WHAT could be more disarming than to be chauffeured by a debonair, dusky prime minister? (Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau does not qualify. His duskiness was self-applied.)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has not forgotten Prime Minister Imran Khan’s endearing hospitality. He reciprocated by opening the doors of the Holy Ka’aba for Imran Khan to enter Islam’s holiest epicentre, a privilege the Saudis extend only to those they allow close to them.
Then, the crown prince, on learning that Imran Khan and his economical delegation were travelling to the US on a mundane commercial flight, offered his own personal jet to ferry them instead. But for the vexatious Yemenis, he would have piloted his flying palace himself.
Over the years, Pakistani rulers have become accustomed to such spontaneous acts of Saudi largesse. In mid-December 2000, a deposed prime minister — Nawaz Sharif — was released from Attock fort where he had been sentenced to life imprisonment, convicted of kidnapping, hijacking and corruption. He had been incarcerated there for 14 months when suddenly he and his family were flown out of Pakistan in a private jet belonging to the Saudi royal family. Immediately after his arrival at Makkah, he performed umrah, thankful for his unexpected deliverance.
What do the Saudis gain from such benefactions?
In March 2004, president general Pervez Musharraf visited Saudi Arabia where, according to his then information minister Sheikh Rashid (now Imran Khan’s voluble minister of railways), Musharraf held a “one-on-one meeting with the Saudi Arabian leadership and discussed issues including Kashmir, Palestine, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Sheikh Rashid’s effervescence bubbled: “President General Pervez Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader who has been blessed with the honour of going to the roof of Khana Ka’aba after performing umrah.”
Later, in 2016, Musharraf revealed in an interview that “a few months [after] leaving Pakistan he went to Saudi Arabia to perform umrah and King Abdullah then asked him where he was staying. Musharraf said King Abdullah considered him as a younger brother and gave him a big amount of money by opening a bank account in his name in London. He said a team of Saudi officials came to him at midnight and got his signatures on papers to open the bank account.”
More recently, retired Gen Raheel Sharif (the first army chief in over 20 years to retire without an extension) has been given a lucrative sinecure by the Saudis. He is employed as commander-in-chief of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. What explanation, one wonders, would this new C-in-C have given his employers for not anticipating the crippling attack on their oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais?
One news report contends that the Saudi defence equipment there proved “ineffective … due to the inability to track and engage low flying targets”. The British Guardian newspaper gave a different explanation. “The [Saudi] defences were pointed in the wrong direction [,] pointed across the Gulf towards Iran and south towards Yemen.” The Israelis once joked about an Egyptian tank being designed with the unusual configuration of three reverse and one forward gears. The three reverse gears were needed should the Israelis attack from the front, and the forward gear in case they made a surprise attack from the rear.
A recent press conference by the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs in Riyadh provided no clarity. He explained that he was sure the attack “was not launched from the Yemen, but from the north”. He disclosed that the Saudis had asked the UN and other countries to conduct a probe into the attacks. When that probe is completed, the Saudis will decide on “appropriate procedures” to respond to the aggression.
Could any communiqué have been more benign or forgiving, or dilatory? By asking the UN to probe into the drone and missile attacks on its vital oil facilities, the Saudis seem to be deliberately inviting delay. Neither the Saudi crown prince nor Imran Khan will recall that it took the three-member UN Commission of Inquiry nine months to investigate the death of Benazir Bhutto. And even then, the commission concluded that “it remains the responsibility of the Pakistani authorities to carry out a serious, credible criminal investigation”.
Dare one ask what do the Saudis gain from such open-pursed benefactions to our representatives? And why do our leaders degenerate so readily into postures of obsequious gratitude? It is rumoured that the Saudis are behind furtive overtures to free an earlier favourite, Nawaz Sharif. He is currently serving a second prison sentence. Prime Minister Imran Khan has sworn he will not release him. Yet, his record shows that he can take a U-turn whenever it is expedient.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif can boast a qualification his successor does not have, as yet. He has at least two convictions.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2019