Is the Saudi connection the main problem?

Published: February 12, 2015
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter

It almost seems that we have awakened to Saudi Arabia’s role in Pakistan. Or perhaps, we have found the strength and space to question an old relationship that was a boon for some and a bane for others. Suddenly, every media group seems to be scrambling to report Saudis hunting in Sindh and Balochistan. In one particular programme, a guest speaker was reminded of threats to Pakistan’s sovereignty posed by the visitors. Needless to say, the discussion was comical as the anchor and guests all pretended as if the hunting was happening for the first time. As usual, many are looking at the political government with accusatory eyes. Surprisingly, no one seems to mention that Riyadh paid $500 million to the US for the F-16s in the PAF or that it bailed out the Pervez Musharraf regime by taking responsibility for Nawaz Sharif’s exile. This certainly does not give any authority to the Saudis to plunder our resources or conduct illegal activities, but it is vital to remember the context.

The Saudis are partly right when they claim that they gave money to Pakistani religious groups with the Pakistan government’s consent. If people could be reminded, Saudi Arabia did more than give money. It also helped with some of the groups, like negotiating with the leader of one of the terrorist outfits and paying him on our behalf to calm him down. But it is also a fact that there were occasions when Riyadh paid militants without Islamabad’s permission. If the Saudi authorities think hard, they will remember 2011-12 when the PPP government requested it to withdraw the ambassador who was caught dishing out money to militants.

Personally, I have just one question: why this sudden hue and cry? I remember a time a few years ago when an information ministry consultant informed me that my remarks about Saudi Arabia were expunged from proceedings of a discussion in Islamabad as it would be harmful for my interests. How does one explain this sudden openness?

It is possible that someone has realised that with oil wealth reducing, Saudis may not remain generous patrons and, therefore, are expendable. Perhaps, as some like to argue, since the military wants to eliminate terrorism, it is quietly creating space for people to speak up. After all, why would a federal minister suddenly feel the urge to criticise Riyadh’s role? However, many would consider the criticism as Pakistan crossing the Rubicon and abandoning burdensome relations. There is certainly a movement, but it also tends to hide much more that is there. For instance, is Saudi Arabia the only culprit when it comes to funding? What about others, like Qatar, the UAE and South Africa? Rulers of the Gulf States have huge palaces in southern Punjab where they come for hunting, from birds to homo sapiens. We were always happy to provide them services in return for small change. Interestingly, South Africa, which does not even have a palace, has emerged as an important source for private financing of militants. Of course, the difference is that Pretoria is not officially linked with this business. The country is a favourite destination for specific groups whose leaders and workers travel regularly to raise resources.

The right to protest the Saudi role notwithstanding, the entire conversation tends to hide more than it reveals. Suddenly, the army of anchors has drawn attention away from other sources of funding, including internal ones. Talk to any of the safe militant groups and they will tell you that Karachi is one of the major collection points followed by Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sialkot. Ask any reasonable terrorism expert in town and he/she will tell you how voluntary contributions added to militants’ resources. The entire land mafia in the country is linked with one militant group or the other, which play a central role in landgrabbing. For over a couple of decades, the smaller power centres in every city and neighbourhood sought help from militants to strengthen themselves vis-a-vis their opponents. Religion and violence were central to power re-negotiation. The Pakistani diaspora is another source of financing. The bulk of the money does not even come through official channels but is shipped home from abroad by jet-setting clerics. And thank the stars for hawala operations.

The combination of unaccountable madrassas and friendly militants will only perpetuate the problem. Why should we imagine that an announcement of change in policy would clean society of radicalism that forms the basis of militancy? We have shied away from addressing the madrassa issue. Notwithstanding the fact that not all seminaries are linked with militancy, these are ideological warehouses that market a certain ideology and are used to attract funds most of the time. Why would anyone object to philanthropic causes of financing educational institutions allegedly meant for the poor? Not all madrassas cater to the poor. There are those in larger urban centres that even offer air-conditioned accommodation to those who can pay for it.

Let me make it very clear that I am not suggesting closing down or banning madrassas. The entire private sector education area must be regulated properly because militant organisations have penetrated into the private English-medium school system as well. Madrassas, in fact, should be taken away from the ministry of religious affairs or the interior and should be put under the education ministry and treated like other educational ventures. In madrassas, the issue is not the lack of English or the curriculum but the manner in which things are taught. Also, they are used to raise funds with little accountability regarding expenditure.

