Saudi Arabia Presses Pakistan on Sharif, Keeping Iran Out of CEPEC

Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Abdullah Marzouk Al Zahrani meeting Pakistan's army chief General Asif Qamar Bajwa in Rawalpindi on January 20. (Courtesy ISPR)
Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Abdullah Marzouk Al Zahrani meeting Pakistan’s army chief General Asif Qamar Bajwa in Rawalpindi on January 20. (Courtesy ISPR)

When Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in April, 2000, many in Pakistan had little hope that he will come out of the Attock Fort unharmed. Sharif was imprisoned in the Mughal era fort on the banks of mighty Indus River in the Punjab province following a bloodless military coup d’état  by the then army chief General Pervez Musharraf and top commanders on October 12, 1999.

The military court sentenced Nawaz Sharif to life imprisonment after he was found “guilty”  of hijacking a plane carrying General Pervez Musharraf and terrorism. Nawaz Sharif had tried to sack General Musharraf as army chief, while he was returning to Karachi at the end of an official visit to Sri Lanka. The move triggered a chain reaction, which cost Sharif his government and landed him in the military-run Attock Fort.

But then the Saudi royals intervened and brokered a deal between the military and Sharif under which the later agreed to go into exile and not to participate in politics for 21 years. The deal paved the way for Musharraf to become absolute ruler of Pakistan till 2007. Rest is painful history.

Fast forward to 2017, Nawaz Sharif is again in trouble, both with the military and Pakistani law. The reasons are old for Sharif’s new troubles — corruption. The Pakistani prime minister has been in the dock on corruption charges brought by none of Pakistan’s power brokers. Rather by the Panama Papers, which accuse his family’s involvement in money laundering and other financial crimes. The country’s Supreme Court is hearing the case these days, keeping the Sharif’s government on the edge because of increasing evidence that is making Sharif and his children’s statements about their assets contradictory. He faces disqualification from the country’s highest court.

And guess what? The Saudis are reportedly in action again. But this time around the scope of their effort to influence decision-making in Islamabad is much bigger. “It sounds more like they are cajoling Pakistan’s military to do their bidding not just on Sharif’s future but much more,” said one source familiar with the ongoing effort.

The Saudis are reportedly lobbying Pakistan’s most powerful power broker — the military — on a number of issues, which includes somehow saving Nawaz Sharif from a possible disqualification in the “Panamagate” case and smooth transition of General Raheel Sharif from being the former army chief of Pakistan to the top commander’s position of the 34-nation yet-to-be formalized Muslim military alliance.

General Sharif has so far not reacted to the news that was first broken by Khwaja Asif, the defense minister in Sharif cabinet. Many Pakistanis, including General Sharif’s admirers, have received the news with a grain of salt and muted criticism. General Sharif enjoys tremendous popularity and respect in Pakistan for taking the South Asian nation’s war on terror to North Waziristan by launching a military operation in what was once bastion of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

The source, who requested anonymity, said that Riyadh wish list was conveyed to the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa by Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Abdullah Marzouk Al Zahrani during a 90-minute meeting at the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi on January 20. The source said besides offering 3,000 fully paid Hajj packages to Pakistan Army during this year’s Hajj season as a goodwill gesture of the Saudi government towards Pakistan, Ambassador Zahrani asked for:

1) Making General Raheel Sharif’s smooth transfer to Riyadh. Also arrange a start up for 20,000 Pakistani troops destined to join the proposed 34-nations military alliance.

2) Provide training facilities to Saudi soldiers in counterterrorism.

3) Play a role to protect Nawaz Sharif from Supreme Court.

5) Keep Iranians out of the Chinese-funded multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC and don’t allow Iranians gas supply pipeline into Pakistan

6) Do not allow Iranians to use Pakistan’s banking facilities

Saudi Arabia’s role in Pakistan’s power politics is an old story. Revered by many Pakistanis, the Saudis have historically enjoyed unprecedented influence on Pakistan’s civil-military establishment.

While General Raheel Sharif has not publicly confirmed or denied the news of the possibility of he leading the Muslim nations military alliance, Pakistani media has reported that he has set forth a condition that he will accept the Saudi offer only if Iran is also invited to join the military alliance. Iran has not been invited by the Saudi-lead Arab nations to join the alliance. If the alliance is formalized without Iran’s inclusion, it is expected to further deepen the sectarian division in the Muslim world.

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