ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented move that sent alarm bells ringing across Pakistani diplomatic missions abroad, the government has suspended the outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia and recalled six of the diplomats posted at the embassy in Riyadh on allegation of improper treatment of the Pakistanis living in the kingdom.

An inquiry has also been ordered against the ambassador and the recalled diplomats.

Raja Ali Ejaz, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was suspended weeks before his retirement and called back to Islamabad at a short notice. Prime Minister Imran Khan personally met Mr Ejaz on his return and censured him.

The development was formally announced by the Foreign Office on Thursday after Prime Minister Khan, at an event held in connection with the Roshan digital accounts, disclosed that he had decided to act against the staff at the embassy in Riyadh.

The move comes ahead of Mr Khan’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

Probe ordered over inefficiency in provision of services, extortion, fleecing of expatriates, failure to solve problems of the community

Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry, speaking at the weekly media briefing, said: “Our ambassador has already returned and orders have been issued for the recall of six more officers of the diplomatic, community welfare and consular wings of the embassy.”

He said the FO had a policy of “zero tolerance, whatsoever, for any lapse in the public service delivery”.

The recalled diplomats include the deputy head of mission, counsellor, two community welfare attachés, and officials of Nadra and machine readable passport. They have been given 10-day notices to return to Pakistan.

The action has reportedly been prompted by the complaints of the diaspora in Saudi Arabia.

The complaints about the embassy and its diplomatic staff had been coming in since the start of Covid-19 pandemic last year. A Pakistani diplomat recalled that there were so many complaints following death of some Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia due to the pandemic that the government had at that time almost decided to replace Amb Ejaz.

The matter was even discussed on the floor of the National Assembly, but a couple of PTI ministers on that occasion came to the rescue of the ambassador, who somehow managed to continue in the office.

Although the exact nature of the complaints remains unknown, a diplomatic source said the action against the diplomats came after an incident involving a woman, who visited the embassy for getting a one-page travel document for returning to Pakistan after losing her passport. She was reportedly made to wait the whole day after which a senior diplomat turned up and threatened to get her arrested by the Saudi authorities. However, the incident was prevented from turning further ugly due to diplomats posted at another wing of the embassy. The woman later reported the matter to Prime Minister Office (PMO).

The terms of reference contained in the letter from the PMO ordering the initiation of the inquiry offer some insight into the complaints against the recalled diplomats. The ToRs say the PM’s Inspection Commission would probe inefficiency in provision of services, extortion and fleecing of expatriates, and failure to resolve problems of the community.

The commission has been given 15 days to submit its report to the prime minister.

Saudi Arabia hosts some two million Pakistani expatriates who send remittances valuing at $4.5 billion every year.

Mr Khan at the digital accounts event said that it was unfortunate that Pakistani embassies, which should have appreciated our hardworking expatriates, did not do so. He then went on to say that he had found out that the embassy in Riyadh was not providing the services it should have and that he had ordered an inquiry. He vowed to take action against those responsible.

The incident in Saudi Arabia has exposed, in a stark manner, the Achilles heel of the Foreign Office – its poor performance in consular services.

The evacuation flights last year exposed the corruption in Pakistan consulates in Dubai, Riyadh, Frankfurt and Jeddah where embassies were closed during Covid-19 using the so-called online mantra.

Overseas Pakistanis in Europe, however, point out to the consulate in Barcelona as an exception where the consul general himself remains available to the 120,000-member strong community. The consul general and all of his 17-member staff suffered coronavirus infection at different stages, but the mission kept its doors open even on Sundays.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, at a meeting with FO officers, had said he had time and again asked the foreign secretary to post such officers in the missions who had a desire to serve the people. Praising Pakistani consul general in Barcelona, he said the FO needed officers like him.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2021

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