Public opinion of Saudi Arabia plummeted to the lowest it has ever been on the streets of Pakistan when the Saudi government agreed to Nawaz Sharif’s deportation from Pakistan in the summer of 2007, contravening directly the Supreme Court verdict that had plainly said that Mr. Sharif, a Pakistani citizen, had the inalienable right to live in his country and that any deal he may have entered into with the government of Mr. Musharraf in 1999to live in exile, most likely under duress, would not hold up in a court of law.
Saudi Arabia had in the past enjoyed respect, almost veneration, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, primarily because the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are located there, but also because several Pakistanis had earned a living in Saudi Arabia and repatriated funds consistently, often feeding an entire family on the remittances of a single Pakistani worker sweating it out in the desert sun. In spite of the fact that treatment of guest workers in Saudi Arabia, especially those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, leaves a lot to be desired, average Pakistanis nevertheless looked upon the Kingdom with a sense of admiration.
In recent years, however, public opinion has changed. Inviting foreign, western forces to attack Iraq in the early nineties led many to question their previous belief that Saudi Arabia would safeguard Muslim interests, even though most Pakistanis were against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Of course, the more erudite realized that Saudi Arabia had funnelled funds into Iraq to help fight Iran previously and had called in French soldiers to help quell the uprising in Mecca. But the average person was largely unaware of these facts and was therefore gravely disappointed that the Saudi government had sided with Christians against Muslims.
Soon after 9/11, Pakistanis also woke up to the reality that Saudi Arabia had been exploiting Pakistan’s poverty and lack of a viable public school system by pouring funds into madrassas that taught a particularly rigid, and sometimes, violent form of Islam. Although much had been made of western involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs, until recently, many Pakistani political analysts failed to underscore the effects of Saudi interference. Nawaz Sharif’s recent deportation highlighted just that, and although opposition politicians did not blame Saudi Arabia the way they would have pounced on the west, independent analysts began to talk about it on television and in the newspapers.
Surprisingly, the reaction from the Saudis was quick, and rapidly, a counter-deal was negotiated, which would let Nawaz Sharif back into the country. Many analysts also thought that Saudis were confident that after several years in exile in Saudi Arabia and having enjoyed the Saudi crown’s hospitality, Nawaz Sharif could represent Saudi interests in Pakistan rather well. But anyone who thought the Saudis had changed their minds simply because they were sensitive to Pakistani public opinion, was disappointed yet again when the Kingdom’s ambassador to Pakistan sought a meeting with the hugely popular deposed Chief Justice, house-arrested along with several other members of the judiciary by the Musharraf government for their bold decisions, offering him a VIP hajj so that he would soften his stance with the Musharraf government. The deposed Chief Justice respectfully declined and preferred to remain under house arrest.
The Saudi press has historically had an insatiable lust for reporting on tumultuous events in the countries of expatriate workers, namely Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Philippines, and the like as it is practically forbidden from discussing any of the shortcomings of its own government. Mr. Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, the Kingdom’s most widely-read English newspaper, never ceases to amaze me with his benevolent offers of advice to the governments of less-developed countries while remaining shamefully silent about the troubles that envelop Saudi Arabia. True to form, his recent editorial on Pakistan began with the sentence, “The brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto has dealt a serious blow to Pakistan’s fabric of existence, which is now imperilled.” He follows up with some incoherent analysis going back to Pakistan’s ties with Iran and Turkey, and then concludes with several words of advice for the government and opposition to work together.
Certainly, Ms. Bhutto’s death was tragic and a great loss, one that has been mourned and shaken Pakistan, but by no means is the fabric of a nation of 173 million threatened. Pakistanis take criticism with good grace and are ever-ready to self-examine, both by ink and by mouth. Mr. Al-Maeena, if he is at all concerned about the well-being of his own country, should focus inwards. He should take advantage of the marginal reforms introduced by King Abduallah and undertake a badly needed, if belated, soul-searching exercise.
Perhaps it is too late for Mr. Al-Maeena. Perhaps he is set in his escapist ways. Far more encouraging are some of Saudi Arabia’s younger lawyers, journalists, and bloggers. One sees hope in this new generation of Saudis who are standing firm in their commitment to bring about positive change to Saudi society. Ebithal Mubarak writes about previously taboo subjects such as maltreatment of foreign maids and “honour crimes” against women, such as forced divorces. Lawyer Abdel-Rahman al-Lahem who took up the highly publicised case of the “Qatif girl” gang rape victim and risked losing his license to practice. Bloggers Fouad al-Farhan, who was arrested in his plea for greater freedom and basic civil rights, and Ahmad al-Omran of saudijeans.org fame, who dared to expose corruption and lament self-censorship in the Saudi media.
These are the new and exciting heroes of a promising Saudi Arabia. Although they receive some press in the west, it is clearly not enough, neither of course are the West’s calls for reform or solidarity with the civil society activists in Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, or any other part of the Muslim world. But what is most disheartening is that Muslim countries themselves give very little coverage to these burning issues. The Pakistani press, for instance, although battling tooth and nail to cover the struggle of lawyers and journalists at home, has remained woefully silent on the plight of its Saudi brethren.
Perhaps the Pakistanis are too embattled in their own woes to take notice. Or perhaps, they fear the newly-instituted and draconian PEMRA Ordinance that prohibits not just live coverage, etc. of dissent within Pakistan but also forbids any “negative press of friendly countries.” Either excuse is inadequate. Pakistani newspapers have a duty to inform their people about the plight of well-meaning Saudis. Pakistanis and Saudis may have a lot to gain from one another if real people-to-people contact is encouraged over governmental ties when both governments are clearly working against the interests of their own people.
Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a London-based lawyer and writer and can be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com