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Why the Saudis got involved in Pakistan

By M K Bhadrakumar
Last updated on: September 20, 2007 09:45 IST
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At first glance, it might seem former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif goofed up by deciding to cut short his exile and return to his native land.

Within four hours of his arrival in Rawalpindi, he suffered the ignominy of being manhandled by his country's authorities in broad daylight, put on a plane, most certainly against his wishes, and sent right back into exile to Saudi Arabia.

Did he indeed miscalculate? It is tempting to think Sharif underestimated the Saudi regime when he chose to return. But that is improbable.

Sharif is far too familiar with the political idiom of the Saudi regime. At any rate, Sharif was simply not in a position to forfeit Saudi goodwill.

His family has extensive business interests in Saudi Arabia, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Some say he is putting up a huge steel mill at the moment in Saudi Arabia. His partners reportedly include members of the Saudi royal family.

Sharif is politically savvy to know that he was hardly in a position to defy Saudi wishes.

In other words, Saudis could have read the riot act to Sharif when he was in London that they wanted him to remain in exile -- and they didn't.

Yet, what stands out is that President Pervez Musharraf managed to cut short Sharif's homecoming only because Saudi Arabia was willing to receive the latter. That brings the spotlight back on the Saudis.

Traditionally speaking, the Saudi regime is extremely cautious. The regime moves ponderously, almost erring on the side of caution. It is almost the second nature of the Saudi regime to shun any sort of publicity that may have a dash of controversy.

To be sure, Saudis have behaved unnaturally in getting involved in the Sharif controversy. This was not even a matter of getting their toes wet; but the Saudis have knowingly waded waist deep into the Sharif controversy.

Three factors seem to be at work. First, Washington undoubtedly pulled strings in Riyadh to do some thing to get Sharif out of the way at the present sensitive juncture in Pakistan.

All the king's men and all the king's horses couldn't 'soften up' Sharif while he was living in London during the past few months. The United States and Britain found him to be intransigent.

He just wouldn't play ball. He insisted Musharraf must go under any circumstances.

But Musharraf is a lynchpin of the 'War on Terror', and is pretty much indispensable at the moment as far as Washington and London are concerned.

From the American and British perspective, Sharif would be a thorn in the flesh if he had remained in Pakistan since he might have ventured into political adventures that would thrive on the vast reservoir of 'anti-Americanism' in Pakistan.

Washington obviously decided enough was enough. This was not the time for niceties. The bar of democracy had to be lowered in the overall interests of US regional policy.

Second, Saudis have done Musharraf a huge favour. Apart from removing Sharif from the political stage, the Saudi role also works to Musharraf's advantage by disorienting the Islamic parties in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia is a holy cow for the Islamic leaders in Pakistan. It is not only a 'brotherly' Muslim country, but it is also the custodian of Islam's holiest places.

Musharraf stands to gain if the Islamic parties develop second thoughts about aligning with Sharif at this juncture. There are cracks already within the alliance of Islamic parties (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal) on forging a political alliance with Musharraf.

The Jamat-i-Islami led by Qazi Hussein Ahmed does not favour such an alliance, but Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of Jamiat-I Ulema-I Islam, is obviously warm about the idea. Rahman remains ambivalent about the irreconcilability of his ostensible opposition to Musharraf.

Musharraf is also placating Rahman by giving him a role in the secret ongoing dialogue aimed at accommodating the Taliban in the power structure in Afghanistan. JUI is the Deobandi party that conceived the Taliban in the early 1990s.

Interestingly, Rahman is visiting Saudi Arabia currently.

The Islamic parties in Pakistan, the JUI in particular, are a many-splendoured thing. Nothing would be further from the truth than to bracket them with radical Islamism or Al Qaeda.

Rahman himself has established connections with the US security establishment, dating back to the 1980s. He worked closely with Benazir Bhutto's government during 1993-1997. He was even hosted by the US State Department in Washington, DC.

Suffice it to say that on the whole, the MMA, the alliance of Islamic parties, would now have a problem to have truck with Sharif, because of the Saudi angle.

That, in turn, would considerably weaken the unity of the All Parties Democratic Movement, the umbrella alliance that brings together the MMA and Sharif in their common opposition to Musharraf's continuance in power. The APDM faces disarray even before it launches a popular agitation against Musharraf.

In short, the Saudis have, unwittingly or otherwise, enabled Musharraf to splinter the political opposition in Pakistan. That is a huge favour handed over on a platter to Musharraf by the Saudis.

But what is in it for the Saudis? This brings us to the third factor.

The regional context in which the fraternal ties between Riyadh and Islamabad are being reinvigorated merits attention.

The Persian Gulf region is highly likely drifting to war. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned on Sunday, 'We have to prepare for the worstÂ… the worst is war.'

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammed ElBaradei senses that the heightening pitch of American rhetoric against Iran on the nuclear issue bears a striking resemblance to the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.

He warned Monday, 'There are rules on how to use force, and I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson that after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons.'

Now, the recrudescence of tensions in the Persian Gulf places the Saudi regime in a precarious position. The Saudis and other pro-West Arab regimes, in tacit unholy alliance with Israel, are locked in a cold war against the Iranian-Syrian axis.

Much as the Saudis resent Iran's regional ascendancy in the recent years, they are nervous about getting caught in the crossfire of a US-Iran military confrontation. They are afraid of the Iranian wrath that is sure to follow if the US attacks Iran, and if the pro-West Arab regimes connive in the aggression.

The Saudi regime is allied with the US but cannot seek American protection. It is pathologically afraid Osama bin Laden would take advantage if it is perceived as holding on to American apron strings for its political survival.

As Henry Kissinger would say, it is not a matter of what is true that counts but a matter of what is perceived to be true. Hence the critical importance of a reliable Muslim palace guard for the Saudi regime.

Pakistan, and Musharraf in particular, perfectly fits the role of the Praetorian Guards of the Saudi royal family. Pakistan (and Musharraf's distinguished predecessors) has played such roles in the past for the Saudi royal family, and was found to be trustworthy and reliable.

Thus, the Saudis have made a timely, shrewd investment in Musharraf's political future. They have an axe to grind in ensuring that the general is around on Iran's eastern flanks at such a critical juncture.

The Saudis have ensured that Iran should tread carefully before taking on Riyadh -- a gentle warning to Iran that there is a muscular Sunni Muslim palace guard around, with a finger on a nuclear button, who would go the extra league in protecting the Saudi regime if push comes to shove.

M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador, headed the Pakistan Division at the Ministry of External Affairs in the early 1990s.

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