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It was the sort of over-rich chocolate cake to die for, or from. Made from imported Belgian chocolate, each layer invited gluttony. Its outer casing glistened with gold leaf. The Karachi patisserie had priced it at Rs 25,000. ‘Does anyone buy such a cake?’ one asked. ‘Many,’ came the reply, ‘even at Rs.3,500 a slice.’   

Such a lavish confection in the city of flies brought into focus the disparity between the increasingly rich and the increasingly poor in Pakistan. It is a void that government legislation cannot fill. It is met by the law of insatiable demand and inventive supply.

An incongruous analogy sprang to mind - of over-priced arms obtained over the years by Saudi Arabia from the United States and other arms exporting countries. What can be the justification for such an extravagant outlay of petro-dollars except an insatiable demand by a cheque-book happy kingdom and a supply of the latest inventive toys by the world’s armaments industry?

No one is quite sure how much Saudi Arabia and now the United Arab Emirates spend to intimidate their neighbours. Arms supply is a secretive business, and the Gulf Arabs can be more reticent about their business than most. Actual figures are hidden behind a smoke-screen of intent. For example, President Trump announced that his son-in-law Jared Kushner had brokered an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion. The original Saudi demand for $15 bn. was not enough for Kushner. He remonstrated in the National Security Council that the US needed ‘to sell them as much as possible.’

While a fool and his money are soon parted, Kushner found it difficult to winkle such a large sum out of the Saudis. The final purchases in 2018 were closer to the Saudis’ original demand. In 2019, Trump expressed his determination to push through an arms deal worth $8.5 bn. to Saudi Arabia.

With Saudi Arabia awash with so much lethal hardware including sophisticated surveillance systems and attack aircraft, it came as a surprise that on 14th September, a number of unmanned drones and missiles were able to penetrate Saudi defences with impunity and attack its Abqaiq plant and the Khurais oil field. The Saudi oil company Aramco admitted that, as a result, it had ‘suspended production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil.’ This represented 60% of the kingdom’s total oil output. The Saudis and the US blame the Houthi rebels and Yemen (and by association, Iran). The Iranians deny any complicity.

Regardless of who pressed the button, there was a parallel absurdity of this episode with the solo flight made by the young German Mathias Rust who, in May 1987, flew a single-engine Cessna from Helsinki to Moscow. Rust managed to dodge the Soviet Union’s radars en route and to land unchallenged in Moscow’s Red Square. He became famous not only for the audacity of his feat but for having exposed (single-handedly) the uselessness of the Soviets’ expensive defence systems.

The casualties of Rust’s escapade were the Soviet Minister of Defence Sergei Sokolov and the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Defences Chief Marshal Alexander Koldunov, They were dismissed by Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary, CPSU). One wonders who in Saudi Arabia would dare dismiss the current Saudi Minister of Defence? (It happens to be Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.)

The Saudis continue to be Iran’s adversaries but the Iranians have insured themselves against the US-Saudi-UAE threat by a timely shift towards China. Following a visit to Beijing by Iran foreign minister Javad Zarif to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, both countries have agreed to revive an earlier understanding of cooperation. The fresh arrangement, described as ‘a strategic partnership’, envisages loans by China of US$10 billion for infrastructure projects, overdue improvements to Iran’s Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor, and disbursements of US $280 billion, spread over 25 years, to develop Iran’s oil and gas fields. In reciprocation, Iran has conceded to China first refusal ‘to bid on any new, stalled or uncompleted oil and gas field developments.’ To protect its interests, China will depute 5,000 military personnel in Iran. In addition, bilateral trade is planned to expand to $600 bn. over the next decade. Iran is set to become China’s western ‘hong’.

Someone once said that his arms were too short to fight with God. After forty tiring years of shadow-boxing, Iran has decided that its arms are too short to fight with the US. It would prefer to use them to embrace a more amenable neighbour.

With Iran as an additional dimension of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the dynamics of the region have changed irreversibly. Allies of the US will discover that over-priced arms, like that over-priced chocolate cake, may be nice on display but are better left un-bought.



[Dawn, 19.9.19]


19 September 2019
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