking each in turn, the nature of polity in Pakistan since independence is one marred by a rapacious impulse to power, an unwillingness to cede predatory feudal structures to democratic principles, and a fractured dualism between Islamic conservatism and modernity. Its 67 years of existence has seen a formative disruptive decade that spent itself in the dismantling and transforming of constitutional structures, a ten-year flirtation with a ‘One Unit scheme’, ‘controlled’ democracy (Ayub’s Basic Democrats), three unsuccessful coups, non-party elections, military (ISI) rigged elections, constitutional coups, and thirty-three years of military rule, leaving less than a decade and a half of disjointed civilian dispensation of which five years preceded the current elections of 2013. The only unremitting feature during the period was the ominous persuasion, either overtly or from behind the scenes, of the military. In this frame of reference, neither could liberal beliefs flourish nor leadership emerge without the undertone of military concessions. The significant casualty in all this was the development of national structures that could not only realise past expectations but also leverage the potential global advantage that the youth surge offers. The idea of an overnight change to egalitarianism is therefore illusory in the absence of well entrenched independent liberal institutions.

In the immediate wake of independence, Pakistan tenuously held onto a Sub- continental identity and a secular outlook to nation building. This, however, was ephemeral both in its impact and the resolve to persist with the idea, to the extent that exactly the converse by design became the inspiration for the nation. So, through the revision of history and media manipulation, ersatz religious, distinct cultural and idealized historical links were established (in a curious turn of events this very distinctiveness has been refuted by the intelligentsia in the more populous West Punjab). A peculiar brand of Islamization took root. General Zia’s push for Islamic practices of Zakat, Ushr, Islamic Hadood and the Sharia Penal code were manifestations of the traumatic break from its past. This fetched with it a radical strain of political Islam that permeated society, denied Sufism and served the cause of the military bureaucracy in its bid to develop a consensus on its vision of the nation. The levels of violence that have disfigured the current elections and the disproportionate influence of extreme forces in proscribing inimical secular parties is symptomatic of the heavy hand and far reach of fundamentalists.

The impending withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will leave that nation much in the same state as when they invaded it: a weak centre; growing military influence of a resurrected and dominant Taliban; and an undermined Northern Alliance shorn of the steel of the US military. Further, an intensifying civil war will lead to loss of control of the South and East. Pakistan, with its unfinished and unpopular war against extremism, now more widespread than ever, exacerbates the volatile mix. In the absence of the US Army of Afghanistan, extremists will once again find safe sanctuary in the Taliban controlled areas, leading to either an expansion of the war across the Durand Line or of Pakistan cutting a deal with the Afghan Taliban (whose terms may well be active intervention alongside them). In the short term one may prognosticate a downward calibration of tensions in Kashmir, now left in the hands of Pakistan’s chosen extremists, and an intensification of operations in the West. The middle and long term, however, portends a continued amplified role for the military in the affairs of Pakistan unless the new dispensation in Islamabad is able rein in the military and, in an improbable act of control, thrust down a no-military-role Afghan policy.

The early years of Pakistan’s existence were imbued with political insecurity and uncertainty largely caused by the civil violence that preceded creation and the Western Wing’s urge to balance out the demographically weightier East. Both these dynamics wounded any stimulus towards a democratic slant. What did happen was the nurturing of a polity that enticed a greater role for the military in the internal as well as the external constituents of national security. The four disastrous wars with India, one of which resulted in the second partition of Pakistan, did not in any way serve to provide an altered perspective on national security issues, which remained a military one and the armed forces its core bastion. Internally, the loss of East Pakistan set the establishment on the course to Punjab-centricity and Islamization; both of which strengthened the hand of the army and the penetration of its ideology amongst the masses. The impending US retreat from Afghanistan is again seen as an abandonment of Islamabad, a condition which the military believe, only they could salvage the nation from.

Given the four realities that confront Pakistan and the state of their economy, the far side of the 2013 elections must see a path to deliverance beginning with civil control over the Army, letting go of grandiose schemes such as a military role in Afghanistan, and the government training their sights on societal enhancement to wean the youth from militancy.

Written as part of a compendium of views by several authors following the Pakistan Elections. To access the debate, visit: