Asad Durrani served as a three star general in the Pakistan army, and later headed the ISI from 1990 to 1992 Image Credit: Supplied

Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters

By Asad Durrani, Westland, 350 pages, Rs699


Pak–Saudi relations are indeed special and strategic. The reasons are historic, pragmatic, and sentimental. They go back to the period before the Kingdom became oil-rich and began to be wooed and pampered by all and sundry. The Muslims of the subcontinent, even when some among them were the rulers, were a minority in their own country and therefore drew strength and solace from the belief that they were part of the larger Ummah. The holy cities of Makkah and Medina were their spiritual centre. Some of them left their homeland to be near the fountainhead of faith and not because they were in search of a better worldly life. Émigrés generally work harder than the natives. When fired with missionary zeal, they invest heart and soul. So it was with many who migrated from areas that are part of today’s Pakistan. When the Kingdom was founded in 1932, this diaspora had already established itself as a useful part of the community. Their contribution was recognised and rewarded. The first head of the Saudi State Bank, Anwar Ali, was a Pakistani, as were most of the physicians who attended to the royal family. There was, for a period, even an ideological affinity. In 1979, Maulana Mawdudi, a renowned religious scholar from Pakistan, became the first recipient of King Faisal’s International Prize for his services to Islam.

Once the Kingdom was found blessed with phenomenal reserves of black gold, it could pick and choose expertise and products from all around the globe. Its newfound infatuation with the more advanced and powerful countries obviously affected the quality of its relationship with Pakistan. In the meantime, even at the lower end of the spectrum of skills, our expatriates have largely been replaced by cheaper or more efficient labour from countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Afghanistan. If Pakistan still claims exclusive status in the Saudi strategic calculus, the credit must be given to some good work done in the past.

Personal relations do matter, especially in tribal societies like the Arab. Both Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq were remembered fondly in important Saudi circles. Nawaz Sharif, too, had developed contacts that helped him after General Musharraf toppled his government. Prince Fahad Bin Sultan, the then Governor of Tabuk, told me that he was on his treadmill when he got a call on his cell phone from Sharif to tell him a coup was under way. (The prince must have been pretty high on Mian Sahib’s SOS list.) Some other factors were more important: our investment in the training of the Saudi armed forces, the triangular relationship between the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — lately on the decline but one that had served us well — and most important, the Saudi belief that the Pakistanis (due to their devotion to the holy places) could be counted upon to remain loyal to the Kingdom, even if it were to lose its oily glitter.

I started my assignment in September 2000 with all the aforementioned advantages, plus one more. My Saudi counterpart when I was heading the ISI, Prince Turki Al Faisal, was still in the office that he had held for over two decades. In the Saudi system, before an ambassador is accredited, he pays an introductory call on the foreign minister. (The presentation of credentials to the King may take months or more.) When I was first presented to the late Prince Saud Al Faisal — his father, King Faisal, and he had kept this portfolio in the family ever since the Kingdom was founded — he made it very clear that our bilateral relationship was in a class of its own. Their foreign secretary would often teasingly dare me to improve upon it, ‘if it was at all possible’. I think, in a subtle way, he was conveying the message that the ties had passed their peak and needed some serious attention and probably a bit of good luck to restore them to their once high pedestal.

With the enormity of 9/11, the stroke of good luck took precisely one year in coming. Before that, there were plenty of ups and downs — mostly downs. Nawaz Sharif and his family were given asylum soon after my arrival. I am not sure if the Saudis were grateful that their offer to host them was accepted, or were unhappy with the treatment meted out to him. When in office, Sharif and his tribe used to overtax the Saudi hospitality with their all too frequent visits to the Holy Land, but then he had also learnt the art of doing business (pun intended) with the royal family. Instead of pestering anyone for an audience with the crown prince, he would wait patiently in the royal guest house till called.

Since I was completely out of the loop during the entire back-and-forth leading to Mian Sahib’s extended stay in the Holy Land, the Saudi government rightly concluded that the important business of state would be conducted by special emissaries and through back channels. The new ambassador could therefore get on with more mundane affairs. It did me a world of good.

An almost million-strong Pakistani community is spread all over the Kingdom. Our missions, especially the blue-blooded diplomats in them, are not known for their patience with the endless complaints of the working classes. And if attending to these required leaving the comforts of one’s office and traversing long stretches of sun-scorched landscape, some of them would rather rough it out indoors. An old soldier had no problem with either. The monthly durbar that lets the troops tell their commander, as gently as possible, what they thought of him, had taught me that a sympathetic hearing was more important than redressing the grievance. If, in the process, one could tour the length and breadth of the Arabian Peninsula (all expenses paid), for someone smitten by wanderlust, it was the optimum combination of duty and pleasure. Having camped in the Himalayas, the Alps, and on the Arctic Circle, one was now looking forward to spending some time under a Bedouin tent.

I never made it to the Empty Quarters even though Saudi Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Ali Al Naimi, an outdoor man himself, promised that he would try to make it possible. But I did find out that the desert Kingdom had much more than sandy dunes. The highlands running south from Taif, all the way to the Yemeni border, could provide as much solace to a secular soul as the faithful would find praying in the holiest of places in the north. One was lucky to have made the best of both worlds on many an occasion. Interacting with the humblest of our compatriots who tough it out in harsh conditions to provide some relief to their families back home was a very fulfilling experience.

Expatriates, especially from countries like Pakistan, suffer from some grave handicaps when working in the Gulf countries. They are virtually at the mercy of their local sponsor and must pay him, or an occasional her, a share of their earnings. The Kafeel legally owns even an enterprise wholly financed and operated by foreign workers. Of course, it works out pretty well most of the time, but the fear that it might not is like a hanging sword. Then there are handicaps that are Pakistan-specific. Our labour force is outclassed and undercut by those from other developing countries who are more educated, better skilled, or willing to work for lower wages. Moreover, our recruiting agents are amongst the least principled. They lure wannabe workers with promises of better pay and job packages than those that actually await them in the Holy Land.

Nevertheless, given a chance to air their grievances, for example to the ambassador, our ordinary workers showed remarkable understanding. They might recount all their woes and more, but they also understood the limits of both the systems, the Saudi and the Pakistani. Another of their good traits was that even when desperately looking for work, they stood up for a few principles that were important to them. They refused to accept jobs that paid less than their rightful due, and it made me very proud of our countrymen to see that most of them took no nonsense, even from their employers. Many a Saudi referred to the Pakistanis as ‘tough cookies’.

Excerpted with permission from Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters by Asad Durrani.