by Ayesha Alam
Jul. 30 2014 (TSR) – Nawaz Sharif’s widely questioned “electoral victory” in the May 11 elections is overshadowed by his subservience to US-Saudi interests. With a bankrupt economy, he is even more vulnerable to external manipulation, one that he seems eager to comply with.
In the aftermath of Pakistan’s May 11 general election, the respective political candidates retreated to their headquarters to take stock of the chips earned in this latest electoral gamble. On the one hand there is Nawaz Sharif of the victorious PML-N, who has set up court in his palatial family complex in Raiwand just outside Lahore, meeting and receiving heads of state along with brother and fellow party leader Shahbaz Sharif. On the other hand there is Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s Imran Khan, who nursed his political and bodily wounds in his Lahore residence in Zaman Park, before moving to his compound in Islamabad.
The Sharifayn, as the Nawaz and Shahbaz duo are satirically dubbed as an acronym to the insular family and business-capitalist class interests that PML-N typically represents, are currently basking in the rosy glow of success — which by widespread accounts is the result of electoral rigging, fraud, and thuggery. While Nawaz Sharif does indeed enjoy broad support in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthy province, the sweep enjoyed by PML-N (which has also taken the province of Baluchistan, leaving the unruly frontier of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to Imran Khan) has been manufactured by premeditated design.
Pakistani voters reported thugs and armed gangs who trolled polling stations, preventing them from entering to cast their votes, and even halting vans with voting ballots and replacing them with forged ones on election day. The terrorist MQM party held down Karachi, while thugs affiliated with the PML-N party machine predominated in Punjab; al-Qaeda militias held sway in Baluchistan, a resource-rich but underdeveloped province which has become a bone of contention in the US’ and China’s respective bids for power over Pakistan. On election day, Reuters aired several videos caught by Pakistani voters using their mobile phones, showing a female worker in Karachi stuffing forged ballots into ballot boxes; and in one polling station in the tribal area, people are seen fleeing as gunmen open fire with automatic weapons.
Post-election, Pakistan is a Janus-faced neocolonial estate in the twilight of Pax Americana. On the one hand, it is the bane for US-Zionist political interests — the second-most populous nation of Muslims, one forged under Allama Iqbal’s call for a Muslim political identity, armed with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it is a vital staging ground of the Great Game, the bid to harness South Asia’s mass consumer and labor markets and Central Asia’s fabulous stores of gas and mineral wealth. But hamstrung by a sputtering economy, the fast-aging US empire must follow the dictates of globalization in order to continue its hand in the Great Game — it must outsource its exploitation.
Nawaz Sharif’s connections with the Saud family are well established. Since General Pervez Musharraf overthrew him in the October 1999 coup, Saudi Arabia has served the multi-purpose function of litigator, advocate, oasis of refuge, and base of political operations. After Musharraf slapped Sharif with life imprisonment for terrorism and hijacking (for not allowing his plane to land), the Saudi royal family secured his release in 2000 and offered him a luxurious sanctuary within the Kingdom (where he could enjoy nihari and payas of traditional Pakistani cuisine of which he is so fond, within the comforts of an opulent Saudi palace). Using Saudi Arabia as a base for the next 7 years, the Sharif family restarted their political enterprises, getting Pakistan’s Supreme Court to lift Nawaz Sharif’s sentence for exile. Sharif returned to Pakistan in September 2007, was promptly deported, but managed to return and enter the country a few months later. The following year, the PML-N formed a coalition government with Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Nawaz’s contacts with the Saudi government proved lucrative to energy-starved Pakistan — he was consistently able to get the Kingdom to deliver timely shipments of oil as a way of increasing his political weight.
After the May election, Nawaz Sharif announced his decision to perform ‘Umrah in Saudi Arabia within the next 48 hours. Of course, one cannot doubt that being a sober, religious-minded industrialist (albeit one with a well-documented fondness for attractive women singers a la Tahira Syed), Nawaz went to Makkah and resided in a seven-star hotel as part of his preparations to circumambulate the Ka‘bah. However, being a savvy politician he also knows the real gods who have smiled their benediction upon him in this election. In short, “the ‘Umrah” was code for checking in with his political handlers, even as Pakistan’s other president-elects have made pilgrimage to Washington, DC in the years past after winning office.
In an LA Times article, Alex Rodriquez and Mark Magnier describe Sharif “as a leader with two distinct sides.” “At his core, he’s a deal-making businessman, a wealthy steel magnate,” they note, “but he’s also a conservative Muslim with a reputation for being soft on militants.” For instance, in 1997 Nawaz Sharif (in his second term in office) was one of the few leaders across the Muslim world who formally recognized Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 1997 (the others were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
As a matter of fact, the Sharifayn’s business and ideological ties with the Taliban and Aal Saud date back to the 1970s. A few decades ago, when Nawaz Sharif was an amiable young politician sporting his trademark rosy girth and balding pate that has since been treated with hair replacement surgeries in Britain, he entered into politics at the behest of his father Mian Mohammad Sharif, in order to salvage their family businesses and holdings from PPP’s nationalization of industry under then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Sharif family proceeded to ally themselves, courtesy of General Ghulam Jilani who was then serving as Governor of Punjab Province, with General Zia-ul-Haq, primary instrument of the US’s Talibanization of Pakistan in order to fight the Great Game 1.0 — its Cold War dueling with Russia over Afghanistan.
