Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent visit to Pakistan was perhaps the most bewildering circus the country has seen in living memory.
Almost touted as the greatest thing to have ever happened to Pakistan, the visit came on the backdrop of serious allegations against Mohammed bin Salman ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But before the crown prince visited Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan had already gone to Saudi Arabia twice and the army chief once to ask for a financial bailout.
Pakistan’s private television channels mounted nauseating portrayal of Mohammed bin Salman as a holy messiah, and hyped the trip as perhaps the first ever by a foreign dignitary.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PM House (that he had earlier declared a university), was taken over by the Saudi crown prince and his 80 containers of personal belongings that included gym equipment and furniture.
Here was a nuclear-armed country slavishly fawning over a rich, likely murderer, prince for the loans and investments he may bring with him.
To every Pakistani’s mortification, international observers like Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker commented on the vulgar toadiness on display.
This MBS trip to Pakistan is amazing. In the nuclear age, has there even been a relationship like the Pak-Saudi relationship where one country has nukes and the other doesn’t, and the one that has nukes is completely subservient?
— Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) February 17, 2019
Throughout Pakistan’s seven-decade history, it has received state guests, but the arrogance of the Saudis in bringing personal furniture to sit and sleep on was repulsive.
The hoopla included hiring of 300 Land Cruisers by Pakistan government to ferry around Mohammed bin Salman’s delegation (after having auctioned off 100 government-owned cars earlier in a live telecast event in the interest of ‘austerity’), a local holiday on Monday, handover of security to the Saudi Royal Guards (apart from the Pakistani army), and imposition of curfew in the capital, among dozens of other arrangements.
While the media was busy in its ‘musbat reporting’ (positive reporting) of the visit as ‘suggested‘ by the military a few months ago, it also let the cat out of the bag with Pakistan 24 TV reporting how the ISPR (the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces) was feeding readymade tickers.
The story outlined how reporters on the ISPR beat were being instructed in WhatsApp groups to credit the army chief for the royal visit, without attributing the tickers to the ISPR. Some of the tickers passed on to them read, roughly translated, “Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa has played a pivotal role in the furthering of strategic ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The COAS had visited the kingdom in August 2018”, and “General Bajwa met the crown prince one on one during his trip to the KSA, and he is due to also hold one-on-one meetings with the prince during this trip”. Another ticker read: “Historic moments of a warm relationship; army chief QJB laid the foundations of Pakistan’s historic diplomatic success, for the last many years the relationship had been left in the freezer; his August 2018 meeting with the prince proved to be an important milestone which bore the fruit of the prince’s current trip.” These tickers were run with file photos provided to them.
Journalist Jahanzaib Haque of Dawn cryptically tweeted against trusting anything in the local media because of how much was being dictated to it.
Please don’t trust pretty much anything you see or read in local media.
The level to which news is dictated and censored at the moment renders the information largely meaningless.
(Given how it’s been done I’m assuming this is obvious, but just in case) #NayaPakistan
— Jahanzaib Haque (@jhaque_) February 16, 2019
While Imran Khan was made to chauffer crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, it was the army chief who was highly visible in media coverage receiving the prince, meeting the prince, walking with the prince at all times, with Imran Khan looking like he was tagging along – or tagging behind, as a civilian prop.
The interior ministry (which is the headed by the prime minister himself) went so far as to issue an inflammatory and sectarian letter blaming the Shia community of stoking hatred against Mohammed bin Salman. Upon outcry from the public at this letter, we learnt of Imran Khan ‘taking notice‘ of the letter by the ministry he heads and calling for strict action against the offensive notification. It wasn’t just the Shias, many ordinary Pakistanis had been protesting the prince’s visit.
In one of the most damaging developments during the visit, Saudi foreign minister Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir flayed Iran as a terrorist state; expressed the desire to eliminate ‘the scourge‘ from the face of this earth; and said Iran was harbouring al-Qaeda’s board of directors. And Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi sat next to him uncomfortably – eyes lowered, examining his hands on the table. Indeed, state television and many private ones muted this embarrassing part, and had anchors talk over it.
The humiliation for a country that has walked a tightrope for 70 years between these two bitter rivals for Islamic hegemony in the region, was untold. Just a couple of years earlier, former PM Nawaz Sharif had relied on parliament and obtained a unanimous vote to hold off Saudi pressure on Pakistan to send troops for its war on Yemen.
As senator Afrasiab Khattak tweeted, the country’s foreign policy had just been auctioned off. Tweep Zeeshan Khattak paraphrased the Saudi FM thus:
We wish to eliminate Iran from the face of this planet. Saudi Arabia pic.twitter.com/rmPVo4SgD6
— Zeeshan Khattak (@khattak) February 18, 2019
and Dr Taqi endorsed his interpretation:
That's a technically correct observation. MBS called Iran terrorist and then pledged to eliminate the terrorists — in one breath https://t.co/4NV43nGzHF
— Mohammad Taqi (@mazdaki) February 19, 2019
Amid all this, Imran Khan stayed silent on the Pulwama attack in India, and the claims by Jaish-e-Mohammed of having carried it out. His astounding explanation later on was that he didn’t want to jeopardise the Saudi prince’s visit with any mention of Pulwama during his stay. Instead, he busied himself with paying oily tributes to Mohammed bin Salman.
Once again, Khan brought out the cringe-worthy line he’d said to Navjot Singh Sidhu earlier. He told MBS that he was so popular in Pakistan he’d get more votes than Khan himself. This bizarre compliment speaks volumes of Khan’s understanding of Pakistani voters. Dr Mohammad Taqi’s stinging response summarised the reactions on social media aptly when he tweeted: “If Gen Bajwa remains the army chief, this is certainly doable,” in a clear reference to Imran Khan allegedly being installed by the military after a rigged election.
The hype of “$20 billion investment” was calmly crushed by the Saudi foreign minister when he explained these were all intentions, with technical and financial feasibilities to be carried out over the next two years -that no investment decisions had been made or signed. Imran Khan managed to beg freedom for about 2,000 Pakistanis languishing in Saudi jails, without a question about the system that arbitrarily throws poor labourers into jail without legal recourse.
Why the government didn’t go to the IMF instead remains a perplexing mystery. But it chose to debase itself for ‘intent’ from a crown prince, and awarded him Pakistan’s highest civilian award as icing on the cake.
But the most frightening aspect is this: We do not know what this poor nation now owes to the Saudis in return.
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