The unprecedented purge targeting royals in Saudi Arabia, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also had the effect of creating ripples in Pakistan’s politics, a country that has deep diplomatic, military and strategic ties to the Kingdom. Within hours of the news of the purge filtering out, Pakistani politicians were busy targeting each other with allegations of corruption.
“Earlier in the morning today, ten princes were arrested over corruption in Saudi Arabia (sic). Have you ever heard (something like that happening in Pakistan)?” bellowed Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman and opposition leader Imran Khan, while addressing a rally in Ubauro town of Ghotki district on November 5.
The gathering was held hours after crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of dozens of influential figures in the Kingdom, including 11 of his royal cousins, without formal charges. The purge was touted as a ‘crackdown on corruption.’ Almost on cue, on November 7, Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued a detailed judgment which rejected the review petitions filed by the Sharif family over the ‘Panama Papers’ verdict, which had resulted in the ouster of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif was disqualified for failing to explain his assets in the July 28 verdict, and he and his family are now battling a multitude of corruption charges in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) court. Khan’s PTI, which had been campaigning against Sharif over allegations of corruption and electoral rigging since 2014, has not only interpreted Sharif’s ouster as its own political triumph, but has now set out to move for the elimination of other major players in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
These include the current Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, and Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of Punjab.
And the Saudi ‘anti-corruption’ drive has given PTI another rallying point to bolster its accountability narrative, which has been the party’s raison d’etre.
“The anti-corruption movement in Saudi Arabia vindicates the party’s long-held position of there being a global purge against the corrupt, which we are witnessing in Pakistan as well,” PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry tells Asia Times. Chaudhry believes the fight for accountability has merged with movements against capitalism around the world. “There are now anti-corruption drives in China, Saudi Arabia – Pakistan’s traditional allies – and practically over the world. Capitalism has created discontent and hence parties are emerging to create welfare societies, creating an anti-corruption global drive.”
Playing the Saudi card won’t be the sole preserve of PTI though. Other opposition parties are also queuing up to use the anti-corruption narrative against the PML-N government.
“After 70 years, we need genuine accountability. The corrupt rulers need to be taken to task and structural changes are needed for a thorough clean up,” says Manzoor Wattoo, Punjab President of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose chairman Asif Ali Zardari was acquitted in 19-year-old graft cases in August. Wattoo tells Asia Times that while the party was always confident about the verdict in favor of Zardari, global anti-corruption movements, including developments in Saudi Arabia, and the Paradise Papers, further add momentum to the PPP’s call for accountability.
“The PML-N voter that is already dithering will be further alienated by this surge in anti-corruption activities around the world from the Paradise Leaks to the Saudi drive”
“We believe it’s a huge deal that the country’s PM has been disqualified and there are corruption charges over him. So of course the opposition parties would take up the developments (in Saudi Arabia) before and during the elections,” he says. “The PML-N voter that is already dithering will be further alienated by this surge in anti-corruption activities around the world from the Paradise Leaks to the Saudi drive.”
Where movements in other parts of the world mightn’t resonate as much with the masses, the religious affiliation with Saudi Arabia could be a huge factor, believes Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) Chairman Tahir-ul-Qadri, an Islamic scholar.
“Now a monarchy is arresting princes over corruption, but no one can still think of it in Pakistan’s elitist democracy,” Qadri tells Asia Times. “But still the movement in Saudi Arabia means that soon the corrupt elements in Pakistan won’t have any safe havens.”
After being ousted in a coup orchestrated by military dictator Gen (R) Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif went into self-exile in Saudi Arabia, in 1999. Besides cultivating in him a personal affinity for the kingdom, that has also influenced Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Qadri believes the masses are aware of the Sharif family’s alignment with Riyadh but adds that, under the circumstances, the al-Saud family will stop providing cover to Nawaz Sharif. “Pakistanis know that they can always take refuge in Saudi Arabia. But now that is unlikely because they (the Saudis) have (started) a principled anti-corruption drive of their own,” he says.
Fawad Chaudhry concedes that while anyone fighting for accountability is pursuing a principled stance, there are obvious political gains.
“There is a political dimension to the anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia and China. And it’s the same for us as well,” he says. As the dust settles in Saudi Arabia, the coup’s repercussions on the internal politics of one of its closest allies in the Islamic world will continue to be felt.