Sharif’s principal political rival and emerging challenger is Imran Khan, whose political naivete and managerial mistakes must be acknowledged (according to many miffed Tehrik-e-Insaaf loyals, he lacks the personal warmth needed to get party cadres to stick with him through the hard luck, crusty bread days). However, his platform offered Pakistan a viable solution to the economic and political humiliations suffered by the country under the Saudi-US nexus of influence. Khan promised to end drone attacks if elected leader of the country, and to clamp down on foreign-sponsored violence that is fraying Pakistani society. Now as provincial leader of the tribal agencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he is faced with the unenviable task of producing results for public anger against drone attacks, while Sharif’s national government demonstrates little interest in curbing US-remote controlled violence in the North. Instead, Sharif told the visiting US Ambassador in Lahore on May 30, the day after a drone killed seven Pakistanis, that “Pakistan will work collectively with the US to counter terrorism.”
Greater Saudi influence means that the forces of Talibanization, hyper-sectarianism, and imperial violence unmooring Pakistan will become even more pronounced. The families of drone victims wrote to Prime Minister-elect Sharif an urgent letter, begging him to uphold the Peshawar High Court’s ruling that US drone attacks were a “war crime” and to take prompt action. Nawaz responded with some tepid words of assurance, even as drone attacks proceed to kill more Pakistanis. Taliban-associated militia violence is also on the rise. On June 15, a bus carrying 12 female medical students in Baluchistan exploded, killing them. While the Taliban were speculated to have caused the attacks, Nawaz made the consummately generous gesture of condemning the attacks and “urging medical personnel to provide the best treatment to the blast victims.”
In short, Pakistan’s botched elections have spectral implications for the country’s sovereignty. During his second term in office, Sharif had announced his intention to abolish the Republic and transform Pakistan into a caliphate (khilafah), headed by himself as an emir in perpetuity. In short, Pakistan’s troubled democracy would be dispensed with, replacing it as a kingdom headed by a capitalist-conservative family that occupies the country’s resources in perpetuity. Given Sharif’s almost symbiotic ties to the Saudi Kingdom following the 1999 coup, Saudi Arabia is poised to be the real winner in Pakistan’s recent elections — gaining a geostrategic foothold in the Great Game through the sponsorship of the United States.
In the Great Game, energy and economy fluidly blend into each other, where the high-octane processes of converting capital into development (as in post-WWII Japan) or disintegration (as in post-Qaddafi Libya) is fueled by the liquid elixir of fossil fuel. In tightly binding Pakistan’s economy to Saudi oil, Nawaz Sharif is herding Pakistan back into the US-European-Saudi-Gulf orbit.
For instance, while Zardari tentatively moved toward a policy of regional diplomacy near the end of his term, championing the Iran-Pakistan pipeline that would deliver Iranian gas to energy-starved Pakistan, Nawaz has made it clear that the project is headed toward the chopping block. While Zardari even held a ceremony in March 2013 on the Iran-Pakistan border to inaugurate the pipeline, Nawaz has hired a team of “experts” who are concluding the almost-completed pipeline is not economically beneficial to the Pakistani economy. The said scientists are concluding that Pakistan’s own reserves of gas are sufficient for the country — in a summer when electricity shortfalls are forcing Pakistan’s citizens to brave 45–50 ºC temperatures or higher without fan, lights, or cooking appliances, not to mention air conditioners.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will be delivering a handsome oil contract for Pakistan, in a gesture of goodwill toward the Sharifayn. According to a May 22 article in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, as soon as the PML-N emerged as the majority party after the May 11 elections, the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad sought a briefing on the country’s oil requirements from the foreign ministry before calling on Nawaz in Lahore. Saudi Arabia is promising 100,000 barrels of crude oil and about 15,000 tons of furnace oil per day on deferred payment for three years. The amount involved works out at about $12–15 billion. Many experts compare the Saudi deal with the 2007 US-India nuclear agreement, designed to wean India off of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project (it worked).
Nor does Sharif seem particularly concerned about Pakistan’s debt burden, which is leading to a massive flight of resources out of the country through the hands of multinational corporations such as food giants, mining corporations, agribusiness et al., and who make sure to give the local business class to which Nawaz belongs its due cut. The numbers are rather dire — in Pakistan’s most recent federal budget, foreign loans formed almost 25% of the total proposed development budget of Rs 450 billion for the next fiscal year. In fact, Nawaz has recently announced that Pakistan will be seeking another “bailout package” from the IMF of around $5–6 billion, defending his decision by stating that there is no harm in paying off loans by taking out additional loans. Surely, the Sharifayn did not make the rise from inner city residents of Lahore’s impoverished Bhaati Gate into one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families through such logic.
Nawaz Sharif’s election underscores the frustration of the “Pakistani Spring” — the calls for reform, change, and a switch from the geostrategic burdens of the Great Game to Pakistan’s own sovereignty. With Saudi Arabia poised to wield even greater influence in Pakistan over the course of the next five years, Pakistan’s search for a common ground to address the forces of fragmentation, sectarianism, and destabilization will become even more elusive.
First published in Crescent International.