KUDOS to the prime minister for ensuring that the beleaguered economy and the markets were buoyed as he secured a bailout package from a Khashoggi murder-weakened Saudi Arabia ‘unconditionally’.
On assuming office, Imran Khan went on his maiden foreign trip to the kingdom, amid speculation that he would ask the Saudis for help in meeting a critical current account deficit at home but nothing materialised.
On return, his chief spokesman and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told TV anchor Asma Shirazi that no deal had been reached as the Khan government was not prepared to agree to ‘conditionalities’ that would have come with any such package. But, a few weeks later, a much-needed shot in the arm for Pakistan came, in the words of Finance Minister Asad Umar, “without any conditions” in the spirit that has marked relations between the two countries, and Islamabad would stand “behind” the Saudis in “difficult circumstances”.
Over the course of just a few weeks, the only changed circumstances for the regime owed to the case of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered inside the kingdom’s consulate-General in Istanbul allegedly by a 15-member hit squad that flew in from Saudi Arabia and left within hours of the killing.
For any mediation to work, all parties to the conflict would need to be assured of the neutrality of the mediator.
Amid an international outrage, first the Saudis denied any such happening. Then a drip-leak of information by its regional rival Turkey, which was clearly carrying out extensive electronic surveillance including eavesdropping of Riyadh’s diplomatic mission, softened Riyadh into admission of some responsibility.
As we speak, an official investigation is continuing into the murder, with Saudi Arabia having conceded that The Washington Post writer was murdered inside the mission. At the same time, it blamed the ‘grave mistake’ on rogue officials working under strongman Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or MBS as he is known internationally.
The most striking aspect of the Saudi Pakistan bailout was that on his return the prime minister declared that Pakistan would mediate in order to secure peace in Yemen, which has been battered by two years of Saudi-UAE joint bombing campaign against the Shia Houthi militia.
The Houthis overthrew the pro-Saudi government in the country, and the air campaign to punish them has resulted in thousands of deaths. Reports from Yemen speak of serious starvation with hundreds of thousands of children suffering from malnutrition and facing death as a blockade remains in place.
When pressed for details on Geo TV about whether those involved in the conflict have agreed to Pakistan’s mediation, Fawad Chaudhry said a ‘leader of Yemeni opposition had tweeted to Prime Minister Imran Khan to help mediate’.
When asked for the name of this leader, the minister said he did not remember offhand and asked Shazeb Khanzada, the anchor, to google it. However, elsewhere the prime minister’s special assistant on media was a bit more serious.
Iftikhar Durrani said that the prime minister raised the issue of mediating in the conflict with the Saudi leaders who responded positively. Frankly, despite a little more detail, there is not much clarity on the issue.
The Yemen conflict is seen as part of the regional arm-wrestling for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia along with its regional and Western allies. So, does Pakistani mediation imply a larger role for Islamabad in lowering temperatures in the region?
Even the most optimistic view would leave me with serious doubts that with so much unhappiness with Pakistan for its supposed reticence in helping deliver peace in Afghanistan, where it is viewed as wielding decisive influence over one of the combatants, a greater regional role would come its way.
Unless, of course, the Saudis are so damaged by the Khashoggi atrocity that they are now keen to re-evaluate their regional ambitions including abandoning the desire to control who calls the shots in Yemen.
That in turn would also imply that a pro-Iran fighting force, the Houthis, may well be left ensconced in Yemen. Given the global and regional state of play of policies and events, that seems highly unlikely as US and Israel (and the Saudis) have given no hint of changing their mind about what they see as the Iranian threat.
In fact, as we speak there are indications that President Trump’s national security adviser, the rabid hardliner-neoconservative, John Bolton is laying out plans to ‘defang’ Iran by tightening sanctions and by keeping the military option on the table.
Iran can only stiffen its posture in the face of this policy. Of course, Tehran would be encouraged not to back off by its successes in Syria and to an extent in Iraq, though these ‘wins’ and the ambitions they indicate may be counterproductive as these put it in the cross hairs of the Washington hardliners.
For any mediation to work, all parties to a conflict would need to be assured of the neutrality of the mediator. However, historically, Pakistan has been an integral part of the camp whose interests are on a collision course with Iran’s.
So, Islamabad’s neutrality would remain suspect in the eyes of the Iranian leadership even though Imran Khan has consistently said he opposes all conflict within the Muslim world and offered to help mediate an end to these.
Transparency has rarely been a strong point of those who have ruled us and we have been fed a steady diet of grandiose promises/plans, mostly lies. This government that promises to be different, so one expects more clarity.
Perhaps, time for the foreign minister to dispel all misgivings and state categorically there is no hidden cost of the Saudi bailout such as sending of more of our troops to the kingdom.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2018
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