Saudis in Pak
In Pakistan, the expansive influence of Saudi Arabia is unmatched except occasionally by the Americans and Chinese. As a Wikileaks cable from the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad in 2007 told us that his embassy is not an “observer” in Pakistan, but a “participant” in Pakistan’s politics. This was not an empty boast. Saudis have often helped Pakistan manage difficult problems at home and abroad. Whether it is tidying over a balance of payments crisis, subsidising oil purchases, financing the nuclear weapons programme or resolving ticklish domestic political disputes, the Saudis always ride to the rescue of Pakistan.
When the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al Faisal landed in Islamabad this week, there was much speculation in Pakistan that the visit was about facilitating the exit of former president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, now facing a variety of charges in Pakistan. Recall that Saudis had given political shelter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted from power in an army coup and imprisoned by Musharraf in 1999. Under a deal brokered by the Saudis, Sharif agreed to stay away from Pakistan for 10 years. When an impatient Sharif broke that promise and flew into Pakistan, a Saudi plane was on the tarmac to fly him back. But when the Americans arranged a deal between Musharraf and Benazir in Bhutto 2007, the Saudis put Sharif back in the Pakistani play.
The House of Saud was always wary of the Bhuttos and suspected them of being empathetic to Shia Iran; but it has invested much in the Sharif brothers over time. With the tables now turned between Sharif and Musharraf, some in Pakistan were betting that the Saudis would now oblige Musharraf. When asked the question at a press conference in Islamabad, Saud al Faisal smiled and said the issue was Pakistan’s domestic affair and that his country does not interfere in the internal politics of other countries. He insisted that his visit had absolutely nothing to do with Musharraf.
Diplomats are not paid to speak the truth in public. Even if he had discussed Musharraf’s future with Sharif in private, Saud al Faisal was not going to embarrass him in public. In any case, Saud al Faisal has a long list of concerns these days, and Musharraf is certainly not at the top.
A number of recent developments have put the Saudis on the back foot in the Middle East. These include the Arab Spring and the challenge to the existing order in the Middle East, the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sunni Arab world and the mounting challenge from Shia Iran in Syria and Iraq. On top of it all, the US-Iran interim nuclear continued…