The Saudis have picked a side
Straws don’t float in the winds of international diplomacy because a sudden gust has risen on a lazy afternoon. They are sent up there to check the weather at various levels of a turbulent atmosphere. If a straw does encounter too much friction and gets burnt out, no great deal: It was only a straw. But if it floats and finds a destination then it becomes an asset in the construction of a bridge, sometimes between nations divided by a sea of differences, rather than merely a gulf of irritations.
In 1947, the Arab world watched the emergence of Pakistan and India with wary interest. Its more vibrant parts, like Egypt, were weighed by their own dilemmas; not least of them being imposed monarchs who gave orders to Cairo and took orders from London. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took an active dislike to Egypt’s King Farouk, which may explain his disproportionate fondness for Gamal Nasser, who overthrew the royals in what must surely be among the more polite coups in history. A defining moment came in 1956 when secular Nehru supported Nasser during the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez and Islamic Pakistan stood by Britain. As one Arab commentator tartly noted, “The Pakistanis think that Islam was born in 1947.”
But Saudi Arabia, deeply enmeshed in the Western embrace, had little time for left radicalism, whether genuine or pseudo. It was drawn to Pakistan by both religion and politics, not to mention geopolitics. Pakistan positioned itself as a frontline state against Soviet communism (though not China), long before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did indeed make it a borderline case. Saudi kings are also, as rulers of Mecca and Medina, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. They were attracted as well by Pakistan’s claim to be a fortress of the faith between “Hindu-dominated South Asia” and “Atheist-Communist Central Asia”.
Few nations have been as skilful as Pakistan in exploiting the uses of adversity. It turned the period between two wars, of Bangladesh in 1971 and Afghanistan in 1979, into a decade of resurrection. The strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was cemented to seemingly unbreakable levels. Saudi support financed the Pakistani nuclear programme, advertised then as an “Islamic bomb”. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Lahore Islamic conference in 1974 was a phenomenal success, and lives on both in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and in symbols scattered across Pakistani cities.
The Pak-Saudi relationship found its true historic moment during the 10-year Afghan war against the Soviet Union, funded by Saudis, armed by America, and conducted by President Zia-ul-Haq, who might have been put into power from a Riyadh casting couch. When the Soviets were driven out in 1989, there was still the future of Afghanistan to worry about. In 1994 Pakistan launched the Taliban; by 1996 the Taliban had taken Kabul. Pakistan had not only extended its strategic space to the rear, the perennial dream of its military establishment, it had also turned this into “Islamic space”. Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only three nations to recognise the Taliban government.
The Saudi ship of state turns at a glacial pace, but the straws began to float with greater frequency after 9/11 zeroed the war against terrorism into the AfPak region. Riyadh began to praise the rising economies of China and India. I recall a startling statement by a Saudi minister made in Islamabad: Indian Muslims, he argued, were not a minority, but equal citizens of their nation. This would have tweaked an ear or two in the land created of the two-nation theory. In 2006 King Abdullah raised the profile with his state visit to India.
And yet there was a long step to the point where Saudis would hand over Syed Zabiuddin Ansari, alias Abu Jundal, wanted by India for his crucial role in the planning and operations of the Mumbai terror carnage. Ansari had gone to Saudi Arabia for safety; he discovered that Saudi interrogators wanted to know what he knew. Only when Saudis were convinced that his Pakistani passport was fake, and that he was an Indian, did they send him back to face trial in his own country. They chose to cooperate with India at the expense of Pakistan. This is not an individual decision. This is policy; and therefore the start of a process.
It is facile to suggest that they did so under American pressure. Riyadh is not a cardboard government. King Abdullah is convinced that such demons are as injurious to the stability of Saudi Arabia as they are to India. He has also ripped apart one of the great falsehoods propagated by many Muslim terrorists: That they had the sanction of faith. They never did. They do not now. They never will.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will remain the closest of friends, and the best of allies. But the Saudis have ensured that it will not live outside the parameters of law and world order.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.