By Ejaz Bilal
Being very close friend, Pakistan is considered to be on top of those countries which would be affected with the ongoing developments in Saudi Arabia. That is because successive Pakistani regimes – both prime ministers and army chiefs – have striven to stay close to the Saudi royal family to consolidate their position at home. For both civil and military leaders of Pakistan, visits to Riyadh to receive audience from the royalty and then to China to gain political legitimacy have been almost mandatory.
But while China is rising, led by its new supreme leader, President Xi Jinping, the Saudi royalty is showing signs of unease, internal dissensions and even power struggle at the top with Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) consolidating his position as the number two, to become the monarch in the near future. The latest is the arrests of four serving and several former ministers, last Saturday, including powerful princes and billionaires who have held key positions in the Saudi government.
The unease over these developments has been felt the world over, but for Pakistani leadership, the compulsion of paying obeisance to the Saudi royalty has continued, especially because of the political uncertainty caused after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, perhaps the most favoured of Pakistani prime ministers who, when toppled in a military coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was hosted by the Saudi royalty for over eight years.
Fighting his own battle at home with the army and judiciary and his political opponents, Nawaz had sought to use a combination American and Saudi angle to the hilt, but without much success. The Donald Trump-led Arab Islamic American summit, held in Riyadh in May this year was supposed to be Pakistan’s moment to cash its first check on the diplomatic investment it has made in the Saudi-led Islamic military coalition – which former Army Chief Raheel Sharif militarily heads. The long standing U.S.-Saudi relationship has helped Islamabad ally itself with both, and at a time when the duo was spearheading an “Islamic” summit it was natural for Pakistan to expect a share of the spotlight.
With this in mind, Nawaz Sharif had reportedly spent the entire duration of his flight to Riyadh rehearsing his address to the summit, which included leaders of 55 Muslim-majority states. It was time to drive home Islamabad’s perspective on countering Islamist terrorism – the theme of the event – considering Pakistan’s unique role as both victim and counterterrorism proponent. Raheel Sharif heads the counter-terror militia and the country is fourth on the Global Terrorism Index in terms of the most affected states. Yet Nawaz Sharif wasn’t invited to address the summit. Neither was Raheel Sharif. It was bad enough that Pakistan didn’t get a say in what was predictably reduced to a Gulf gathering, rather than an “Islamic” summit. Trump’s speech itself further added salt to the wounds. Not only did the U.S. president identify India as a victim of terror, he failed to acknowledge Pakistan as one.
Now, Nawaz’s successor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who rushed to Riyadh in the first week of October, declared that “Ties with Saudi Arabia are ‘as old as Pakistan’.(Arab News – 8th Oct-2017). He further said that Saudi Arabia also “feels a deep and strong bond with Pakistan.” This was after meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He earlier visited Jeddah and met Prince Prince Mohammad alongwith Finance Minister Senator Ishaq Dar and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif on 23rd August within dasy of taking oath for his new portfolio.. Pakistan has for long lived off Saudi largesse and spiritual support. Its elite has pandered the Saudi whims of the rich Gulf Sheikhs, including allowing them to hunt bustards, designated as protected species, much to the annoyance of the public opinion.
However, Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich job haven for expatriate Pakistanis, also tops the list of countries who deported most Pakistanis in the last five years. As per data garnered, Saudi Arabia deported as much as 218649 Pakistanis whereas all other countries had deported 544,105, which is a significant number. Saudi Arabia is also the country where the largest number of Pakistani expatriates are convicted and punished, including hanged, for crimes ranging from cheating to drug-peddling and murder. Saudi Arabia ‘deported 40,000 Pakistani workers over terror fears, according to a report in The Independent on March 23 this year. While an average Pakistani, like Muslims anywhere in the world, shows blind reverence towards anything Saudi (because it is the seat of Islam’s highest shrines), sections of urban liberal classes in Pakistan have occasionally been critical.
Dawn newspaper of Karachi (November 5, 2017) said in an editorial assessing the Saudi developments and expressing grave doubts about the ability of MBS to lead his country towards the promised liberal society: “it is a fact that at its core Saudi Arabia remains a tribal, conservative society.”One of the oft-discussed role the Saudis have played in the recent years has been their role in promoting Wahabi school of Islam across the world and in fomenting trouble in non-Muslim and non-Sunni countries. Western analysts say the Saudi princes and businessmen and the charities they run are responsible for this.
The Saudi clergy has an important role. There is an unwritten agreement with the Saudi Royal family and the hardline clerics, Royal family lets the clerics do what they want in return for their support to keep the family in power. That a large majority of those involved in 9/11 were Saudi nationals is well-known. It has rankled in Saudi-American relations and attempts during the Obama era to permit any American national affected by 9/11 to sue the Saudi Government created a serious situation. Obama had to veto it because the Saudis threatened to withdraw the billions they have invested in American economy. On their part, the Americans have for long been hand-in-glove with the Saudis for countering regimes they do not like in West Asia and have overlooked Saudi role in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
The most significant role in fomenting Jihad has been that of Pakistan. Adam Weinstein, Policy Associate, National Iranian American Council and Veteran of Afghanistan writes that Saudi Arabia and not Iran is the ‘biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today’ and also the ‘source of most radical Islamic extremism’. And the most important importer of the Saudi brand of extremism, he claims, is Pakistan. The simmering in West Asia and the current phase of developments in Saudi Arabia has revealed the emergence of a new order in the region and that also impacts Pakistan. States which stand behind the old, Saudi-Israeli nexus and those who wish to redraw the balance of power include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives. Qatar has been supported by Saudi Arabia’s regional opponent Iran and Turkey. Turkey has been steadily increasing its role in West Asia in recent years, and is seen by the United States as a suitable player to balance Saudi influence in nations like Pakistan. Turkey and Iran now are now actively posturing to challenge Saudi Arabia, as Turkey deploys troops to Qatar and Iran supports the small gulf state with food aid. Should the two states survive the destabilization of coups and terrorism, they are well positioned to benefit from any future reduction in Saudi influence.
(The writer is geo political analyst and the contents of the article are his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)