Sharif Affair Summary

Here’s a good summary/analysis piece of the Sharif affair written by Faryal Leghari at the GRC, published by the Daily Star…The analysis may be a little lean, but it summarizes the controversy well. 

The unprecedented support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf provided by Saudi Arabia’s leadership in putting diplomatic pressure on the deposed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return to Saudi Arabia was a major shock. This was a major deviation from the Saudi government’s policy to stay away from controversial political matters, especially those relating to the internal affairs of other countries.

The incident indicated that relations between the two countries, which are longstanding and based on shared interests, go beyond normal ideological, political and economic ties. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship characterized by unprecedented understanding and diplomatic goodwill.

The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin, along with Saad Hariri, the son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had been in contact with the Sharif family over the years, were sent as special envoys to Islamabad. Sharif’s undertaking, one that he had denied until recently, was that he was to live in exile in Saudi Arabia for a period of 10 years and to abstain from any political activity during that period. It was only in 2006 that he left for the United Kingdom after the Saudi government had checked with Islamabad and allowed him to do so. It is even rumored that former US President Bill Clinton had been involved in securing Sharif’s exit at that time, a rumor that has been denied by Sharif.

Addressing a press conference, Prince Muqrin reiterated the Saudi government’s support for Pakistan and even showed the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Sharif. The agreement, according to him, “was aimed at ensuring stability of Pakistan.” He expressed the wish of King Abdullah that “for the sake of the national interest of Pakistan, all parties concerned with the agreement will honor and adhere to the terms.” The king considered “the stability and security of Pakistan as the stability and security of Saudi Arabia.” While conceding respect to the Pakistan Supreme Court, which allowed Sharif to return, and the law of the land, Prince Muqrin reiterated that there was a moral obligation to respect the agreement undertaken by Sharif. In addition to initial denials of any agreement altogether, Sharif, following the press conference addressed by Prince Muqrin and Hariri, went to the extent of saying that Hariri had wrongly given him the impression that the agreement specifying the exile period would be amended from 10 to five years.

The Pakistani information minister had stated that, according to diplomatic norms, even verbal pledges are of prime importance. Reports of Saudi involvement in negotiations on board the aircraft that Sharif traveled in back to Pakistan have been strongly denied by the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad, Ali Auwaz Asweri, who said that the decision to send the former prime minister back to exile on the basis of the agreement was entirely that of the Pakistani government.

By reneging on the agreement, Sharif brought embarrassment upon himself and his Saudi benefactors, who were acting as his guarantors. The Saudis acted in good faith and gave assurances that Sharif would comply with the agreement that was reached. Owing to the fact that the Saudi leadership is highly respected, it would have been unthinkable for anyone in Pakistan’s leadership to have rejected or denied their request.

There have been conjectures that diplomatic pressure from Washington and Pakistan made the Saudi government intervene. Possibly, Sharif’s return at this juncture, at a time when Musharraf faces a hostile judiciary that is likely to challenge his re-election as president and simultaneous retention of his post of army chief, as well as impending parliamentary elections, would have posed bigger problems for the government. Linked to all this is the fact that Sharif’s return as the leader of a major political party would have upset the election applecart and thrown the Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto electoral alliance into disarray.

Forcibly sent back into exile in Jeddah, Sharif is now expected to remain in Saudi Arabia for the remaining period of his 10-year exile, seven of which have already passed. The already tense and charged political situation in Pakistan is expected to move toward a head-on confrontation between the government and an empowered and independent judiciary already on the warpath. A day after Sharif’s forced return to Jeddah, on September 11, a petition under Article 204 of the Constitution was filed in the Supreme Court against sending Nawaz Sharif into exile. The petition alleged that Sharif was duped by the government into believing that he would be arrested and face charges of treason and corruption instead of being resent into exile. It also charged the government with violating the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Sharif to return to Pakistan.

The Saudi leadership is also rumored to have been unhappy with Sharif’s political and related activities. Though sources close to Sharif deny this, there have been strong rumors, as reported in a leading Pakistani newspaper on August 30, 2007, that Sharif’s decision to “sell the land allotted by none less than King Abdullah for setting up a steel plant near [Mecca] may not have gone down too well with the royal family. The Sharifs have sold the land at a high price to a major local business group which incidentally also bid for Pakistan steel mills … [S]ources in the group maintain that they had paid a sum of 75 million Saudi riyals to the Sharifs as the price for the prime land that the Sharifs had reportedly only paid 5 million riyals to the Saudi government as token price for the land.”

The current political situation in Pakistan is in a state of flux. The political motivation behind sending Sharif back into exile and ignoring the Supreme Court’s decision may prove to be a troublesome matter for the government. As for Sharif himself, he may have lost the goodwill of the Saudi government which, though it welcomed him back as a guest, is said to intend to keep a closer eye on his activities and movements. Sharif’s return to Pakistan and immediate deportation have dragged Saudi Arabia into a controversy it must be very careful not to get further embroiled in.  [Ya think?] – DS

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