NON-FICTION: THE PAK-SAUDI ROLLERCOASTER

Published January 9, 2022
Imran Khan welcoming Mohammed bin Salman on the crown prince’s visit to Pakistan in 2019 | Dawn file photo
Imran Khan welcoming Mohammed bin Salman on the crown prince’s visit to Pakistan in 2019 | Dawn file photo

Shahid Amin’s new book, Pakistan’s Relations with Saudi Arabia, is a seasoned diplomat’s critical study of the two countries’ spasmodic relationship, characterised as much by fraternal fondness as by misgivings, mistrust and motives often misunderstood.

The founding of Pakistan led to an understandable feeling of joy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the happiest man being Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the third KSA. But as time passed, clashing national interests in the harsh world of geopolitics often led to a chill which, in some cases, turned into red-hot royal anger, with a king threatening to break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan.

Initially, there were basically two reasons for Pakistan’s disappointment over the Arab response to the Kashmir issue and the Arab governments’ indifference to our pan-Islamic sentiments. One, the Arabs — as pointed out by author Amin — are a minority in the international Muslim community and fear that a pan-Islamic agenda will sideline them. The second, for reasons of geography and history, the Arabs are Mediterranean-oriented and know little of South Asian history.

This became evident when former president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, followed by the tripartite attack on Egypt, triggered a wave of angry Arab nationalism that altered the Middle East’s geopolitical ecology. Like most Arab leaders, Nasser was ignorant of Pakistan’s history and security concerns and reacted with anger against its membership in the United States-led military pacts. In contrast, India’s non-aligned policy made Nasser and his followers consider India — much to Pakistan’s consternation — a friend of the Arabs.

It went to then Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s credit that he reached out to the Arab world’s republican camp in a big way, as evidenced by the presence of giants such as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Syrian president Hafez al Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Palestine’s Yasser Arafat and Algeria’s Houari Boumedienne at the historic Islamic summit in Lahore in 1974.

A former ambassador’s book offers critical insight and valuable research material on the often-misunderstood relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Amin served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1993 to 1997. In his book, he takes a professional look at Islamabad’s dealings with Riyadh, as he carries the reader along the bumpy highway of Pakistan-Saudi relations from 1947 to this day, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is at the helm (Kabul’s fall to the Taliban on Aug 15, 2021, came late for the book).

Personally involved in high-level talks, the author tells us of negotiations which are still not in the public domain, but which played a major part in defusing acute diplomatic crises.

The Saudi attitude towards Pakistan has ranged from fraternal oneness to frustration and feelings even of betrayal. While Saudi Arabia plied Pakistan with aid, Riyadh felt shocked when our parliament passed a resolution pledging Islamabad’s neutrality in the Yemen war. Other Gulf monarchies, too, thought Pakistan had betrayed them on a crucial issue, basically because they failed to realise the importance that Pakistan attached to its ties with Iran.

That Pakistan should stay neutral even though a former Pakistan army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, continues to head an international, Saudi-sponsored anti-terrorism alliance, is just one of the many examples of the kind of complicated, ‘lovers’ quarrel’ relationship the two countries have.

King Faisal cried over our army’s surrender in Dhaka in 1971; Prince Mishaal, Faisal’s brother and governor of Makkah, offered to fight for Pakistan during the 1965 War with India, and Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz once told the author that Pakistan was Saudi Arabia’s “number one friend in the world and Pakistan would be the first country … Saudi Arabia would turn to whenever it needed security support.”

More importantly, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose policy has often bewildered us Pakistanis, once remarked: “I am Pakistan’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia.” However, this is the same crown prince who, according to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to expel all Pakistani expatriates from the kingdom if Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the Kuala Lumpur summit in 2019. Amin’s book, however, makes no reference to Erdogan’s claim.

Ultimately, it is Arabism that prevails, and let us note in passing how the word ‘billion’ is bandied about when it comes to Saudi aid. Our rulers, for instance, consider it a diplomatic triumph when the kingdom grants them a loan of three billion dollars; contrast this with the 92 billion dollars that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have doled out to Egypt since 2011, even though — as pointed out by the author — Cairo has never given Riyadh the kind of security guarantee Islamabad has.

Similarly, in the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia gave 30 billion dollars to Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein.

The book dwells knowledgeably on Saudi interest in Pakistan’s nuclear programme and makes clear that the reports in the Western media about Riyadh’s desire to acquire nukes from Islamabad were apocryphal. But the book quotes Ian Bremmer, chief of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, as saying: “Saudi Arabia already has a nuclear programme. It’s called Pakistan.” No wonder Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the only foreigner to have visited Kahuta, the hub of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

No book on Pakistan-Saudi relations can be complete without the role Riyadh played in the pardon granted to Nawaz Sharif after his conviction in the hijack drama, the royal asylum provided to the former prime minister and his premature return home. Pakistan’s Relations with Saudi Arabia contains the texts of the two agreements between the Sharif family and the military government headed by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Besides giving an exhaustive account of the seven decades of the rollercoaster Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship, the book rightly focuses on Afghanistan, because of the importance the two countries attach to Pakistan’s western neighbour.

From this point of view, it is an inestimable book because of the author’s enviable knowledge of the phenomenon that is Afghanistan and the four decades of trauma its people have been through. In fact, the chapters on Afghanistan are a cornucopia of personalities, parties and splinter groups involved in the cutthroat struggle for power, as blood flowed and especially during the chaos in which Mullah Omar founded the Taliban.

On a less geopolitical level, the reader must be grateful to some Pakistanis who evoked Saudi monarchs’ respect for their professional competence and dedication to Saudi causes. These included the International Monetary Fund’s director for the Middle East, Pakistan’s Anwar Ali, who became a close friend of Prince (later King) Faisal and organised Saudi finances — it was under Ali’s signature that Saudi bank notes were issued in 1958 — or Dr Fazlur Rahman, the physician who was so close to King Khalid that, for years, he had meals with him daily.

 The book also recalls some forgotten incidents, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser saying that the “Suez is as dear to Egypt as Kashmir to India”, and Saudis welcoming India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1956 as “rasool-us-salaam” [prophet of peace], thus triggering a storm in Pakistan, with Dawn writing a hard-hitting editorial on the issue. There were personal attacks in the press on the Saudi monarch, who threatened to sever diplomatic relations. This, according to the author, was the lowest point in our relations with KSA.

While the relationship between the Saudi royal family and Wahhabism “over 300 years” has been adequately explained, what is missing in the book is the tragic end of the first and second Saudi states, and the role played by the Ottomans’ Albanian governor Mehmet Ali Pasha and his son Ibrahim, in destroying the first Saudi emirate and the execution of the Saudi potentate.

The book also endlessly repeats the differences between the Barelvi and Deobandi schools of thought, and, on a technical note, at multiple instances the editors have invariably ignored the definite article before gerunds but, on the whole, ambassador Amin’s book is valuable research material on Pakistan-Saudi relations.

The reviewer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author

Pakistan’s Relations with Saudi Arabia
By Shahid M. Amin
Paramount, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696379690
281pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 9th, 2022

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