DAWN - Editorial; August 2, 2005

02 Aug 2005


The outlook after Fahd

KING Fahd’s death on Monday removes from the scene a Saudi monarch who had the courage and wisdom to initiate long overdue reform in his country. Trained by no less a person than Saudi Arabia’s legendary warrior- founder, King Abdel Aziz bin Saud, Fahd took up the task of the kingdom’s transformation into a modern state after he became king in 1982 following the death of his brother, King Khalid. It is true that the process of turning the kingdom into a modern state was started by his brother, Faisal, but it was Fahd who gave Saudi Arabia its modern infrastructure and ambience. In specific terms, this meant the building of modern roads, hospitals, schools and colleges, besides the development of industry and agriculture so as to diversify the economy away from oil. Fahd was attuned to the task, because he became king after a long experience in administration and diplomacy.

His induction into the art of governance began at age 30 when he became minister for education in 1953 and crown prince in 1975, when Khalid became king. As crown prince, Fahd played an active role in Middle Eastern affairs. The biggest of his diplomatic initiatives was the eight-point plan for a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Like most Arab-Israeli peace plans, it, too, failed to achieve peace. It was also in his reign that Saudi Arabia signed a border agreement with Oman and removed a major irritant in its relationship with Yemen when it finally delineated the border with it.

However, the real challenge before Fahd was the kingdom’s reform. The task before him was to launch reforms without creating political fissures and social upheaval. On the one hand, there were those who wanted a quicker pace of modernization; on the other, there were conservative elements who feared a loss of Saudi culture and traditions. Fahd chose to follow the middle path that saw the formation of a consultative council and a restructuring of the regional governments. His biggest achievement was to weld his country’s disparate and diverse tribal elements into one unified nation. As a philanthropist, Fahd spent generously on charitable causes, including $100 million for social services and utility purposes in Israeli-occupied territories. Pakistan enjoyed a special place in Fahd’s scheme of things. Following the 1998 nuclear tests, when Pakistan was in a tight economic situation, it received oil worth nearly five billion dollars virtually free.

After Fahd, the task of leading Saudi Arabia now devolves on his half- brother, Abdullah, who has practically been the ruler since Fahd suffered a stroke a decade ago. King Abdullah’s task will be to continue the reforms while, at the same time, making greater effort to mobilize the resources of the Arab world for the benefit of the Arab people. In spite of having immense oil wealth, Arab rulers have failed to act in unison. They are mere spectators to the shedding of Arab blood in Palestine and Iraq and are often seen as collaborators of foreign powers. The events of 9/11 and the war on terror have drawn Saudi Arabia also in the vortex of terrorism, and created a new threat of extremism within the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is expected to play a greater role in ending the human tragedy in Iraq and Afghanistan and in finding a solution to the Palestinian and Kashmiri problems which have been a source of major unrest in the Muslim world.

Maternal & child health

IT is a sign of weak political will that despite making various strategies to strengthen the health system in the country, we have not come anywhere near achieving the millennium development targets set by the UN for the global community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of maternal and infant health, which, what with the high population growth rate and the poor state of the medical sector, has shown no signs of improvement. The under-five mortality rate is 107 per 1,000 live births, making it the worst among the South Asian countries. The maternal mortality rate — 500 per 100,000 live births — is a little better than that of some other countries in the region. Given that there has been no significant improvement over the years (in 1970, the under-five mortality figure was 181), how can one feel confident that the latest endeavour — the likely approval of a Rs. 31 billion national maternal and child health plan — will be successful in curbing these mortality rates?

The fact of the matter is that maternal and child health is closely linked to the overall health system that has virtually collapsed in the rural areas where the bulk of the population lives. This is the reason why women are forced to resort to the services of unskilled midwives who are often responsible for causing the death of mother or child or of both. Besides, there is poor vaccination coverage for children, who, malnourished and exposed to unhygienic living conditions, often fall prey to totally preventable diseases. Here too, matters are aggravated as in the absence of qualified medical staff at the rural health centres, parents often take their ailing children to quacks for treatment. Against this backdrop, it is necessary for the health authorities to take stock of their failures and remove lapses and deficiencies that are there. This is important if they wish to use the expected funds judiciously, ensuring that they are spent in a manner that will produce good results.

Another leopard attack

LEOPARDS have been in the news lately. A couple of weeks ago, two alleged man-eaters were trapped and shot dead by NWFP wildlife officials, who had called in police commandos after six villagers were killed in a spate of attacks in the Galiyat area. Now, another leopard attack has been reported, this time from a village near Chitral. Thankfully, no one except a few cattle were killed. One hopes the NWFP wildlife department will not overreact this time as it did in Nathiagali, where forensic tests showed that one of the leopards killed was not a man-eater.

The fact is that leopards kill only for food and not for the fun of it which humans often do. They attack humans only when provoked or if their natural habitat is encroached upon. That probably explains the attacks in Nathiagali, which lies at the edge of a protected forest reserve and where the leopard population has in the past few years increased to a few dozen. Quite possibly, it’s not even a case of the leopards encroaching on the habitat of humans but the other way round. At any rate, even if that happens, the solution does not lie in killing the intruding animal but in trying to trap it and put it in a cage in a zoo. For instance, in the Nathiagali case, there was no need to shoot one leopard because it had already been trapped inside a cage. A tranquilizing gun would have done the job equally well. The mishandling of the Nathiagali attacks reflects the NWFP wildlife department’s lack of sensitivity and experience to tackle such situations. On a wider scale, it is merely one symptom of the general lackadaisical approach to the conservation of wildlife and the environment. The construction spree in the hills itself poses a serious threat to the natural habitat.