It will be worthwhile remembering that we are talking about over three decades of radicalism that has taken roots in society. The social factors that created this remain unchanged. The alternative plans are few and far between. Unfortunately, the state will have to take a lead role in changing the scene as the civil society is fairly weak despite the claims we make about its strength. The majority of people wait for a cue from the state as they have done in the case of Saudi Arabia. Only with the nod from certain quarters have people begun to speak about what they always knew.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • What about
    Feb 12, 2015 - 3:01AM

    “What about others, like Qatar, the UAE and South Africa?” What about Iran, which also funds its affiliates in Pakistan?Recommend

  • Nadir
    Feb 12, 2015 - 3:35AM

    Its seems that people have finally voiced their concerns and begun to state the obvious: bow before a bigoted, racist and intolerant state, and become just like them.Recommend

  • pakistani
    Feb 12, 2015 - 4:38AM

    No Saudi connection is NOT the main problem.
    It’s not the Saudi government that supports any of this. Yes, there are private donors and what not but then there are private donors even amongst Indian muslims and people all over the world.
    Saudi-Pakistan friendship is the need of the hour. Please don’t sabotage it.Recommend

  • critic
    Feb 12, 2015 - 5:00AM


    How about the Indian connection with BLA, BRA etc. Would these kind journalists ever talk about that?Recommend

  • Feb 12, 2015 - 7:03AM

    absolutely no mention of Iran, the cunning mollas of iranian regime have bought influence in pakistani media same as us didRecommend

  • nadeem
    Feb 12, 2015 - 9:34AM

    It will take a long, long time – and many, many developments – for me to accept that our military has decided to do away with cultivating militants, terrorists, and ‘non-state elements’. Which is why it is hard to believe that army is behind the ‘expose Saudi’ campaign, since the Saudis are long-time partners-in-crime of the army ‘jihad’ project. But, yes, if a federal minister working under Nawaz Sharif (of Jeddah) makes anti-Saudi remarks and his wannabee-Saudi boss doesn’t fire him, it means there is some power protecting him. That power can only be the military. My only confusion is this: army wants to keep the militias around (notwithstanding Peshawar), saudis finance these militias …….. so why would the army want to stop that gravy train? Recommend

  • Feb 12, 2015 - 9:55AM

    The most critical sentence in this article: Only with the nod from certain quarters have people begun to speak about what they always knew.

    And that is the problem – the agenda is being set and the civilians follow without a mumur. Only the author and a few others speak out of turn. The late Saleem Shahzad completely ruined his chances of living by not just speaking out of turn but by being specific. Recommend

  • Milind
    Feb 12, 2015 - 10:12AM

    @critic – “How about the Indian connection with BLA, BRA etc. Would these kind journalists ever talk about that?”

    Please don’t make loose statements like these. If there’s an Indian or any anti-Pakistani connection for that matter, please stamp it out. Your army has been conducting operations against militants from the last 2 months, but there’s been no discussion or proof of Indian involvement from them.Recommend

  • Adeel
    Feb 12, 2015 - 10:34AM

    I don’t u’stand why people are so sensitive about SA. Anything negative about an autocratic monarchy seems like a panic button for our muslim brothers. Please differentiate between the ruling american’s ally regime and the Saudi religious scholars. When ever talk about SA , people drag Iran .
    Give me one proof from national or International media which shows that Iran is funding terrorism or involved in any malicious activities in Pakistan ? if this would be the case then the western media would have slammed Iran up till now.Recommend

  • Sonya
    Feb 12, 2015 - 11:20AM

    I think the writer and most of her audience is aware of the fact that it has always been a best practice in Pakistan to include Iran’s name next to Saudi Arabia in order to equate and control the damage and normalize the society not to go against any of the countries. That has been hypocritical and pro sectarian approach that we have been paying for today so dearly. If Iran has been supporting to their affiliates in Pakistan it would not have made Pakistani Shiites as the easiest target of terrorism. We haven’t heard any Saudi diplomat or school or official killed in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Abdullah
    Feb 12, 2015 - 11:23AM

    @Adeel: Wake up to reality. Read the govt report in National Assembly which shows the states funding Madressahs in Pakistan and which lists the name of all the above countries including Iran. Don’t air an opinion based on your wishes alone…Recommend

  • Abdullah
    Feb 12, 2015 - 11:36AM

    @Sonya: Sorry Maam its not a practice to nail the two countries together in each and every analysis. It is a hard fact of the regional politics and unfortunately we are a small part of it. Both of these countries (SA and Iran) are locked in every singly crises in the surrounding countries. Be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait etc and the list continues. Both are actively funding their supporters in each of these locations with a sole purposes of up-rooting the influence of other. So don’t be naive in your interpretations and don’t think with the minds wide shut…..Recommend

