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Opinion

May 14, 2015

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Saudi diplomacy in Pakistan

When Saudi Arabia lost a monarch to assassin’s bullets on March 25, 1975, Pakistan mourned his death like the demise of a national hero. Murdered only a year after mentoring the Second Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore, King Faisal was seen as a champion for the cause of Muslim unity and a great friend of Pakistan and its people. For many years to come, calendars and posters carrying his pictures were ubiquitous in the country and Faisal soon become one of the most popular names in the country.
As Imam-e-Kaba, or Imam of Haram-al-Makki – if we go by the official title – Shaikh Khalid Al Ghamidi returned to the holy land after making a vigorous effort to reach out directly to the people of Pakistan on behalf of the kingdom, Saudi public diplomacy has come a long way from its high point in the mid 1970s. The visit of the revered Shaikh, coming soon after the visit of another Saudi dignitary, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz, minister for religious affairs, left many questions in its wake regarding the nature of Saudi public diplomacy in Pakistan and the future of relations between these two close allies. Has Saudi Arabia lost hearts and minds in Pakistan despite its generous support to Pakistani state and its ruling elite? How and why has the attitude of the Pakistani public changed towards the kingdom and what can be done to set the course of Saudi public diplomacy right?
Though the Saudi government and religious scholars have enjoyed great stature among a majority of South Asian Muslims since Saudi Arabia was founded in the early twentieth century, the influence remained largely symbolic and confined to sections of the religious clergy for a large part of the twentieth century. In fact, till the 1960s Muslim princely states and then Pakistan had more to offer to the kingdom than what they could expect in return. However, the nature of relationship changed decisively after Saudi Arabia became a major oil economy under the command of King Faisal bin Abdul

Aziz who took charge of the country in 1964. Based on an oil bonanza, Saudi Arabia under King Faisal’s command embarked on the path to modernisation and staked a claim to the leadership of the Muslim world.
In Pakistan King Faisal found a close ally who could help him achieve both these objectives. His public display of affection for Pakistan, his closeness to Pakistan’s most popular political leader, Z A Bhutto, his preference for Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia and his efforts for Muslim unity made him a darling of the people of Pakistan. It is an affair that never ended.
The Saudi-Pak relationship entered a new phase after Ziaul Haq took over as the military dictator two years after King Faisal’s murder and hanged Bhutto two years after the coup d’etat. In 1979, three events shook the kingdom, influencing its internal and external policies and bringing the two countries into a tight embrace.
In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years of exile, replacing the government of an ally with a clergy vehemently opposed to the Saudi monarchy and throwing an open challenge to Saudi pre-eminence in the Muslim world. In November and December that year, insurgents took over Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Most of these militants belonged to Saudi tribes and some were from those families that had helped Saudi royal family establish the kingdom. And if that was not enough, at the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and assumed complete control of the country.
While the first two events threatened the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy and its leadership of the Muslim world, the Afghan situation provided the kingdom with an opportunity to respond to both the internal and external challenges. On the home front, Saudi Arabia gave more power to the religious establishment, opening several religious universities and handing over the education department to clerics. The Saudi clergy, with support from the government, also became active in proselytising its own school of thought throughout the Muslim world. While the denomination followed by the Saudis was till then confined to the peninsula, it started spreading all over the Muslim world. The Saudi clergy also took an active role in providing ideological and financial backing to the Afghan jihad.
Locked in a battle against popular democratic forces, Ziaul Haq opened up Pakistan to Saudi religious influence in an effort to legitimise his own dictatorship and extract foreign aid. He keenly sought Saudi support in his effort to Islamise Pakistan. Saudi Arabia supported his government through policy guidelines and funded a huge network of madressahs affiliated to a small number of denomination in a country known for a diversity of Islamic sects.
What happened afterwards is a chapter of national history that every educated Pakistani has learnt by heart. In terms of Saudi public diplomacy, Saudi popularity was confined to a section of religio-political and religious organisations while creating disaffection amongst a larger section of Pakistani society including the more liberal minded educated Pakistani middle class and followers of religious denominations that were shunned by Saudi ulema and philanthropists. Followers of such schools of thought remain a majority despite Saudi efforts.
Fast forward 36 years – both countries are fighting violence emanating from their joint jihadi policies and are working closely to deal with the aftermath. Saudi Arabia, in the meantime has proved to be a staunch ally and an all-weather friend, sticking with Pakistan through thick and thin. Saudi support has been crucial to Pakistan’s economy and its national security in the last four decades.
Saudi public diplomacy in Pakistan, however, remains stuck in the old paradigm – largely focusing on Saudi religious authority. In Pakistan, some sectarian and religio-political organisations try to portray themselves as the face of Saudi public diplomacy. Some dubious figures belonging to these organisations are seen to be too close to Saudi dignitaries during their visits to Pakistan. The same organisations also come out on streets to support Saudi position on different issues. Nothing harms Saudi public appeal in Pakistan more than such public display of affection for Saudi Arabia by such outfits.
Perhaps, it is time for Saudi Arabia to realise that there is a very thin chance of Pakistanis becoming ‘good’ Muslims in very large numbers. However, despite their religious failings, they can be great friends and allies. For Saudi public diplomacy to succeed in Pakistan, this precious alliance must be redeemed by Saudi Arabia and sectarian and religious outfits in Pakistan. If the past is to define the Saudi public diplomacy, it should be defined by the year 1974, not 1979.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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