I remember when I first met him, in Kuwait in 1992 soon after he had won the Cricket World Cup for Pakistan, I asked Imran Khan about the secret of his success in cricket. His answer was that he believed in playing on the front foot, in most circumstances.As Pakistan’s new leader on whom his people have pinned tonnes of hopes, Imran seems to use that same strategy in pursuing national interests: on the front foot.
His choice of Saudi Arabia for his first foray abroad last month had caught many pundits by surprise. But that tactical move seems to have paid early dividends. The Saudis then responded positively to Imran’s cries for succour to help Pakistan’s haemorrhaging economy, and agreed to deposit $3 billion in Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves to give them a badly needed boost. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s central bank said it had received $1 billion from the Saudis.
But an even more welcome Saudi gift was wrapped in their agreement to sell Pakistan crude oil worth $3.2 billion over the next 12 months on deferred payment. This must shore up a wobbly Pakistani economy starved of hard cash to pay for its oil imports.Imran won these lucrative Saudi concessions—a stitch in time if ever—when he was closeted with the Saudi crown prince and strongman MbS (Mohammad bin Salman) at the ‘Davos in the Desert’ last month in Riyadh.
Imran was roundly criticised by his myriad detractors for attending that investment conference in Riyadh—a pet project of MbS—at a time when the Saudi royal was under a cloud of deep suspicion for his role in the heinous murder of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at the hands of a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul last October 2. Many a Western leader and dozens of multinational corporations stayed away from the Riyadh conclave because of MbS’s alleged involvement in the grisly episode.
Imran’s success in getting the Saudis on board his desperate efforts to resuscitate Pakistan’s moribund economy was spectacular enough to silence his critics.However, that controversy had barely faded out of the media headlines when another—more explosive and controversial—replaced it with a highly dramatic twist.
Imran may have no hand in this controversy which has, nevertheless, hit Pakistan with the intensity of an Agatha Christie mystery.The author of this gratuitous episode is the editor of Israel’s major newspaper, Haaretz’s English Edition. On October 25, Avi Scharf, claimed that a private chartered jet from Israel landed in Islamabad on October 24 and stayed there for 10 hours. Who was on board hasn’t been explained.The Pakistani authorities have flatly denied the story and denounced it as a figment of the Israeli’s imagination.
Avi himself conceded that Pakistanis may be right, technically: the plane had a brief halt at Amman before carrying on to Pakistan from there. So in terms of aviation rules, the plane’s time-log would show its flight origin in Amman, Jordan—a brotherly state to Pakistan.The shady landing of the Israeli plane in Pakistan gathered more mystery as it allegedly happened only a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previously unannounced visit to Oman, the Arab sheikhdom just across the Arabian Sea from Pakistan’s coast.
Netanyahu himself subsequently broke the news of his hush-hush mission to Oman—where he met with the Arab world’s longest reigning ruler, Sultan Qaboos—in a tweet. The Omani government followed suit with its own admission that Qaboos had welcomed Netanyahu to turn a new page between Arabs and Israelis.However, to the Pakistanis news of any contact between their government and Israel is untenable—a ‘no-go’ area. Israel is a pariah to them and it is nothing less than a sacrilege for their country to have any truck with the ‘Arab-murdering’ Israelis.
The Pakistanis have been weaned on viewing Israel as a pariah state, a dagger into the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. There is a history to this mindset, dating back to pre-independence days. The day the Muslim League, under Jinnah, adopted, what later became known as the Pakistan Resolution, in Lahore, on 23 March 1940, it also adopted—from the same platform—a resolution in favour of an independent Palestinian state. A deep allergy to Israel is not new.
So the uproar in Pakistan is understandable. Imran’s nemeses see an opportunity to plough into him on the issue. They are howling, calling it a sell-out to his rich benefactors.Their allusion, without naming it, is to Saudi Arabia whose young prince has a warm relationship with Donald Trump and Netanyahu. Together, all three of them have a known hostility to Iran, Pakistan’s immediate western neighbour.
Connecting all these dots makes it credible that the Saudi largesse for Imran may have some sort of strings attached.The ball is in Imran’s court. Will he, so early in his stint as Pakistan’s leader, take an initiative as earth-shattering, in Pakistani context, as cultivating Israel? Will he bite the bullet and tread a course that none has dared before him?All bets are off. It’s Imran’s charisma vs a sacred taboo.