Politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows. Throw in poverty and the desperate need for cash and all principles go out the window. This is what was on display during the two-day visit of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) to Pakistan (February 17–18). To the delight of his hosts, MbS signed some $20 billion worth of agreements to invest in Pakistan, the largest being the $10 billion investment in an oil refinery in Gwadar, the strategic Pakistani port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The lavish pomp and ceremony clearly pleased MbS who has been shunned by others in recent weeks because of the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. In late November when MbS embarked on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals on his way to Buenos Aeris for the G20 summit, Morocco’s King Hasan refused to meet him. The snub did not sit well with the Saudi royal. Last month, the UN investigation team also fingered MbS for Khashoggi’s murder.
While Pakistani leaders — civilians and military — feted the Saudi visitor and his large retinue, parts of Islamabad were under virtual lockdown to ensure their safety and security. Seldom before have such security measures have been put in place for any visitor despite assertions by Prime Minister Imran Khan that MbS was “very popular in Pakistan”!
Let us understand what the Saudis promised. They did not give bakhshish; a number of Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs) worth $20 billion were signed. MoUs are mere pledges to invest in various projects, not cash in the bank. Even with the best of intentions, these take years to materialize.
The only tangible outcome of the visit was the release of some 2,000 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails at the specific request of Prime Minister Khan. The Saudi regime is notorious for locking up poor expatriates on minor infractions, all the while red-carpeting the mega-criminals from Israel, Europe, and America. And of all foreign workers, Pakistanis are treated with disdain and referred to as “miskin” and “rafiq” that carry derogatory connotations.
While Pakistan-Saudi relations are decades old, these are based on what each side expects from the other. The Saudis — or more precisely the ruling family — seek protection that a trusted ally like Pakistan can provide. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani military has traditionally played a large role in the two countries’ relations. Contingents of the Pakistan army are deployed under the rubric of “protecting the kingdom” — from whom, one wonders.
Islamabad’s expectations are financial support and employment for its poor workers in the Kingdom. In recent years, the Saudi regime has expelled large numbers of these workers. From a high of more than 462,000 Pakistani workers in the Kingdom in 2017, this number declined to 142,000 in one year. Some friendship.
Relations between states are based on mutual interests — and respect. Under MbS, the Saudi regime has entered a dangerous phase. He is rash and given to impulsive decisions. Yemen and Qatar are ready examples. He has messed up both. Similarly, MbS has adopted an extremely aggressive policy toward Islamic Iran and all Islamic movements struggling for freedom and self-determination. Saudi hostility toward the Palestinian struggle and Hizbullah also stand out as examples of how irresponsible MbS can be.
It is, however, Saudi irrational hostility toward Islamic Iran that impacts Pakistan directly. On February 18, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, ‘Adil al-Jubayr, lashed out at Iran accusing it of being the “biggest sponsor of terrorism.” This is the canard peddled by the Americans and the Zionists. Al-Jubayr made these scandalous allegations while addressing a press conference with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad.
While Qureshi was much more circumspect, would it not have been appropriate to remind the Saudis that they are the biggest sponsors of terrorism? Al-Qaeda and ISIS are Saudi brands. Hundreds of Saudi-financed madrasahs in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere churn out terrorists by the truckloads who have caused havoc to Pakistan’s social fabric.
If Pakistan is not careful, it could easily get sucked into the vortex of Saudi anti-Muslim policies that would cost it dearly. Pakistan has long borders with both Iran and Afghanistan. It is in Pakistan’s interest to maintain good relations with both given its historical enmity with India. Rising tensions on the Line of Control in Kashmir point to this ever-present danger.
Pakistan should make sure that it does not serve as a “hired gun” for anybody: be it the Americans or the Saudis.