Pak Foreign Minister Angers Saudis, Again

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has angered the Saudi Arabians, yet again, by the way he hosted a recent meeting on December 28, 2021 with Saudi envoy. It underscores a given that demeanour and even sitting position can impact diplomacy.

Receiving Ambassador Nawaf bin Said al-Malki, in Islamabad, Qureshi can be seen sitting with one leg crossed and the other pointing in Al-Malki’s direction.

This was deemed offensive by many Saudis who think Qureshi ‘insulted’ their envoy, The New Arab reported (December 30, 2021).

Many Saudis took to social media to express their disapproval of the Pakistani FM’s seating position stating his demeanour was ‘the height of foolishness and ignorance’.

“Pakistani foreign minister receives Saudi ambassador in Pakistan with unmatched hospitality,” said one user sarcastically.

Another one in tone full of sarcasm, wrote: “If there is no strong reason (medical)  for the Pakistani foreign minister to receive the kingdom’s ambassador in this way, then this is the height of impudence and foolishness and ignorance of the basics of diplomatic protocol,”

Some Saudis took exception to lack of response from their own ambassador. One Twitter user said. “Frankly, if I were one of the Saudi ambassadors, I would have left.” Another social media user wrote: “Rude, thoughtless and undiplomatic behaviour of the [Pakistani] Minister of Foreign Affairs towards the [Saudi] ambassador… [I] admired how he kept silent about this insult!”

Many Pakistanis were also angry with Qureshi and called for an apology failing which, he should be removed.

There was no official word from either government. But the Saudi Embassy put out a photograph on the social media showing the two representatives of the “brotherly countries” engaged in discussions on issues of mutual interests to their governments. The photograph did not show Qureshi’s legs and sitting posture.

This is not the first time Qureshi has got into Saudi crosshairs. His diatribe in mid-2020 expressing ‘disappointment’ at the ‘failure’ of the OIC to host a foreign ministers’ meet to discuss the Kashmir issue nearly touched off a diplomatic row.

The Saudis, who have deep ties with, and hence, influence in Pakistan’s affairs, were angry and despite a damage control visit by Pakistani Army Chief, General Bajwa to Riyadh, demanded that Pakistan return the USD 3 billion lent to it earlier as an emergency loan. They also called off concessional sale of petrol and gas, hurting a fledgling Pakistani economy further.

The Saudis suspected, with some reason, that Prime Minister Imran Khan was trying to “switch sides” by getting closer to Turkey whom the Saudis and other Gulf nations view as an usurper. Khan did get cosy with President Erdogan and then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But when the Saudis cracked the whip, he refrained from attending a conference Mahathir organised in Kuala Lumpur.

By himself, Cambridge-educated Qureshi is considered a suave politician. His family claims saintly lineage and he is the current caretaker of Baha Uddin Zakary and Shah Run-e-Alma shrines in Multan.

His father was close to former military dictator Zia -ul – Haq who appointed him governor of Punjab. Qureshi was foreign minister in Zadari’s PPP government before being removed from that post. Angry, he quit that government and the PPP and teamed up with Khan. He is very close to the prime minister and is the vice president of Khan’s party, the PTI.

The incident also indicates that the Saudis, be it the royalty, the government or the people, are used to receiving respect from Pakistan or for that matter, any other less well-off Islamic nation.

Surveys by Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington, have shown that although Saudi-Pak relations are “brotherly” and Pakistan’s ties with China are those of “iron brothers”, the people of these countries do not necessarily hold the Pakistanis in high esteem. The donor-donee relationship cuts across all the high-sounding sentiments and diplomatic words.

For any Pakistani leader, relations with Saudi Arabia, especially its royalty, are key to political acceptability at home, since Saudi Arabia is the seat of Islam’s highest shrine.

Successive leaders from Ayyub Khan to Imran Khan have tried hard to woo the Saudis. Among the most successful, and closest, has been Nawaz Sharif. When ousted from power by General Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz and his entire family were hosted for several years by Riyadh and put up in a palace.

By contrast, western-educated Imran Khan, who once married a Jewish-Christian Jemima, is somewhat less regarded by the Saudi royals. He did not visit Riyadh like his predecessors early enough after becoming the prime minister. This was why Gen. Bajwa had to rush to Riyadh after Qureshi’s earlier faux pas.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on a visit to Islamabad last year, did restore concessional monetary help and fuel supplies. But Saudi prisons released only a half of the Pakistani prisoners held for various crimes in the Kingdom.

Overall, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have deep diplomatic and military ties, but their relations have been strained in recent years after Islamabad reportedly refused a request by Riyadh to contribute troops to the Yemen war.