Saudi doublespeak!

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal made some very interesting remarks during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia. He said that Pakistan is a “friendly country” and Saudi Arabia was “worried” about the rising tide of extremism there. One would like to remind Prince Faisal as to the role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in fuelling religious extremism in Pakistan.

Being the custodian of Islam’s holy places, Saudi Arabia has great reverence in all Muslim countries. Add to it petro-dollars and the ‘reverence’ increases manifold. Pakistan has been a close ally of the Saudis for a long time for both reasons; some say that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmedis non-Muslims at the behest of the Saudis. Whether there is any truth to this cannot be said with certainty, but it is no secret that in order to counter the Soviets during the Afghan war in 1979, General Ziaul Haq got Saudi money to fund madrassas where the ‘mujahideen’ were trained to fight the ‘godless’ communists. Also in the 1980s, both Saudi Arabia and Iran competed for influence in Pakistan. Since a majority of Pakistanis are Sunnis, Saudi influence in the country was stronger, ultimately leading to a virulent Wahabi/Salafist ideology. This brand of Islam is the most rigid one. Not only is there a strong sectarian tinge to this ideology but it also treats the ‘infidels’ with utter contempt. The Taliban are staunch followers of this ‘ideology’.

On the question of the Taliban, the Saudi foreign minister made a great revelation. He said that “our [Saudi Arabia’s] relationship was abrogated when the Taliban gave sanctuary to al Qaeda. Since then and till today we have no relations with Taliban”. This is a post-facto mea culpa, the evidence of which is that in 1996, Osama bin Laden had shifted his base from Sudan to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Since only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the Saudis were great supporters of the anti-diluvian policies of the Taliban government until September 2001. How is it possible that during all these five years while the Taliban gave sanctuary to bin Laden, the Saudis were unaware of it? Granted that the Saudis may not have been aware of the extent of bin Laden’s global ambitions. But saying that Saudi Arabia severed its ties with the Taliban when they gave sanctuary to al Qaeda is playing with the truth.

Saudi Arabia’s advice to the Pakistani leaders to unite against the extremists is well taken. The Saudis have already dealt with a fundamentalist movement inside the Kingdom either by force or through a rehabilitation programme. By taking a clear 180 degree turn, the Saudis were able to thwart extremism while Pakistan is suffering the consequences of a 90 degree turn. To assuage the Americans, we hunted down al Qaeda but preserved the Afghan Taliban. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Pakistanis would do well to learn from their Saudi brethren.

On another note, Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh will ease tensions in the South Asian region and bring India and Pakistan back to a rational dialogue. The Saudis should also exert whatever influence they have on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table as per Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s request. Peace in South Asia will ultimately translate into worldwide peace.

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