For long, Saudi Arabia has had a special status in the perception of Pakistanis, high and low alike.
A liking bordering on infatuation for Saudi Arabia is anchored in the common Muslim’s belief that it’s the cradle of Islam—the official religion of Pakistan as enshrined in its constitution.
But this tenet of faith has been added on to with a political dimension since the Kingdom’s ruling royals arrogated to themselves the highly-vaunted title of ‘Guardians of the Two Holy Cities’ of Islam, in Mecca and Medina.
That makes the haughty Saudi royals, with all their well-known foibles and angularities, as people who should be looked up to as the gate-keepers of the ‘kingdom of faith.’ That, at the very least, is the myth informing an average Pakistani’s mind-set.
And who, amongst the Pakistanis, should claim to know the Saudi royals better than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with his well-earned fame of being their blue-eyed boy?
Not that his repute of a Saudi hireling is without foundation.
They were the ones who, back in 1999, literally saved his skin and aborted his date with the gallows when Musharraf, who had overthrown him and usurped political power for himself, was on the verge of signing his death warrant.
Instead, Musharraf was coaxed by Nawaz’s Saudi mentors to let go of him in a deal that sent Nawaz into political wilderness for 10 years. The Saudis guaranteed the deal and whisked their ward off to a plush exile in Jeddah, where he was mollycoddled like one of the thousands of Saudi princes.
With that experience of royal treatment under his belt Nawaz must have had a gruelling time at the Summit in Riyadh, last May 21, where he was, at best, given the run-of-the-mill protocol of one of the ‘also attended’ leaders from 50-plus Islamic countries.
There was no special billing for Nawaz at the Saudi-sponsored, first-ever, Arab-Islamic-American Summit organised at the behest of the Saudi royals at their capital, Riyadh.
Donald Trump, out on his maiden overseas voyage as the new occupant of the White House, was the star of the show. It was his welcoming party hosted by the Saudis, who also summoned their loyal friends from the global Muslim comity of nations, or Ummah, to be there, in tow behind them, to greet and pay their own obeisance to Trump. Calling it a summit was just a foil; it was more in the style of a Roman emperor out on a safari to receive pledges of loyalty and fidelity from his tributary vassals and surrogates.
Trump’s munificent Saudi hosts, with extra-deep pockets, did indeed make the gilded assembly seem like a court of tributaries by pledging to purchase American arms and ammunitions to the hefty tune of $110 billion dollars—the largest weapons sale in US history to any one country.
Trump had more reason to smile all the way back to Washington when his Saudi minions also sweetened his pot by pledging another $260 billion in investments into American infrastructure projects.
Nawaz wouldn’t have minded being counted amongst acolytes of America—Pakistan, in fact, is in a double jeopardy by being a known Saudi acolyte too—had he been given a chance to express his solidarity with the Saudis and their American friends out loud at the conclave.
But what cut him up, and Pakistanis at large, was that he was only conspicuous by his absence at the speakers’ podium.
Rubbing salt into Pakistani wounds was the calculated Saudi affront of giving the podium to the president of Indonesia, supposedly representing the non-Arab part of the Muslim Ummah.
Technically, Pakistan should’ve no room for grouse at Indonesia’s honour to speak for the non-Arab Muslims. Indonesia is, on the basis of population, the largest Muslim state.
But technicalities matter least to Pakistanis in the Saudi context: They’ve this syndrome of a ‘special, very special’ relationship with the Saudis. That makes the snub even more unbearable for them. How could the Saudis be so unmindful of their ‘special relationship’ with Pakistan, they ask in horror.
But Pakistanis who may still be able to put their thinking cap on can see through the Saudi manoeuvre to get Pakistan lined up among those in the Muslim world ready to stand by the Saudi side in their fight for regional hegemony, vis-a-vis Iran.
The summit was, brazenly, all about Iran. Buoyed by Trump’s campaign rhetoric to turn the clock back on Obama’s pacification of Iran, the Saudis thought they had their man in him in their pursuit to corner Iran in the region and cut into its increasing influence among the have-nots of the Muslim world.
So the Saudis rolled out the red carpet for a narcissistic Trump and massaged his bloated ego with pledges of hundreds of billions of dollars pouring into the US economy.
The summit may have, ostensibly, been geared to spawn a united Muslim front, with US as its guardian-angel, to confront “extremism and terrorism”, according to King Salman.
But the bloody Saudi incursion into Yemen makes it all too palpable that Wahhabi Saudis are seeking domination of the region at the expense of Shia Iran. With a cavalier Trump signing on to their agenda they may be smugly confident of reaching their goal.
However, alert Pakistani observers can see through the Saudi game. They thanked their stars that Nawaz didn’t figure among Muslim leaders mindlessly articulating and waxing eloquent in praise of the joint Saudi-American game plan against Iran.
To thoughtful Pakistanis, it was a blessing in disguise that Nawaz wasn’t a speaker at the conference. The puffed-up Saudis, in their own way, were telling Nawaz that with Trump in their corner they didn’t need Pakistan any more.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU