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March 22, 2018

The Saudi factor


March 22, 2018

Saudi Crown Prime Mohammad bin Salman is on an official visit to the US to sell his reformist agenda to an American audience. He wants the US to see that the “Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], under his de facto leadership, is undergoing a sea change” and “is opening up for business for American companies”, including the entertainment industry.

His visit comes at a time when US bipartisan senators are due this week to vote on blocking the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Many of them believe that these weapons are being used in Yemen to kill innocent citizens.

Saudi Arabia is caught in a direct war with Yemen. During all other violent conflicts within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has remained largely unaffected. In fact, the country was not caught in the crossfire until the Houthi rebellion broke out in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is not winning the war despite the supply of US weapons, technical assistance, and guidance in selecting targets within Yemen.

During Trump’s first foreign visit as president to Saudi Arabia, the US president offered an $110 billion arms sale deal to the kingdom, of which $23.7 billion were already authorised during the former US administration. According to a report published in The New York Times, “in 2017, the US sold roughly $610 million in weapons and munitions to Saudi Arabia and $48 million in firearms to [the UAE]… both countries are bombing Yemen…according to human rights groups, [the bombings] have killed over 10,000 civilians and wounded another 40,000. [A] UN assessment of [the] Yemen situation termed it ‘one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises’”.

We have not seen much coverage in the Western media of the Yemen conflict as it lies in the backyard of a rich kingdom. The Pentagon may deny any involvement in this conflict by claiming that they are not taking part in airstrikes in Yemen, but the report published The New York Times clearly spells out America’s role in the Yemen crisis. According to the report, Saudi Arabia stated last year that it is paying $750 million to the US army to help train Saudi soldiers to minimise civilian losses.

US-Saudi Arabia relations have been fraught with challenges after 9/11. The American media has especially come down hard on the kingdom as all the 9/11 bombers were Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia is considered to be the second pillar of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. This policy supported dictatorships during the cold war to bring stability to the region – which later proved to be a form of “false stability”.

Saudis concerns came under discussion during the talks with President Trump. But as many in Pakistan believe, the road to Islamabad goes via Riyadh because Saudi Arabia is seen to enjoy considerable influence on Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is essential to Pakistan’s economic solvency as 30 percent of its remittances come from the oil-rich country – which, in dollar terms, amounts to over $6 billion. Some 1.6 million Pakistanis have worked in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. There are strong link between both countries and the Saudi influence on our society, politics and culture remains paramount.

But Saudi Arabia is changing. Will this have a domino effect on countries that are believed to be under the influence of this oil-rich country, including Pakistan?

Pakistan has been a close ally of Saudi Arabia and this proximity is reflected in times of internal crises. The extent of Saudi influence in Pakistan’s security and foreign policy can be gauged from the fact that even though parliament had passed a resolution to not send troops for the Yemen war to Saudi Arabia, troops were still dispatched – ‘for training purposes only’.

For some Pakistanis, Saudi Arabia’s justice system has its own appeal. Disenchanted by the delays in our own justice system, citizens who have limited exposure to diverse legal systems, seek quick-fixes and remedies. During the 1970s, Pakistanis started working in the Gulf countries – mainly in Saudi Arabia. Those who started working in Saudi Arabia did well and returned home with stories of justice and peace at a time when Pakistan was marred by unrest, violence and disorder.

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, street talk has favoured Saudis and Iranians. As a result, Pakistan has been sandwiched between their proxy sectarian ideological influences and recruitment programmes.

Once Saudi Arabia broadens it social and cultural horizons, we hope that its support for conservative elements within Pakistan will also come to an end. Such politicisation of religion has fuelled intolerance on sectarian lines. The gains of successive military operations against militancy can only be sustained once foreign funding ends for these hotbeds that exist in many parts of Pakistan.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s reformist agenda seems to be fully backed by Western powers. Although the reforms will give more public space to women, they fall short of abolishing laws that restrict women’s rights, such as guardianship laws under which women are required to seek permission from male family members.

Hearing the Saudi crown prince talk about equality between men and women was music to the ears of Americans. But the real change will come once women’s rights are enshrined in the law, and move beyond the end of the driving ban on women.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MushRajpar