After the Khashoggi murder, is Imran's visit to Saudi Arabia in Pakistan's best interest?

October 23, 2018

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Prime Minister Imran Khan  with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.—APP
Prime Minister Imran Khan with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.—APP

Saudi Arabia has always enjoyed a cordial relationship with the West. Despite being run by a conservative autocratic monarchy that has little regard for human rights, the kingdom has never really had to deal with pressure from Western governments or media to change its ways.

A key reason for this is the vast amount of money Riyadh is able to pump into not just Western economies — by buying expensive armaments, for instance — but also because they hire expensive PR companies and lobbyists in Washington and London to ensure that Western media is not too harsh in its criticisms of the kingdom.

All that seems to have changed earlier this month when Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist, was brutally murdered and his body dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

His crime: criticising the regime of Mohammed bin Salman, the current crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime could not have, in its wildest imagination, anticipated the international reaction that would follow. Not even when 15 out of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 atrocity were revealed to be Saudi citizens did Riyadh face much in the way of rebuke in the international press.

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What then is different this time? A few things.

First, although journalists have been killed in many countries, and certainly Khashoggi cannot be the first Saudi to have met such a tragic fate, he wrote for the Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in the world, headquartered in the American capital.

For the last year and a half that he wrote for the Post, he hobnobbed with global elite, giving interviews and interacting with those who are responsible for formulating policy internationally.

Contrary to some news reports, Khashoggi was no dissident. His criticism of the Saudi regime was relatively mild and he never advocated an outright rejection of the monarchy, as some less famous Saudis dissidents have.

In fact, he belonged to a very affluent and influential Saudi family. His uncle, Adnan Khashoggi, was a famous arms dealer and was involved in the Iran-Contra affair, and Dodi Al-Fayed, who died with Princess Diana in the car crash in Paris in 1997, was his first cousin.

So he had personal access and insight into the Saudi royal family far beyond the average journalist. Moreover, since Khashoggi went into exile last year, he had become a permanent resident of the United States.

Finally, his murder took place at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This wasn't a hit and run traffic accident which could have been pinned on various culprits.

This was a deliberate attempt to make an example of a critic at an official premises, with official sanction, in a most gruesome manner.

Even by despotic standards, the regime has overstepped.

As Noah Feldman very honestly put it in his column for Bloomberg:

"I’m not proud of it. But I am one of those people who are more viscerally upset by the allegations that journalist Jamal Khashoggi died a brutal death at the hands of Saudi secret police than by the deaths of thousands of people under Saudi bombardment in Yemen.

"The reason isn’t that Khashoggi was a journalist or that he was a legal U.S. resident or that he may have been dismembered, possibly while still alive. It’s much simpler and much less principled than that: It’s because I knew him."

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For many of the journalists who have ensured that this story dominates the international news cycle, this is perhaps the single most important factor, along with the thinking that if this can happen to one journalist without ramification then the chances of this happening to many others around the world escalates. The chances of authoritarian regimes being emboldened also increases.

One would think that given the recent curbs on the press in Pakistan, many in the country would feel the same way.

However, I was a bit surprised to learn, in the last few days, from Twitter and television talk shows, that some journalists in Pakistan didn't see it that way. A contrary view appeared to dominate.

Let's extract what we can financially from Saudi Arabia by standing with them at this time while the rest of the world snubs them, reasoned some.

Not only was this view articulated on the Twitter feed of seasoned journalists, but was also endorsed by talk show hosts and analysts on television.

I do understand that Pakistan is facing a financial crisis and that, for as far back as I can remember, our leadership, whether military or civilian, has prided itself on how adept it is at extracting handouts from "friendly countries" rather than taking the requisite steps to reform the economy.

The new government, for all its talk of change, is no different, and is perhaps feeling the crunch more acutely because of the unrealistic promises it made to the people prior to assuming power, and for being unable, so far, to obtain any sizeable funding from a "friendly country".

As a result, when world business leaders and media groups are boycotting Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative (to be held Oct 23-25), a summit aimed to bolster investor confidence in the kingdom and to reduce its economy's dependence on oil, Prime Minister Imran Khan is attending Davos in the Desert (as the conference is nicknamed), at the special invitation of King Salman. It is important to analyse whether this decision is in Pakistan's interest or not.

I would agree with the rationale that it is in Islamabad's interest to maintain good relations with Riyadh. It is also true that given Pakistan's economic condition, it is not in a position to condemn Saudi Arabia's wrongdoing, and that it is something best left for the more powerful players on the world stage.

However, when Saudi Arabia is being isolated by the international community, and when the British trade secretary, Liam Fox, US treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, along with the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, have all pulled out of the conference, what does Pakistan hope to achieve by making its presence felt?

Is the prime minister sure that by ensuring his presence in Riyadh only weeks after his initial visit (when nothing much was promised to him) he will be able to extract sizeable sums from Saudi Arabia?

And will just standing there in solidarity do the trick or will he also have to make statements praising the kingdom's recent actions?

Let's not forget that Turkey is an important player in the current situation. All the evidence contradicting the official Saudi statements on the Khashoggi murder has been divulged by Ankara, which is rightly miffed at being the scene of this heinous crime.

Not long ago, when Pakistan was placed on the Financial Action Task Force 'grey list', only Turkey stood by Pakistan, while both Saudi Arabia and China refused to do so.

Will Saudi Arabia expect Khan to side with its version of events in the Khashoggi case over Turkey's?

These are important questions to ponder as there is no free lunch in this world.

When Khan and his team visited the kingdom last month, it was widely speculated that Riyadh would condition economic assistance with Pakistan's support for its war in Yemen.

Yet intervention in Yemen, which is not in Pakistan's interest, was resisted by the previous government, with the parliament voting against entering the conflict in 2015, and this has been abided by the current government as well. What has changed in just a few weeks to warrant sudden Saudi generosity?

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Let's also not overlook the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty in Saudi Arabia right now. Mohammed bin Salman's claim to the throne lacks the legitimacy of his predecessors.

Ibn Saud, the founder of the Kingdom Saudi Arabia, had decided that the throne would pass among his sons.

Mohammed bin Salman is not his son but his grandson, who has bypassed a couple of living sons and many older grandsons to lay claim to the throne. His ability to rule the country is very much tied to his acceptability in the West.

As Donald Trump warned King Salman recently, in his characteristic undiplomatic style, that he "would not last two weeks without the backing of the US military".

Though Trump himself is reluctant to censure Mohammed bin Salman, vested as he and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are with him financially, the same cannot be said about the Congress, where a rare bipartisan consensus seems to be emerging that Mohammed bin Salman may need to be replaced.

There have been references to 1964, when King Faisal replaced his brother, King Saud, who was then thought to be unfit to continue ruling.

Add to this the prevailing view that the CIA was never keen on Mohammed bin Salman, as they had been working closely with Mohammed bin Nayef, his older first cousin, whom he had replaced, just last year, and the situation becomes even murkier.

Pakistan's foreign policy decisions should therefore be carefully deliberated and based on a solid understanding of which way the wind is blowing in Western capitals, Turkey and the Gulf.

Of course, Islamabad should do what is right for its interests, but its interests must be well thought out, with a cognisance that building an image on moral authority and in line with international consensus may be more beneficial in the long run than desperate short-term measures with dubious benefit.