COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan in the Eyes of Saudi Arabia
Weekly Pulse
September 21-27, 2007
Just the publication of a recent photo in the local press, Nawaz Sharif meeting with Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was enough to twist public opinion in favour of Saudi Arabia and the PML (N) leader. This happened within days after the so-called deportation of Mr Sharif by the Musharraf regime to Saudi Arabia generating domestic public criticism of the latter, an incident that also appeared to be going against the PML (N) leader’s hitherto growing profile in the volatile politics of Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with the Saudi leader establishes the generosity of his Saudi hosts: despite the fact that the PML (N) leader may have violated the 10-year exile pledge he made to the Saudi leadership by returning to Pakistan three years before, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has been gracious enough to invite and meet him in his palace.

Given that, it could be argued that if, instead of flying to Islamabad, Mr Sharif had landed in Riyadh and tried to convince his long-time Saudi friend and host that he wanted to return to Pakistan in response to the call from his people during the country’s most tumultuous political moments, then King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz may have heeded his plea and attempted to find a via media for his comeback to the country.

Even at present, given the sort of personal rapport that Mr Sharif has developed with the Saudi leadership during his two stints in power and even during years of exile in Saudi Arabia, he must be enjoying the most hospitable stay at his personal “palace” in Jeddah, if not the Royal Palace he lived in before.

Undue Criticism

Saudi Arabia may not have played its cards properly, when it publicly attempted to support General Musharraf’s contention about the 10-year deal that Mr Sharif had concluded with the Saudi leadership, which he had denied altogether in the past; however, contending, after the joint press conference by Saudi intelligence chief and Saad Hariri in Pakistan, that the actual period agreed in the deal was five years.

The Sharif Given the scale of unpopularity of General Musharraf at home, and the rising political graph of Mr Sharif in the wake of the reported deal between the government and PPP of benazir Bhutto, it was but natural that Saudi bid in support of the government to expose the deal on the eve of Mr Sharif’s return from London would not go down well among Pakistani people in general and supporters of (PML (N) in particular. No surprise that when the government forcibly sent Mr Sharif to Saudi Arabia, the immediate public reaction in the country reflected mixed feelings of disappointment and anger vis-à-vis the Saudi government—a situation that was certainly exploited by forces hostile to Saudi interests in Pakistan. It was particularly unfortunate to see Saudi Arabia being made the target of a media campaign aimed at jeopardizing the historic ties that exist between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Saudi Contribution

The two countries have always enjoyed an incomparable level of understanding and friendship based on common religion, and cultural and social values. Saudi Arabia has always extended total and unqualified support to Pakistan through all its phases of tension and difficulties.

Well over one million expatriate Pakistanis are living and working in Saudi Arabia, and they are an important source of foreign remittances for the country. In the wake of the October 2005 earthquake, Saudi authorities had set up an air bridge with Pakistan to ensure steady supply of relief goods for the earthquake affected people. Saudi Arabia additionally pledged US$ 453 million for rebuilding and rehabilitation tasks in the affected areas.

Saudi Arabia also has the distinction of being a country that helped Pakistan in one of the most difficult times of its history, when it was forced by India to test nuclear weapons. The consequent financial crisis could have ruined Pakistan, had the Saudi government not rescued it by agreeing to supply oil on deferred payments. For years after the nuclear tests of 1998, Pakistan continued to make use of this great Saudi help.

Pakistan is also one of the principal destinations of Saudi investment and trade at a time when the Kingdom is looking for diversifying its global economic pursuits and reaching out to Asia’s fast emerging economies like China and Malaysia. The current annual trade volume between the two countries stands at well over $3 billion, and contributions worth tens of millions of dollars in direct foreign investment, including by private Saudi individuals, are being made from Saudi Arabia for the development of Pakistan’s real estate, tourism, infrastructural and industrial development.

The Saudi leadership has also facilitated Pakistan’s proactive engagement at the platform of the Organization of Islamic Conference, which has institutionalized Pakistani leadership’s strategy of Enlightened Moderation as a counterpoise to religious extremism and terrorism in its ten-year reforms agenda for tackling challenges facing the Muslim world in the twenty-first century.

Support to Sharif

Seen in this broader perspective, the Saudi government’s decision to play a mediatory role on the Sharif case—notwithstanding the unintended mistake it may have made in the process for publicly taking a position on the Sharif deal issue—should be seen as being motivated by a sincere desire to ensure political peace and tranquillity in Pakistan. In the aftermath of Mr Sharif’s reported meeting with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, it is clear that Saudi role in the matter was inherently constructive, enjoying the support and cooperation of all parties to the issue.

