In an unexpectedly sharp statement, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has criticised the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) led by Saudi Arabia for not extending support to the Kashmir cause. He warned that if such support was not forthcoming, he would advise Prime Minister Imran Khan to set up a separate platform of Muslim countries for this purpose. He mentioned Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, etc. that support Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Mr Khan, it is well known, was irked by Saudi pressure on Pakistan not to attend a planned moot of similarly inclined Islamic countries in Malaysia late last year. Following India’s annexation of Kashmir in August 2019, Islamabad’s frustration, at the OIC’s refusal to accede to its request to convene a special foreign ministers moot on Kashmir, has been mounting all too evidently.
Since criticism of Saudi Arabia by Pakistan’s national security establishment is unimaginable, some people think that Mr Qureshi has unthinkingly shot his mouth off. But a realistic appraisal of the background music suggests that the PM was on board because Pak-Saudi relations had hit rock bottom already and the FM’s outburst is a consequence of this fact rather than a cause of it.
After Imran Khan became PM in July 2018, the Miltablishment immediately urged him to fly to Riyadh, as per conventional wisdom, to pay obeisance to the House of Saud and beg for economic assistance. Mr Khan was reluctant to kick off on this note but did the needful. The Saudis noted this hesitation but weighed in with a couple of billion dollars to prop up Pakistan’s forex reserves. In February 2019, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) landed in Islamabad and offered up to USD20 billion in investments, including an oil refinery at Gwadar. Indeed, when Mr Khan requested intercession by MBS to arrange a meeting with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN in September 2019, the Saudis delivered via President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. To underline the fact of his personal mediation, MBS also lent Mr Khan his private jet to travel to New York.
Unfortunately, however, just as Pak-Saudi relations were on the up, Mr Khan’s bonhomie on this trip with Iran, Turkey and Malaysia in the anti-Saudi camp injected a sour note into the equation, especially after he mooted the idea of an Islamic platform with them that was seen as a direct challenge to the OIC led by Saudi Arabia. MBS was also displeased with Mr Khan’s unilateral attempt to bridge Saudi-Iran tensions. The Saudi royal jet that took Mr Khan and his personal entourage to New York was recalled on the return journey mid-air and its VIP passengers had to take a private airline on the way back. The Saudis now started to exert pressure on Pakistan not to attend the planned Islamic moot in Kuala Lumpur, compelling Mr Khan to eat humble pie. This has rankled with him. Indeed, this may explain why the Pakistanis have not followed up with the Saudis on their offer to invest billions in the country.
Exactly, a year ago, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, formally annexed and bifurcated Kashmir. By so doing, he formally repudiated the UNSC Resolutions of seven decades ago that called for a plebiscite to determine whether Kashmir would be part of Pakistan or India as determined by the Partition Formula of the parting British Raj. A year later, Mr Modi has embarked upon his plan to build a temple on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya, having earlier rewarded a retiring chief justice of the Supreme Court of India by elevating him to the Upper House of parliament for enabling him to do so “legitimately”. In between, Mr Modi has passed various laws like the Citizenship Act and National Register Act to facilitate his policy of Hinduising India by marginalizing the significant Muslim “minority” in the country. All this while, he has kept Pakistan on the back foot by keeping the Line of Control hot, threatening strategic strikes, beefing up his air force for action, fomenting proxy terrorism and instability in Pakistan’s periphery, pressurizing FATF to defang Pakistan’s jihadi proxies and leaning on the Organisation of Islamic Conference led by MBS to keep Kashmir off its agenda.
Understandably, Pakistan is both irked and frustrated. Irked because there isn’t much it can do by way of responding aggressively to India. Frustrated because the OIC, let alone the Western world, isn’t ready to condemn the Indian carnage in Kashmir. All Islamabad can do is to loudly preach to the converted at home and brandish a new map of Pakistan as some sort of territorial conquest. At most it can request China to kick off a 15-minute session in a meeting of the UNSC on Kashmir under “other items”.
Before Mr Qureshi’s calculated outburst, it was quietly revealed that Pakistan had returned USD1 billion in forex deposits to Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen whether the latest message will yield any dividends or make matters worse.
This article originally appeared in The Friday Times on August 7, 2020.