STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan
Houbara Bustard (Tilor) was the bird of choice for the Emarati Sheikhs in the seventies. Their new found oil wealth allowed them to hunt it to their hearts contents in the arid areas of Pakistan. They stop on their migratory journey in the deserts of Cholistan. Rahim Yar Khan with an expanded airport welcomed Royal entourages.
Love for the desert and open spaces runs deep amongst the Arabs. It is a ritual held dearly by the affluent class. I used to shuttle between Riyadh and Al Kharj for our agricultural project. It bordered “Rub al Khali”, the Empty Quarter, a desert encompassing a third of Arabian Peninsula. I would witness a whole tent city spring up overnight for Princes camping in the desert for weeks.
This was replicated around Rahim Yar Khan. Rich Sheikhs enjoying the desert hunts coming in their private jets, expensive vehicles, luxury tents and lavish feasts. Houbara was their favorite prey.
With passage of time and generations the ruling elite’s focus shifted. The oil boom led to accumulation of unbelievable wealth for the rulers. Wasteful vacations by the oil rich Sheikhs made headlines in the Western media. Middle East became a magnet attracting the rich and powerful. The development in UAE was phenomenal, led by Dubai.
Dubai became an offshore financial hub and a tourist attraction. Real estate boomed becoming home to black money from all over. UAE is a collection of seven Emirates autonomous in their self rule. They share defense, foreign affairs and a few other areas.
Basic structuring was done under British control of the area then called Trucial States or the “Pirate Coast”. Protective treaties were signed between Sheikhs and England in 19th century. They continued till revoked in 1971. Now they have entered diplomatic ties with Israel evoking a strong reaction from the Muslim world.
Today UAE has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But there are serious distortions too. It is amongst the few surviving absolute monarchies. Its stated population is ten million as of 2019, of which 88% are expatriates with around 1.2 million locals. Its area is 83,000 square kilometers with a low density of 118 persons per kilometer. UAE’s coastline is 1,300 kilometers in the sensitive Gulf area. Combine that with owning trillion plus dollars and you can figure out the anxiety of the rulers. UAE like its neighbors are Sunni Muslims. They are a stone’s throw away from their Shiite neighbor Iran.
That has all changed now. UAE had solid foundations under the founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s three decades. He was close to Pakistan with collaboration in defense. Upon his passing in 2004, son Khalifa bin Zayed became President of UAE. Due to ill health, younger brother Mohammed bin Zayed took control. Known as MBZ, he changed the country’s posture in the region.
Under him UAE now possesses the Arab world’s most potent and well equipped military. Working closely with the US, it conducts surveillance and combat operations far beyond its borders. His special forces operate in Yemen, Libya and Somalia. He thwarted democratic movements in Middle East including installing an autocrat in Egypt. He has mentored Saudi Crown Prince’s complete take over.
Under MBZ, UAE has emerged as a regional power. In the 90’s Sheikh Zayed involved MBZ in the military. A Sandhurst trained pilot, MBZ enjoys a wide exposure to the Arab and Western world. In 1991 as a 29 year old commander of an almost negligible UAE air force, he went on a shopping spree to Washington. The list was extensive. It concerned US Congress about destabilizing the region. But the Pentagon chose to cultivate the favorite son of the ruler. MBZ established his credentials by convincing his father to transfer $4 billion to US treasury towards cost of the Iraq war.
Thirty years on, Prince Mohammed keeping a low profile, is arguably the most powerful leader in the Arab world. He chose technology to make up for low Emirati population. Traditionally UAE avoided conflicts. Not anymore. MBZ has crafted his own brand of ideology. A blend of deep tradition mixed with a secular leaning cosmopolitan and tolerant society. A liberal autocracy.
MBZ oversaw the demolition of the Muslim Brotherhood in UAE and Egypt, seeing them as a direct threat to his regime. He has cultivated deep roots in US Establishment and he has a tremendous rapport with President Trump. He started early by hooking up with Trump’s inner circle by securing a secret meeting with Jared Kushner during Trump’s transition period.
The recent agreements between Iran and China may have acted as a trigger to speed up diplomatic ties with Israel. It could also be a payback to a solid friend in the White House. President Trump is facing an uphill battle in his re-election. An October signing of a formal agreement in Washington between UAE and Israel could boost his shaky campaign.
How would it impact Pakistan? MBZ was the most reliable ally of USA in the region. Now he has taken a bold but controversial leap. He has bet on a lethal combination of Israeli technology and expertise with UAE’s capital. MBZ is pragmatic enough not to burn bridges with traditional allies like Pakistan. We have to wait and see. We also have to be mindful that India is bundled into this pro west alliance. These changing configurations with saner minds can make this a positive trigger; adventurism however can undo the whole world.