Thus, the episode of Mr Sharif’s “deportation” to Saudi Arabia—however tragic it may have been from the moral standpoint or even legally, as the government’s step violated the Supreme Court verdict on Sharifs’ return—has to be seen in an over all perspective, whereby it would not be just and fair to cast aspersions on moral integrity of the Saudi leadership.

The Saudi leadership holds its commitment to Mr Sharif and the Government of Pakistan equally dearly and would do any thing to honour the same. We should, therefore, try to look at the issue from the standpoint of deep-rooted relationship between the two countries. In wider Saudi perception, just as that of Pakistan, it is this deep-rooted people-to-people dimension of ties that transcends all other aspects of their relationship.

Nawaz Sharif was welcomed in Saudi Arabia seven years ago with respect and dignity. He was accorded the same protocol when he returned to Saudi Arabia recently. In fact, the meeting between Mr Sharif and the Saudi King leaves no room for any critical perceptions about the so-called Saudi intervention in Pakistan’s domestic politics. The said meeting must also have raised the political resolve of PML (N)) supporters in the country and abroad. And now with the uncalled for criticism of Saudi role on the Sharif issue having become history, the two countries should rather concentrate on consolidating their brotherly ties for the purpose of jointly tackling the enormous challenges facing the Muslim world at large.

Broader Context

A lot needs to be accomplished in the growing ties between Saudi Arabia, and in the context of Pak-Saudi partnership for collectively managing the threats facing the Muslim world in the present century. Since its inception, Pakistan has given particular importance to its ties with the Muslim world. From the days of Saudi King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi-Pak friendship has only grown by leaps and bounds. I still remember the 1974 Lahore summit of the OIC, and how it proved to be instrumental, with Pakistan then led by Premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in generating a spirit of Muslim solidarity. Whether our country has been led by Mr Sharif in the past or General Musharraf at present, the commitment of our leadership to improve ties with Saudi Arabia has not waned.

If such has been the preference of our leadership, transcending all sorts of ideological and political shifts, the Saudi priority has been no different. How does the Saudi leadership look at its relationship with Pakistan? What are its current perceptions about challenges facing the Muslim world, challenges that Saudi Arabia expects Pakistan to tackle collectively for the rejuvenation of over 1.3 billion Muslim people of the world?

In my opinion, there was no better person to answer these questions but the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Ali S Awadh Asseri, who has already served in the country for several years and made tremendous personal contribution to the consolidation of Pak-Saudi ties besides intellectually articulating a rational and collectivist Muslim response to the challenges facing the Muslim Ummah.

Asseri’s Wish

Having the honour of personally knowing this great man in academic capacity, I spoke to the Saudi ambassador. I intentionally did not raise any question on the Sharif issue, which I personally think is not an issue at all in the wider framework of Pak-Saudi ties, but we did agree that such trivial matters will never harm our relationship since it is grounded in the love and affection and not on the real-politic aspirations of their leaderships.

In the words of ambassador Asseri, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a “unique friendship. It is a very special relationship that is based on common religious, historical, cultural and social ties. Bilateral relations are in a perpetual phase of evolution and revival due to the special nature of sound bonds between our two brotherly countries.”

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been at the forefront of international war against religious extremism and terrorism. According to ambassador Asseri, the Saudi leadership considers “terrorism a curse which is against the teachings of our peace-loving religion. Islam is a religion of peace and harmony. It forbids violence. It is against all acts that bring any harm to the innocent people. It preaches tolerance, mutual accommodation and co-existence.”

“Guided by these Islamic principles,” says the Saudi ambassador, “Saudi Arabia remains committed to eliminating terrorism. The Kingdom has expressed its full readiness to cooperate with all international efforts to combat terrorism. It believes that we have to firmly tackle perpetrators of terror crimes, chase them and take legal measures against them within the percepts of Islamic Shariah and Kingdom’s international and regional obligations as well as bilateral accords.”

He, however, said, that “we have to strengthen and develop the rules and regulations relevant to fighting terrorism and terror crimes. In addition, we need to boost cooperation with countries and organizations both at the regional and international levels to fight terrorism and terror crimes.”

According to ambassador Asseri, Saudi Arabia has already taken “a number of major initiatives to fight this menace. These initiatives include administrative, financial and other measures to contain, combat and eradicate this phenomenon. In addition, the Kingdom has also introduced reforms in the educational and economic fields in conformity with its position in war on terror.”

“The Saudi strategy”, according to him, “reflects an absolute determination on the part of the Saudi leadership and Government that no avenues are left open for terrorists to operate anywhere in the world. We should not allow terrorism to become a war against Islam or innocent Muslims who have no relation with terrorism whatsoever.”