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Has Islamabad Orchestrated Saudi-Pak Acrimony? – OpEd

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The wise have said that ‘haste makes waste’ but yet, everybody in Pakistan seems to be in a very big hurry nowadays. It started off with Foreign Minister (FM) Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who seemed to be in such a tearing hurry to get Saudi led Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC)  to convene a Foreign Ministers’ meet to discuss Kashmir that he went as far as to threaten Riyadh by declaring that if it didn’t submit to Pakistan’s “expectations” and “show leadership on the issue (of Kashmir),” then Islamabad would “go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia.” 

Just a few days later, Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had a surprise meeting with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan and followed it up with an air dash to Riyadh on what Director General (DG) Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “pre-planned” trip that was  “primarily military-affairs oriented”. No sooner had Gen Bajwa returned back home, we suddenly heard that Qureshi would be rushing to China on a two-day visit, ostensibly for ‘strategic level’ discussions with his Chinese counterparts.  

The general consensus is that this flurry is consequence of irresponsible remarks made inadvertently by Pakistan’s FM that soured cordial relations ties between two traditional allies, which despite the army chief’s indulgence, failed to smoothen out the differences. Most analysts opine that this issue became all the more serious since the acrimonious outburst during a TV show against the OIC (in general) and the House of Saud (in particular) came from no one other than the FM of Pakistan himself.  

In a bid to calm frayed nerves, Gen Bajwa (who’s the de facto ruler of Pakistan) decided to take things into his own hands and met with the Saudi ambassador. But after this meeting, he probably realised that things had got a bit too hot to handle and resolve at the ambassadorial level, and that the situation demanded intervention by Pakistan’s ‘numero uno’. This is why it was Gen Bajwa (and not Prime Minister Imran Khan) who rushed to Riyad for meeting Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in person and by pacifying him, undo the humongous damage that had been cause to Saudi-Pak relations by the ‘irresponsible’ FM. 

Since Pakistan army provides troops for protecting the House of Saud, army chiefs have very good relationship with the monarchy. But what makes Gen Bajwa’s relationship with Riyad more special is his willingness to bend backwards to appease Riyadh. Readers would recall that in February 2018, he announced that Pakistan army would be sending a “contingent” of additional troops to Saudi Arabia on a “training and advise mission” without even consulting or informing the government.

But if Gen Bajwa thought that the House of Saud owed him a favour in return for his munificence with regard to provisioning an undisclosed number of troops to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) without the latter even making a formal request to Islamabad, then he was sadly mistaken. In what the media referred to as a “royal snub,” the Saudi crown prince who hosted a dinner in honour of Gen Bajwa in Mina just two years ago, didn’t even give him an audience this time and this must have really hurt the visiting army chief’s ego. 

So, after being cold-shouldered by Riyad, an alarmed Islamabad may have thought it expedient to quickly find another benefactor who could serve as an alternative to Saudi Arabia, and this is why Khan (or Gen Bajwa?) decided to send Qureshi for knocking Beijing’s door. Meanwhile, in a bid to woo back the House of Saud, Islamabad continues to sing paeans praising Saudi-Pak relations and waxing eloquent on the stellar role played by Riyad and OIC on the issue of Kashmir.  Whereas this interpretation of the recent happenings appears reasonable, but there is something that doesn’t quite seem to fit in, and that’s Qureshi’s tirade against Riyad that triggered the current crisis. 

Though his diatribe does appear to be a spontaneous and emotional outburst, yet this inference isn’t very convincing for three reasons. One, being a seasoned politician, Qureshi knows too well that for people in public life expressing personal views in media is a strict ‘no-no.’ Two, with the FM clarifying during the talk show that he was expressing his personal opinion, it’s absolutely clear that he knew very well that what he was saying was offensive, thereby ruling out the possibility of his tirade being an unintended emotional outburst.

Lastly, Qureshi is certainly not the one to get emotional or sentimental and let his steam off in public; au contraire, he’s one of the few men in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet who is well-grounded in reality. Last year when the entire country was euphoric because the government had touted an informal and ‘closed door’ discussion on Kashmir under its non-descript and rather unflattering ‘Any other Business’ clause as a big win, only Qureshi had the guts to caution the people against premature celebrations by his blunt, but down to earth remarks that the UNSC members  “are not waiting for you with garlands in their hands” and “Do not live in the fool paradise.”  

Therefore, could it be that Qureshi’s foul mouthing Riyad was no faux pas but part of a plan prepared by the military that was given a ‘go-ahead’ during the corps commanders conference on July 22? Was it a diabolical stratagem to ‘effectively’ and ‘unambiguously’ convey Islamabad’s ‘displeasure’ to Saudi Arabia on its approach to the Kashmir issue? Was the FM intentionally chosen to make disparaging anti-Saudi remarks because for Khan or Gen Bajwa to do so could make things spiral out of control? Was the added advantage of orchestrated tirade creating ripples in Saudi-Pak relations also factored-in to justify Islamabad’s cosying up with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Turkey? 

Rawalpindi went ahead with this plan since KSA’s reliance on Pakistan army for its protection and its readiness to provide whatever forces Riyad desires would ensure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t forsake Pakistan and so while it could ‘cap’ its financial aid to Islamabad, it can’t completely shut off the tap. With Beijing ever-ready to extricate Islamabad out of any financial crisis, the shortfall of funds due to possible Saudi curbs can always be met by Islamabad’s “all weather friend,” and with Beijing lending $1 billion to Islamabad for part repayment of a loan it had taken from Saudi Arabia, Rawalpindi’s ingenious plan seems to be working fine.

For those inclined to debunk the ‘conspiracy theory’ of Gen Bajwa having used Qureshi’s shoulder to fire the gun at Saudi Arabia as hogwash, I have only three simple questions. 

One, if Qureshi’s faux pas was really unintentional, why did the Foreign Office, instead of not tender an apology or clarification, but instead, endorse his diatribe as vox populi of Pakistanis by saying that the same were “a reflection of people’s aspirations and expectations from the OIC to take forward the dispute of Jammu & Kashmir internationally”? 

Two, emotional outbursts or ill-considered remarks made in the heat-of-the-moment during talk shows are not uncommon and hence an odd or a couple of such indiscretions are understandable. But how does one explain when this comes out in the form of a well-structured and inordinately long discourse?

Three, in wake of heightened Saudi-Pak diplomatic tensions, where was the need for Khan’s sardonic announcement that “It should be clear that our future is connected with China” and that “China is our only friend which has remained politically steadfast with Pakistan during good and bad times”? Don’t these statements sound more like spiteful ‘break-up’ missives shot off by an adolescent rather than a mature attempt to mend fences? Lastly, even if Qureshi had riled Riyad unintentionally, doesn’t diplomatic propriety demand his resignation, removal or atleast a reprimand- especially since Islamabad hails its ties with Saudi Arabia as “special”? 

So, as improbable as it may sound, but the discernible lack of earnestness on the part of Islamabad to iron-out differences with Riyadh buttresses the suspicion that it’s not as serious about mending fences with Riyad as one would expect it to be. Islamabad’s belief that in Beijing it has finally found the right replacement of Saudi Arabia as a benefactor may be misplaced, because while it may keep bailing out Pakistan by extending loans, unlike the House of Saud which has always been associated with benevolence, Beijing has the reputation of being a Shylock when repayment time comes! 

So, watch out for this space.

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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