No other visit by the Sharif brothers in the recent months has evoked as much interest as their recent one to Riyadh. Many within Pakistan, especially the opposition parties fear a deal is being silently (now not so silent) worked out by Saudi Arabia. Is there one?
Given the history between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, one cannot discount such a process. However, a significant question would be – what will be the implications, if there is a deal?
Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs and Pakistan’s Establishment
The Sharif brothers are known for their connections with the Establishment in Saudi Arabia. In the late 1990s, after the coup that catapulted Gen Musharaff to the centre stage in Pakistan Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in getting a deal for the Sharif brothers. Both Nawaz and Shabaz subsequently were exiled in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also aided their return to Pakistan during the last decade.
Besides the political linkages, the Sharif brothers have also made Saudia Arabia as a part of their business empire. The Sharifs have legitimate business interests in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi rulers have also maintained close relations with Pakistan’s Establishment. Pakistan’s military troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia during various occasions; reports also indicate a close link between the Air forces. Multiple joint exercises were carried out in the past. The defence relationship between the two countries runs deep; so do the contacts between the defence establishments. It is no coincidence that Gen Raheel Sharif, former Chief of Army Staff was chosen to lead the Islamic Military Alliance – the brainchild of Saudi Arabia.
Is there a Sharif deal being worked out? And why should the Deep State be interested in it?
It all started with Saudi Arabia sending a plane to Lahore to fetch Shahbaz Sharif to Riyadh during the last week of December. Nawaz Sharif followed his younger brother two days later. It was an unscheduled flight for the brothers.
Indeed, their visit was not an official one, though a report in the News did suggest that the Sharifs went to Saudi Arabia to discuss the regional security environment. Riyadh would have preferred to discuss the security environment with Pakistan Establishment directly, than through the political leadership or the Parliament. Besides, they also have Gen Raheel Sharif as the head of Islamic Military Alliance. Since the Parliament in Pakistan stands divided as could be observed from the debates last year on pursuing a course closer Saudi Arabia, the latter would prefer to work with the Generals. It is difficult to fathom that Saudi Arabia would send a plane to get Punjab’s Chief Minister and his ouster brother to discuss security issues.
The opposition fear, that there is a deal being worked out between the brothers and the Establishment, on the models of an earlier National Reconciliation Ordinance issued a decade earlier.
Why will the Establishment be interested in a deal with the Sharif brothers? After getting ousted by the judicial verdict, perhaps the Establishment expected that Nawaz Sharif would hand over the party and Prime Minister to Shabaz and lie low. Nawaz did choose another leader from the PML-N to become the PM; it is widely expected that Shabaz would become the Prime Minister if the PML-N secures enough in the forthcoming elections. However, Nawaz is not taking a low profile. Instead, as could be seen from his statements and that of his daughter, one could sense that the Nawaz family is planning to play a victim card – victimised by two institutions – the judiciary and the Deep State.
Many in Pakistan, even those who are convinced about the involvement of Nawaz and his family on corruption, do agree that Nawaz got a bad deal. And also has been singled out.
All those expectations of splits the PML-N – has not happened. The party stands united, despite a few murmurs. The Establishment would have realised that the PML-N is a better bet than the PTI, especially for Punjab.
So, it is possible, there is a face-saving option for everyone is being worked out. Perhaps, Saudi Arabia is aiding an outcome, as it has done earlier.
A deal is a possibility.
Now, what could be the contours of the deal? It is closely guarded; at least for the time being. Is it for both the brothers or is it primarily aimed at pushing Shabaz up, with a face-saving exit for Nawaz? Perhaps, drop the corruption charges on Nawaz with a condition that he becomes politically silent for the next few years, while Shabaz runs the show.
One will have to wait and see.
So, what if there is a deal? The Good, Bad and Ugly
Three good things and two bad ones, if there is a deal for the Sharifs. The first one – the PML-N will stay intact. Given the contemporary political situation, a strong PML-N is essential. Perhaps, this is the reason for the Establishment to concede one. None of the other political parties can fill in the shoes of the PML-N. A weak or a split PML-N means an unstable Parliament, following
Second, a strong PML-N is in Punjab’s interest. A weak PML-N will provide more space for the radical Right in Punjab, than to the PPP or the PTI. While the urban areas of Punjab may have a soft corner for Imran Khan, if not for his party, rural Punjab, especially the southern districts are unlikely to look at PTI as an option. The PPP did have a presence in Southern Punjab in the past. But, the party is a pale shadow of what it was in this region.
A politically divided Punjab means an unstable Parliament.
Third, if there is a deal being worked out, it also means that the elections for the national and provincial assemblies are on track and will be held during 2018. Else, why would the Establishment consider working with the Sharifs?
Now the negative outcomes. First, correct or otherwise, the judiciary as an institution has made a judgement, calling for the ouster of Nawaz Sharif. A deal with the Sharifs essentially means, circumventing the judicial verdict, that too through an external mediation. This neither bodes well for the national institutions nor for the political processes.
Second, an external power brokering an internal deal – means the fragility of institutions within Pakistan, and also their inability to work together within. This has been the problem; unfortunately, 2018 will