The Circus

The Circus
That giant slurping noise you heard was the sound of Pakistan’s power elite sucking up to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.

When rolling out the red carpet for the visiting Saudi royal, our government behaved as though we had never welcomed foreign dignitaries before. Islamabad was in lockdown, and for a couple of days it seemed that the capital was under siege.

If the object of this behaviour was to impress MBS, the fact is that we were dealing with a man who has solid gold taps in the bathtub of his private Jumbo jet. So presenting him with a gold-plated sub-machine gun was hardly going to bowl him over.

Perhaps a collection of sufi devotional songs would have sent a softer, more civilised message. However, the Saudis are not known for their respect for our culture.

But what do I know? When you are as beholden to the Saudis as Pakistan is,  ostentatious gifts and obsequious welcomes are probably the better option. And let’s face it, $20 billion worth of deals is nothing to sneer at, specially for a cash-strapped country.
MBS probably reveled in his high-profile visit as he is currently out of favour in much of the world after his alleged involvement in the Jamal Kashoggi case in Istanbul last year

We have all said and done things in our past that we now regret. But Prime Minister Imran Khan carries some serious baggage of promises he probably wishes he had never made. On his unending campaign trail, he said time and again that when elected, he would never visit foreign capitals with a begging bowl in his hands. He is on record as saying he would rather commit suicide than suffer the indignity of begging for money.

But not long after being placed in the prime minister’s office, there he was in China, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, desperate to avoid going to the IMF for a bailout. Luckily for his supporters, he resisted the honourable impulse to take his own life.

However, begging for bailouts is part and parcel of a Pakistani leader’s list of important duties. Often, we negotiate with a gun to our head, saying the country (and its nuclear arsenal) will fall into hostile extremist hands if we don’t get some cash.

MBS probably reveled in his high-profile visit as he is currently out of favour in much of the world after his alleged involvement in the Jamal Kashoggi case in Istanbul last year. He is also accused of overseeing the bombing of Yemen and driving that impoverished country to the brink of starvation.

Then there is the bizarre attempt to isolate Qatar, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister for a week, and the brutal crackdown on even the mildest dissent in his own country. While a beggar can hardly sit in moral judgment over his benefactor, perhaps our government could have toned down its more cringe-making excesses to curry favour with the prince.

When the Iranian president visited Pakistan around three years ago, he certainly was not met with anything close to the pomp and ceremony that greeted MBS. In fact, Iran was accused of harbouring an Indian spy on its soil. But then it doesn’trf have the kind of cash the Saudis have. So if we are willing to sell ourselves to the highest bidder, what does that make us?

In the ongoing Iran-Saudi proxy war, it does not take a genius to decide to stay neutral, given our long common border, and our ancient cultural ties with our western neighbour. But there is a pronounced tilt in our position that came with retired army chief Raheel Sharif’s decision to take the Saudi riyal – or a reported million dollars a year – to head a ghost army.

Pakistan has traditionally sent army units to train Saudis, even though this has paid few dividends. The coalition of Saudi and UAE troops has thus far failed to defeat the ragtag Houthi rebels despite enjoying an overwhelming advantage in advanced firepower provided by the Americans and other Western countries.

But we now seem poised to take sides in the devastating proxy war that is destabilising the Muslim world. We appear to be driven by our need for investments, forgetting our strategic imperative. Above all, Iran is next door while Saudi Arabia is some distance away.

Another thing we seem to have forgotten is that the promised Saudi investments are not a gift. When the projects are on stream, the profits of Saudi investors will have to be repatriated in foreign currency. As it is, there is a lot of concern over how the Chinese government and private investors will be repaid for projects under CPEC. Future Saudi investments will only enhance this problem.

But due to our inability to collect taxes, and spending much of our budget on defence and our debt burden, we are forced to kowtow before rich rulers. So much for dignity and sovereignty.