The Saudi factor

THE sudden dash by the Sharif brothers to Saudi Arabia and their reported audience with the crown prince gives a new twist to the ongoing political soap opera. It was certainly not a routine official visit; it is then unsurprising that it has generated intense speculation. Whatever transpired at the meeting is likely to have an extremely significant impact on the Sharif family’s future political course.

It will be particularly interesting to see whether Nawaz Sharif continues with his politics of confrontation or takes a moderate path following his visit to the holy land. There may not be any NRO in the offing that is being widely speculated. Yet the possibility of some kind of deal being negotiated cannot be ruled out. There is strong speculation regarding Saudi pressure on Nawaz Sharif to step aside and hand over the party leadership to his younger brother thus ensuring the unity of the ruling party.

One is, however, not sure about the disgraced former prime minister’s accepting any enforced abdication of his leadership role while facing trial on corruption charges. It will certainly not be easy for him to back down after throwing down the gauntlet and promising to take the fight to the end. It is hard to envisage him quietly fading away from the political scene. But a hard-line position may have serious consequences for his party and his family’s dynastic politics.

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif.

It was neither a courtesy call, nor were the brothers invited to the kingdom to discuss regional security issues. The very fact that the two leaders were summoned gives credence to reports about Saudi concerns over growing political instability in Pakistan, one of the kingdom’s most critical allies in the region. It sounds plausible that the meeting was solely linked to the prevailing crisis in Pakistan emanating from the judicial ouster of Nawaz Sharif and his politics of confrontation.

While the Saudi involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics is not new, there is no precedence for political leaders being summoned to the kingdom for negotiations on a purely internal political matter in this way. It has surely more to do with the abrasive manner of the young Saudi crown prince who is now effectively the ruler of the kingdom. The sequence of events too has added to the curiosity over the matter.

Interestingly, the Saudi government sent a special plane to fly Shahbaz Sharif to Riyadh where he reportedly held a series of meetings with senior Saudi officials before the arrival of his elder brother. Strangely, Nawaz Sharif was not given the same protocol, and, reportedly, had to wait for an audience with the crown prince. The plot thickens given the conflicting statements from the party leaders.

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif. But one is not sure that the Saudi involvement even at the highest level could tilt the balance in Pakistani politics. Of course, such a proposition may have the support of some senior PML-N leaders as well as the security establishment. But the situation is much more complicated.

Despite his disqualification and being charged on various counts of financial misdeeds, Nawaz Sharif remains perhaps the most formidable political force in the country. Any deal to keep him completely out of the political scene may not be that easy. Surely, one must not underestimate the Saudi factor in Pakistani politics, particularly the kingdom’s influence over the Sharif family. But it cannot enforce any deal.

Indeed, the Sharif family owed much to the Saudis for getting them out from Gen Musharraf’s prison and hosting them during their exile. But that close relationship came under strain after the Sharif government declined the Saudi request to send Pakistani troops to Yemen. The change of leadership in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah and the rise to power of Salman bin Abdul Aziz and his son Mohammad bin Salman had also affected that close relationship.

That cooling of relations was reflected in the reported refusal of the Saudi government to come to the rescue of the Sharif family during the JIT probe into the money trail leading to the Sharifs’ London properties. The funds from the sale of a steel mill set up by the family during their exile in Saudi Arabia were supposed to be one of the sources of financing for their foreign properties. But the Saudi authorities could not endorse the record of the sale.

It is also evident that the monarchy has traditionally maintained a much closer relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. All the military rulers had very close ties with the kingdom. Retired Gen Musharraf has publicly acknowledged receiving millions of dollars from King Abdullah, after he stepped down from power, to buy his properties in London and Dubai.

Despite the strained relationship between the two countries in the past year, the Saudi government’s ties with the Pakistani military have not weakened. The appointment of retired Gen Raheel Sharif as head of the so-called Islamic alliance force is an example of the close bond. Some reports suggest that the main purpose of summoning the Sharif brothers was to persuade them to adopt a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. It is obvious that the PML-N under Shahbaz Sharif is still the best bet for Riyadh.

Such deep involvement of a foreign country, however close, in our domestic politics is cause for serious concern. Unfortunately, it has become an acceptable phenomenon in this country to allow outsiders to mediate in our internal political disputes.

It is not just Saudi Arabia but other foreign nations too that have been using their clout over different political parties to influence politics in this country. Such foreign involvement adversely affects the democratic process. Any political deal brokered by the Saudis must be rejected. Instead of looking towards Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs should decide about their political future themselves.