THE SAUDI CONNECTION

I waited for this Post till after the departure of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.

Pakistan has been in the eye of the storm for decades, since the Russian invasion. The
relationship with allies were directed and dictated by militaristic
considerations. The weaponization and radicalization of our society distorted
traditional relationships.

Pakistan’s relationship with with the main contenders in the region to our West were on a
roller coaster throughout this period. Benazir and Asif Zardari’s PPP leaning
towards Iran and Nawaz Sahrif’s PML(N) leaning towards Saudi Arabia. However neither
of these parties cultivated meaningful relations with either country in the
best interest of Pakistan. They sought short term economic relief for the
survival of their regimes or for their personal gains.

The mishandling by Nawaz Sharif Government of request for assistance in Yemen
brought the relationship to its lowest ebb with the Saudis. They violated one
of the basic tenets in foreign policy. Policies are not crafted in Parliament,
especially in sensitive matters. They may be presented for approval in matters
of national interest. However PM Nawaz was indebted on a personal level after
having enjoyed generous Saudi hospitality and benefitting from their
intervention with President Musharraf to get him off the hook. He could not
bring himself to say NO, instead he hid behind the Parliament. In the
Parliament populated by politicians dictated by self interest, the rhetoric and
playing to the gallery was totally unmindful of National Interest. This caused
a lot of damage to a sensitive relation.

However the visit last weekend by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman Al Saud to Islamabad
has dramatically altered that equation. It was a great culmination of some
painstaking ground work under taken by PTI, our military leadership of General
Bajwa and the clean image of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The Saudi commitments
for investments can be rated amongst the largest probably second to that of
China. And there is promise of more. But the biggest factor was the openness,
the warmth, the responsiveness and ownership of the relationship from both
sides.

It did not happen overnight. To understand these developments one has to
understand the contributing factors ranging from the history of relationship
between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the social, cultural makeup of the Saudi
fabric, their economic and defence interests and the norms followed in Saudi
society. I lived there for 15 years from 1979 to 1994 and had the opportunity
of interacting at various levels both in business and personal capacities. This
is my attempt to provide a perspective based on my experiences and as a student
of history and politics. I moved to Saudi in 1979, a period in their history
when the fruits of King Faisal’s oil embargo and subsequent increase in oil
revenues had begun to give dividends. Saudi Arabia was on a growth trajectory. That
happened after 1973 Arab Israeli war. Prior to that Saudi Arabian economy was
dependent on low priced oil and Hajj/Umra revenues.

Saudi Arabia emerged as a nation and country as a result of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s
emergence as a victor in the Peninsula. He hailed from Dariyah, a part of Najd
(Central Province), just west of capital Riyadh. The whole country is largely a
desert inter-spaced with Oasis. It was a rough terrain in the beginning of 20th
Century. Ottoman empire followed by Hashemites of Jordon had held sway largely
over Hijaz (the Western Province) that included the port of Jeddah and the
Muslim holy cities of Makkah and Medina. The rest of the country was largely
ignored due to the treacherous terrain. Various tribes held sway in different
parts largely under self rule in loose alliances for their own protection and
for the purpose of keeping trade routes open. I always draw a parallel between
Baluchistan and Saudi Arabia.

King Abdul Aziz initial attempts to conquer were not successful. He had to take refuge in
Kuwait. In the final attempt he was able to subdue the tribes in the Peninsula
and take over Hejaz. He was not just courageous and a determined warrior, he
was also a brilliant strategist. After his victories in battles he formed
alliances with various tribes through bringing their elders together into the
power structure and consultative councils. His multiple marriages around the
country helped cement his hold on the new nation/state name Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia. Al Saud’s drew their religious inspiration through associating with the
religious reformer Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Wahab also from Dariyah in Najd in the
18th century.

This alliance and power sharing continued over the centuries and provided King Abdul
Aziz religious legitimacy and platform required in a very conservative society.
This association and power sharing continues till today. The descendents of
Sheikh Abdul Wahab are known as Al Sheikhs (the family of the “Sheikh”). I had
the good fortune of being associated with Sheikh Abdul Latif Al Sheikh for my
entire stay of 15 years in Saudi Arabia. He is a gem of a person, a great
entrepreneur, a dear friend and brother till today. I will return to my
reminiscences later, back to emergence of relations between the two countries.

The early decades of the Kingdom were not easy for King Abdul Aziz. He required
financial support and looked East towards undivided India and newly independent
Pakistan. According to my information he received abundant co-operation from
Nizam of Hyderabad Deccan and Nawab Sahib of Bahawalpur. Lt. General Nawab
Sadiq Abbasi of Bahawalpur can be considered the founder of brotherly relations
between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan immediately after Independence. He is known
to have underwritten all the Hajj expenses for over a decade till his death in
1958, and donating the profits to the Kingdom. He also gifted two Rolls Royce
cars for the King’s use. They are prominently preserved and displayed at the
Royal Museum in Saudi Arabia. These cordial relations kept growing over time
including interaction between the defence establishments of both countries.
Saudi Arabia offered unconditional support to Pakistan during the 1965 war with
India.

These relations got another boost when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto assumed power in Pakistan.
He developed a close relationship with King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz. Both were
stalwarts and independent minded leaders seeking to unite the Muslim World. It
culminated in the leadership conference in Lahore attended by leaders from
around the globe. An outcome of this friendship with King Faisal, who wanted to
develop agriculture and horticulture in Saudi Arabia, was Saudi Government giving
visas to farmers and their families in large numbers. Mr Bhutto facilitated
this by moving thousands of haris from Sind mainly to western Province of
Hijaz. An anecdote worth sharing here is transition of perception of Pakistanis
in eyes of Saudis as narrated to me. Prior to this massive influx most of the migrants
to Saudi were Doctors, Engineers or Teachers. So when a Pakistani would visit a
retail outlet (known as Baqalas) they would be greeted as Ya Doctoor, Ya
Muhandis (engineer) or Ya ustaad (teacher). After the massive inflow the form
of greetings converted to Ya Rafiq. With the Petro Dollars flooding in massive
development projects were launched in the Kingdom and with easing of issuance
of passports Pakistani construction workers flooded the Saudi landscape. Not
very educated and with limited knowledge of Arabic they helped cement the name
“Ya Rafiq” for all Pakistanis! TO BE CONTINUED

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