A few years ago, when my wife and I decided to name our newborn son Changez — which sounds like “CHAN-GAZE” — my older sister was livid. “But he was a mass murderer; he killed so many people.” The connection to Genghis (Khan) hadn’t really occurred to us. The name sounded nice, and we had announced it. “What did you have in mind instead?” I asked my sister. She suggested a prophet’s name. I said that the prophet might have had to kill a few people, too. Every ruler in history has had to kill a few people. And that doesn’t stop other people from celebrating them.
When Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, arrived in Pakistan on Sunday there was an air of celebration and no mention of murder. A few journalists put up as their display picture on social media photographs of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. They got calls from their bosses to remove the shots, and most of them did. Otherwise, our TV screens turned into a welcoming red carpet. It was a unique visit, we were told again and again.
Mundane logistical details sparkled, as these things do when they come in contact with royalty. The Pakistani government has been on an austerity drive, and a while ago it auctioned off many of its luxury vehicles. But now it was renting 300 Prado SUVs to carry the Saudi delegates. Pakistani officials were tasked with sourcing 3,500 pigeonsto release on the prince’s arrival. There was dancing on the streets. Air force jets escorted the prince’s plane as it entered our air space. Yes, it was a royal welcome.
For days before Prince Mohammed’s arrival, TV journalists were breathless with anticipation. Eighty containers full of the prince’s stuffwere expected to arrive in advance. A special gym was set up in the house of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Two kids with bouquets as big as themselves greeted the prince in the prime minister’s house. They got a pat and a kiss on their heads. Poor kids.
It’s often said here that Saudi Arabia is the undisputed leader of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims, because its rulers are the custodians of the sacred sites in Mecca and Medina. Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, considers itself the guardian of the custodians. We are told that all of us are brothers in faith, but relations really just boil down to the fact that Saudi Arabia is bailing Pakistan out of yet another economic crisis. It’s a happy marriage between God and budget deficits. Prince Mohammed just promised us investments worth $20 billion. One might think that it’s his dad’s money he is spending. But Pakistanis seem to think that since God has blessed Saudi Arabia with so many riches, we are only getting our fair share.
Being promised billions tends to make you forget that the custodian of our sacred cities has caused more misery to the ummah than most nations on this Earth. Not only does Saudi Arabia continue to bomb one of the poorest Muslim countries in the world; it also refuses to pay wages to the poor laborers it imports from Pakistan and elsewhere, or it locks them up and throws away the key. Prince Mohammed won over lots of Pakistani hearts when, after a plea from Mr. Khan, he announced the release of more than 2,000 Pakistani prisoners from Saudi jails. Nobody questioned the merits of a justice system in which a prince can release thousands of prisoners because he is in a good mood. How many can he jail when he is having a bad day?
After declaring the prince a great modernizer and a “global thinker,” the West got a rude shock when it heard that he may have ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s gruesome murder. He had been exalted in these pagesand many other places. The media coverage both before and after the murder has turned Prince Mohammed into an international brand.
His victory tour of Asia comes as India is threatening Pakistan with revenge for a suicide attack in Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers last week. (There was another deadly attack on Monday.) Nobody is expecting the prince to do anything about Pakistan and India being on the brink of a war yet again. Like all little princes he does not have to pick sides or make a choice. When he visits India this week, he is expected to sign more investment deals. The Pakistani government calls his visit historic, and Indian officials call it historic. But only people with no sense of history call every passing chariot a historic event. The prince is playing with Pakistan and India because he is being temporarily snubbed by the boys and girls of the West, the ones he really wanted to play with.
This visit brings back old memories of when, following the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi Arabia started giving Pakistan lots of money to fight the communists, bringing fortunes to a few people and a rabid and enduring sectarianism to the rest. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia matched the United States dollar for dollar, and together they spawned a multinational jihad complex that still haunts the world.
In the buildup to Prince Mohammed’s arrival in Pakistan this week, some small groups made muted noises about his brutal war on Yemen and started the #MBSNotWelcome hashtag. The Ministry of Interior issued a notice singling out “disgruntled members of the ‘Shia community’” as those “mostly involved in this nefarious activity to malign” Saudi Arabia. When it was pointed out that this sounded like old-fashioned sectarianism, the ministry issued a second notice saying it was starting an inquiry into why the first one had been issued. Mr. Khan heads the Interior Ministry.
Mr. Khan is so smitten with Prince Mohammed that he insisted on driving His Royal Highness himself. Referring to the prince’s popularity in Pakistan, the prime minister joked that if the prince contested an election in Pakistan, the prince would get more votes than he. Only, the prince doesn’t seem to be in a mood to contest elections, from here or anywhere. He is keen on the old family feud, though.
At a joint news conference in Islamabad on Monday, the Saudi foreign minister launched into a diatribe against Iran and called it the chief supporter of terrorism in the world. TV channels quickly muted his speech. The Pakistani foreign minister chose to mute himself. The same day, Prince Mohammed was given Pakistan’s highest civilian award. All this comes at a time when the Iranian government is blaming Pakistan for a suicide bombing in Iran last week that killed at least 27 Revolutionary Guards.
Pakistan may welcome goods coming from the Saudi royalty, but it should think about what might be asked of it in return.