  • Sonya
    Feb 12, 2015 - 1:31PM

    @Abdullah: What regional politics you are talking about – the Saudi monarchy is like a family show running the kingdom like a corporation with big pockets and would do every illegal and immoral thing to save their rule. Like Israel, coming of Al-Saud’s rule and its survival depends upon the USA and UK – compare it with a liberated Iran with an empowered and democratic public where they seem to make independent decisions and like China they believe in no interference in other countries’ internal affairs unless the country officially ask for specific cooperation. None of the countries around the world hate them except Israel and Saudi Arabia and they spread the hate around the world with people like you. Indians have always treated Iran and China as Pakistan’s allies but not Saudi Arabia or for that matter any other Arabian state.Recommend

  • Abdullah
    Feb 12, 2015 - 1:58PM

    @Sonya: I can’t help you understand if you know nothing about the regional politics. By the way, i like the phrase you used for Iran….
    …. they believe in no interference in other countries’ internal affairs unless the country officially ask for specific cooperation.
    Only makes me think how naive an ignorant person can be…. Recommend

  • Iqbal
    Feb 12, 2015 - 2:25PM

    This article leaves one a tad bemused. The tone that belittles the current discussion being held on the role of Saudis in Pakistan. And that after suggesting that people are, at last, gathering courage, and finding their voices. Why mock at that, even if it is feeble or not very articulate?

    True,. The Pakistani psyche is also compromised in its support to the extremists. True, the land mafia has a role to play. But it is certainly true that a major thrust comes from the Middle East, Saudis included, which exports ideology along with money. It exports a particular mindset which is intolerant. So that needs to be tackled.

    And may one and all raise her/his voice, as she/he deems it feet. This is not the moment for mockery.Recommend

  • Hamza
    Feb 12, 2015 - 3:39PM

    Bring madarassas under education ministry and make it also expensive so that the majority of our nation remain illiterate both from religion & liberal knowledge.Recommend

  • Yusuf
    Feb 12, 2015 - 4:14PM

    Pakistan in Fraternity with many Muslim countries including the Arabs, Persians, Indochinese, Malays, Indians and the Western World. Demographic evolution is taking place which is changing for now both religious and cultural landscape. These changes are occurring on many continents including North American continent. We are witnessing great demographic changes in Europe, Africa to the extent warring faction fight on religious ground. Even the Vatican grounded in Catholicism invest in companies that make mass destructive weapons. Profits are everywhere and we see Burmese Monks taking up arms too against the Muslims. It is the responsibilities of the government in Islamabad to provide the needy, orphans, old age, instead of putting the citizens in hands of many foreign collaborators. Lets call a spade a spade and not by religious name. The needy flock to the safe havens because the government in Islamabad busy with Silliness, like ghost schools, ghost teachers, and giving lip service to education. Generations to come will be exploited as is the case of creation of Taliban by the United States of America for its interest.Recommend

  • Ali S
    Feb 12, 2015 - 4:19PM

    Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are significant contributors to the militancy problem, sure, but to be fair, most of that contribution is ideological, only a minor part of it is financial. It’s widely acknowledged that the vast majority of funding for militants comes from local donors (particularly businessmen), who will do anything to evade taxes but will give blindly to so-called charitable wings of militant organizations (perhaps to negate their own guilt about avoiding taxes) – organizations like Jamaat ut Dawa are a prime example of this problem.

    Stopping foreign funding might make a minor dent, but it isn’t going to make the problem go away – the main reason that militancy thrives in this country is that the leaders (civilian and military) and the society at large accommodates it, both in attitude and practice.Recommend

  • AA
    Feb 12, 2015 - 4:25PM

    @What about:
    They have our media’s support. So nobody is allowed to question them or even put their name in the list!
    By the way Saudis never killed any of our security forces personnel. Can we say the same about Iran?Recommend

  • Solomon2
    Feb 12, 2015 - 7:17PM

    “Rulers of the Gulf States have huge palaces in southern Punjab where they come for hunting, from birds to homo sapiens.”


  • Wizarat
    Feb 12, 2015 - 11:14PM

    With friends like Saudi Arabia who needs enemies?Recommend

  • Syed Sharfuddin
    Feb 13, 2015 - 9:57AM

    I suggest the learned author write her next article after doing research on the difficulties charities face in receiving donations in Pakistan for meeting legitimate humanitarian and educational needs of people whose government does not have sufficient resources to make Pakistan a welfare state. Western Banks which control the movement of global money are making it increasingly difficult for bona fide charities and locally registered NGOs in Pakistan and other suspect countries to receive openly declared and audit-able funds from philanthropic organisations abroad? She should also write on the subject of how legitimate charities suffer when this happens because they can’t pay salaries to their staff for lack of balance in their accounts. Recommend

  • Parvez
    Feb 13, 2015 - 12:52PM

    The problem is not the source of the funds…….it’s the utilization of the funds. When this money is used to fight a Shia / Sunni proxy war in Pakistan or used to produce ‘ cannon fodder ‘ for propagating a regressive religious ideology ……..THEN IT MUST BE STOPPED.Recommend

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