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Pakistan extends influence in gulf states

Aug. 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM   |   Comments

MANAMA, Bahrain, Aug. 22 (UPI) -- The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain has reported to have recruited 3,000 Pakistanis to serve in its security forces to quell protesters from the Shiite majority the government says are backed by Iran.

Pakistan has also rushed to the defense of Saudi Arabia in the current political upheaval roiling the Arab world, underlining how the embattled Asian state, the only Muslim nuclear power, is becoming increasingly influential in the Middle East.

Pakistan is now the eye of the storm in the conflict between the United States and al-Qaida, and day by day it's intruding into the political maelstrom of the Middle East.

It has become a frontline state for Sunni Islam and is being positioned by its leaders, particularly in the powerful military and intelligence establishments, as a bulwark against Shiite Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Increasingly, Pakistan is supporting Saudi Arabia, with which it has a long had discreet security links.

It is reported to have put two army divisions on standby for deployment to Saudi Arabia if the kingdom is threatened by Iran or the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

It's even reported to be prepared to provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons if threatened by Iran. In return, it has been promised Saudi Arabian oil and treasure.

The reported military deployment followed a visit to Islamabad by Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, a former long-serving ambassador to the United States and since October 2005 secretary-general of the kingdom's National Security Council.

Pakistani mercenaries have long bolstered the armed forces of the Persian Gulf Arab states, whose pampered young men have shown little inclination to join the military.

Contract pilots from Pakistan have been the backbone of the Saudi air force and others in the gulf, for 30 years.

So it's no surprise that the Arab Spring has brought a new surge in recruitment as the gulf monarchies scramble to keep the democratic virus at arm's length.

Pakistanis have been recruited in sizeable numbers to stiffen Bahrain's armed services to bolster its security efforts to suppress protests by the tiny Sunni kingdom's Shiite majority.

Pakistan's Fauji Foundation, a body closely linked to Pakistan's military establishment, recently announced the recruitment of more than 1,000 former army personnel to serve with Bahrain's National Guard.

The recruits are reportedly paid 100,000 Pakistani rupees -- $1,174 -- per month and are provided with free healthcare and accommodation.

Pakistan is thus looming large in Middle Eastern affairs to an unprecedented degree.

Islamabad wants to counteract the growing relationship between India, its archrival, and Israel, especially in the military and intelligence fields.

The Saudis, in particular, have portrayed the swelling rivalry with Iran as a new, menacing chapter of the 1,300-year-old struggle between Sunni and Shiite, a rallying cry to which the Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf states have responded.

Where Pakistan, as the only nuclear-armed Muslim state, stands in this will be crucial.

It is the epicenter of al-Qaida's war and with Islamabad's arsenal of nuclear weapons, poses a global and regional danger that Afghanistan's Taliban never did.

"The stakes are enormous," says Bruce Reidel, a former counter-terrorism specialist with the CIA.

"Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. It will soon surpass the United Kingdom as the fifth-largest nuclear arsenal. It is the sixth-largest country in the world in terms of population.

"It will soon surpass Indonesia as the country with the largest Muslim population," the 30-year CIA veteran observed.

"Bin Laden understood all of that very well, which is why he focused so much on building alliances with other terrorist groups in Pakistan to undermine the country's stability."

"Ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are long-standing, but for the most part have not stood in the turbulent affairs of the region," observed U.S. political and military analyst Brian M. Downing.

"However increased tensions with Iran, the Arab Spring, and growing disenchantment with the United States are making the relationship more expansive, more prominent, and more dangerous.

"The Saudis are supporting the Pakistani army's militant client-groups, hiring its soldiers, and seeking to benefit from the country's nuclear weaponry," Downing noted.

"This is bringing increased tensions with both Iran and the United States -- no mean feat today given their adversarial positions."

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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