The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”
The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.
Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.
The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990’s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.
The Saudis are understandably determined to preserve their long-standing links with Pakistan. The ties are long and deep: the Saudis and Pakistanis worked closely together in the 1980’s, for example, to support the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis provided bases, training, and handlers; the Saudis (along with the Americans) provided the cash.
There are even unproven suspicions (denied vehemently by both sides) that the links may include Saudi financial contributions for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, in return perhaps for an understanding that Pakistani nuclear technology will be made available to the Saudis should they ever need it. That possibility is no longer so far-fetched: If Iran develops its own nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia may well feel compelled to match the “Persians.”
That could set off a destabilizing Middle Eastern arms race and raise the odds that a nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of jihadist terrorists. But from the Saudi perspective, going nuclear could be a necessary step toward preserving their security and prestige. If so, it would be helpful to the Saudis to have in Pakistan a leader who would offer Riyadh all the cooperation it needs. And Sharif fits the bill better than Bhutto.
But the Saudis had better be careful what they wish for. If Sharif is less dogged than, say, Bhutto would be in cracking down on jihadists, the results could come back to haunt the Saudis. Pakistan, after all, has become a haven of al Qaeda extremists who hate the Saudi regime at least as much as they hate America and Israel. It is in the Saudis’ interests to have the Pakistan government defeat the jihadists—something that Pervez Musharraf has not been willing or able to do and that Sharif may or may not be willing to do either, but that Bhutto has promised to do. Of course the ability of any of these leaders to stop the growth of Islamic radicalism may be limited because of the unwillingness or inability of many in the Pakistani security forces to fight especially hard against their Muslim “brothers.” But it would certainly be helpful to have a leader who appears more emotionally committed to the fight than Musharraf has been or than Sharif may be.
There is nothing wrong with allowing Sharif to compete in free elections; they would not have any credibility if he were barred. But one wonders how much covert support the Saudis may be providing him beyond simply his plush ticket back.
The Saudis had better be careful not to compromise their long-term interests in return for short-term gain—a mistake they last made in the 1990’s when, working hand-in-glove with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, they funded the most radical mujahideen groups fighting in Afghanistan. Many of those Afghan veterans then journeyed back to Saudi Arabia and formed the nucleus of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group that Saudi security forces have been battling for the last several years.
Saudi Arabia has already imported one plague bacillus; it should be wary of a re-infection.