The Saudi controversy By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The News, September 14, 2007
There was a time in Pakistan when Saudi Arabia was above reproach. Politicians would criticize any country they felt like, except the Saudi kingdom and, obviously, China. There was also a kind of self-censorship in the media to not say anything bad about the Saudis. All that has now changed and a glance at the newspapers of the last few days would show that public opinion has started turning against the Saudi government, due to its controversial role in Nawaz Sharif's deportation.
It is no longer a secret that the monarchy of Saudi Arabia was party to the decision made by the authorities in Pakistan to deport Mian Nawaz Sharif to Jeddah. Otherwise, the Saudis would not have allowed the former prime minister's plane to fly to their kingdom from Islamabad, or made those unprecedented last-ditch efforts to persuade him not to return to Pakistan.
Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, brother and special envoy of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, earlier made a meaningful comment during his Islamabad press conference in the company of 37-year old Lebanese politician, Saad Hariri. He said that Nawaz Sharif would be welcomed in Saudi Arabia. This clearly indicates that the decision to deport Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia was taken during Prince Muqrin's visit to Islamabad and his meeting with President General Pervez Musharraf that lasted over three hours. The plan to send Nawaz Sharif back to Saudi Arabia was finalized once the consent of the Saudi intelligence chief was obtained.
As hapless Pakistanis watched in bewilderment, Prince Muqrin and Saad Hariri publicly said in Islamabad that Nawaz Sharif should not return home from his exile in view of the deal that bound him to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. The two held a press conference after meeting President Musharraf and other government functionaries, and showed the document that contained the said deal. It was unprecedented for an intelligence chief, that too belonging to the secret kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to address a news conference. It makes one wonder whether Saudi Arabia would similarly allow a Pakistani intelligence chief to address a press conference in Riyadh and pass judgment on an internal political issue concerning the Saudi kingdom. In Prince Muqrin's view, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Nawaz Sharif was paramount as it was reached prior to the judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that allowed the former prime minister to return home from exile. The Saudi Prince, by making this flawed comparison, reduced the importance of the verdict of Pakistan's apex court. This was something that he should have avoided. Such remarks could provoke criticism of the Saudi role and affect the hitherto close bonds between the Pakistani people and the Saudi kingdom.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that most Pakistanis are blaming the Saudi government for Nawaz Sharif's deportation to Jeddah in violation of the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. For the first time in their lives, many people in Pakistan are publicly criticizing Saudi Arabia for interfering in Pakistani affairs and damaging the movement for democracy and the rule of law. The Saudi royal family is also facing criticism for belittling Pakistan's judiciary and strengthening General Musharraf's hands by siding with the unpopular military ruler instead of taking the side of the 160 million Pakistanis.
In addition to this, most Pakistanis are convinced that the Saudi government decided to intervene forcefully in Pakistan's affairs at the behest of the US, in a bid to keep Nawaz Sharif out of the country and stop him from foiling plans for an American-backed political deal between President Musharraf and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. The Saudi royals have never been so visible while trying to play a role in Pakistani politics. By putting their reputation at stake and exposing themselves to criticism, the Saudis have acted in an uncharacteristic manner. Was all this done in accordance with the wishes of the US? No amount of denials would change the perception of the majority of Pakistanis who believe that the US used the Saudis to remove Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan so that he doesn't become a threat to the Musharraf regime. Visits to Pakistan by several US government functionaries, such as Richard Boucher, whose trip was kept secret, and John Negroponte, at this crucial stage are being cited as examples of Washington's efforts to influence the composition of Pakistan's future political set-up.
Although successive Pakistani governments and rulers have often allowed outsiders to become involved in the country's affairs for their vested political interests, the government of President Musharraf has surpassed all previous regimes in enabling foreigners to influence decision-making in Pakistan. The American superpower has always played a key role in deciding what is best for Pakistan, but its interference has become more visible and obtrusive during the Musharraf rule. This has emboldened other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and even Lebanon to put pressure on Pakistan to address their concerns and do their bidding.
Pressure from ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair and Prince Charles prompted President Musharraf to pardon the convicted killer, Mirza Tahir Hussain, and send him to his adopted country, United Kingdom, instead of sending him to the gallows, despite the fact that he had murdered a taxi driver, Jamshed Khan. Furthermore, pressure from the French government forced the Musharraf regime to ban two Islamic NGOs, Lajnatul Da'awa and Lajnatul Bir – though both were working in Pakistan for the benefit of poor people and orphaned children. The allegation against the two NGOs --that they were funding terrorist groups-- was never proven. Moreover, pressure from Afghanistan, and possibly the US, prompted the Musharraf government to deliver captured Taliban members to the Afghan government. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan's last ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was handed over to the US in violation of diplomatic norms. Scores of Arab nationals and Afghans accused of being members of Al Qaeda and Taliban were also delivered to the US without fulfilling legal requirements under Pakistani law. This emboldened Egypt and several other Arab and Central Asian countries with whom Pakistan had no extradition treaties, to demand custody of their nationals captured or hiding in Pakistan. These are, but some examples of how Pakistan was made to succumb to pressure from a number of countries to accede to their demands. It is doubtful if Pakistan got anything in return.
It is painful to observe that many Pakistanis are now openly critical of the Saudi monarchy. Both, the Saudi government, as well as Nawaz Sharif are at fault. One burnt its fingers by meddling in Pakistan's troublesome politics, while the other agreed to a deal to stay out of Pakistan and politics for 10 years, in order to save himself from the life sentence given to him by courts influenced by General Musharraf's regime. The Musharraf government, too, cannot absolve itself of the blame because it got the Saudis involved in the game plan to keep its biggest opponent, Nawaz Sharif, out of Pakistan.
The same Pakistanis that are now angry with the Saudi rulers, once had great affection for the country that contained two of Islam's holiest cities, Makkah and Madina. Some of that affection was passed on to the Saudi king on account of the feeling that he took good care of the holy cities as well as the Haram Sharif and Masjid-i-Nabawi, the mosque of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). As the custodians of the two holy mosques, successive Saudi kings were highly respected in Pakistan. However, the situation has changed following Nawaz Sharif's deportation with the connivance of the Saudi government. Already, there is a vocal criticism of the Saudi royals and their government. Now, issues such as the exploitation of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia or the uninhibited hunting sprees of Saudi princes in Pakistan, would be highlighted instead of being ignored. As a consequence, Pakistan's relations with Saudi Arabia will never be the same again.
The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org