STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter covers a third of the Arabian Peninsula. It hugs the belly of Saudi Arabia in the south linking it to Yemen, Oman and UAE. Our farm was on the edge of Rub al Khali, south of Riyadh close to an oasis town Al Kharj, now a thriving industrial city and a military base. In the eighties it was a small town largely inhabited by Doussary tribe. Our farm was called “Green Sands”, “Rimal Al Khazra” in Arabic, and we developed local alliances and networks.

Saeed Al Doussary was a prominent member of his tribe. He provided us multiple services and equipment and became a close friend. Steeped in Bedouin tradition, his hospitality was extremely generous. His weathered face bore the lines of desert existence shielding a disarming smile.

I vividly recollect questioning him about the thick soles of his feet. Our Chairman, Sheikh Latif translated his mind-boggling explanation. As late as early seventies, he used to walk 100 kilometers bare foot on sand to Riyadh from Al Kharj to attend the Royal Court twice a month.

A few times each year we would go camping in Rub al Khali. Saeed was our guide. Sitting around the campfire one night I asked Saeed how do you find your way around desert without any landmarks? He flashed his rugged smile and said never trust sand dunes; they shift regularly with every sandstorm, unreliable and misleading. “It is the stars that guide us; reliable like the love of Laila for Majnun!” One of the many lessons learned in my fifteen years in Saudi.

Fast forward to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan in early 2019. Prime Minister Imran Khan drove him personally from the airport. MBS was oozing love and was generous to a fault. He even offered to be Pakistan’s Ambassador to the world! Within a year all that changed like the shifting sand dunes. Now he is out to teach Pakistan a lesson and squeeze us in whichever way possible. We were forced to borrow from China to repay Saudi recalled debt! Saudi-Pak relations are low, even antagonistic for the first time in over seven decades.

What happened? Let us review events unfolding in the last few months. President Trump had banked very heavily on Jewish support for his re-election. To please them he switched all previous positions by moving US Embassy to Jerusalem, supporting the annexation of Palestinian lands and neglected the resolution of all Palestinian issues.

Facilitating recognition of Israel by Arab Monarchies was to be the icing on the cake for his re-election. It failed to impact the US electorate and Trump lost but it triggered events around the region which will have a lasting impact.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince MBS was the class monitor in the region, ably guided by UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Pakistan was the most important brief in this portfolio. Saudis were confident because they had always succeeded in bending successive Pakistani rulers at will. After fulfilling PTI government’s immediate needs and the cordial rapport between MBS and PM IK, the target seemed achievable.

However, Pakistan refused to play ball in activities leading up to recognition of Israel on 13th August; instead it increased pressure on KSA to support Kashmir cause. On 14th August, the situation further aggravated when China entered into a deal with arch enemy Iran which was supported by Pakistan. MBS and MBZ were annoyed and things started to fall apart. Army Chief’s visit later in August to the Kingdom for damage control failed to produce results.

Aggression and Saudis didn’t go together historically; however the present dispensation is otherwise. Internally, the imprisonment of former Crown Prince and other activists are being openly condemned internationally. Washington Post columnist Khashoggi’s murder was brushed under the carpet by a supportive President Trump. That could change under Present Biden.

Gulf monarchies have tied their knot to Israel unabashedly. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa’s top story has been turned into a Jewish prayer site being flashed on social media. Israel is providing the brains but where to get the muscle? Getting Pak Army and Israeli brass in the same room without resolving the Palestinian issue was ruled out by Pakistanis. What was the next best choice? Rope in India; they work well with Israelis.

Hence the much-touted visit of the Indian Army Chief to UAE and Saudi Arabia. Historically defense co-operation between Pakistan and these countries was close. All that is changing now. Indian soldiers will defend the royalty and join Saudi forces in Yemen; a task Pakistan was unwilling to oblige with.

Regional realignments are happening fast. A nexus is emerging between Israel, Gulf Monarchies minus Qatar, Egypt and India backed by Trump’s USA. On the other side Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China are forging strong ties.

Pakistan will face some serious challenges from this change of guard. Good things are happening on the economic front which auger well for Pakistan. Progress in CEPAC, gas pipeline with Russia and a resurgent industrial base are all positive indicators.

Nevertheless, if in the short term MBS and MBZ go all the way and disrupt Pakistanis working in their countries there will be serious economic and social consequences. There is also the belligerent PDM committed to disrupting the country fueled by funding from anti-Pakistan and anti-Imran forces. We are faced with some challenging times to be navigated very deftly. PDM should avoid becoming the tools of anti-Pakistan forces for the sake of the country.

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