Prime Minister Imran Khan is in Saudi Arabia to attend the Future Investment Initiative Conference (FIIC). Before leaving for Riyadh, he gave an interview to Middle East Eye. In the interview Khan said that “his immediate foreign policy priority is maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia despite worldwide outrage at Khashoggi’s suspected murder by Saudi officials.”
He described the murder as “sad beyond belief” and “indicated that he did not consider credible the latest official Saudi account of what happened.”
“What happened in Turkey was just shocking. What should I say? It shocked all of us. The Saudi government will have to come up with an answer… We wait for whatever the Saudi explanation is. We hope there is an explanation that satisfies people and those responsible are punished.”
However, he made plain that he needed to attend the FII “because … we have the worst debt crisis in our history… [and] unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF … we actually won’t have in another two or three months enough foreign exchange to service our debts or to pay for our imports. So we’re desperate at the moment.”
Clearly, no one prepped Khan for the interview. Or, he thought he didn’t need to be prepped by anyone. Either is problematic. Khan is now the prime minister. What he says and how he says it has immense weightage. It is not about his person now; it’s the office and the gravitas attached to it. Consider.
How do you negotiate, especially when you are looking for money? Begin by telling everyone that you are ‘desperate’? Should that be your opening hand? It’s not about keeping something secret. Everyone knows Pakistan needs money and the economy is tanking. So, that’s not the point here. The point is how do you approach the table? As someone who declares, before any negotiations have begun, that he is desperate? Or, as someone with a plan, someone who knows his own weaknesses but also that of the other side in order to create space for himself to negotiate?
Take the FII, dubbed as ‘Davos in the Desert.’ The ghost of Jamal Khashoggi now haunts it. Just a day before the Conference opened on Tuesday, the FII website was hacked and defaced. Three major states—U.S., U.K., France—have decided to stay away. Ditto for many other businessmen and companies. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has embarked on the larger goal of reforming and diversifying the kingdom’s economy and society, needed the FII to be a big event. That got chopped and buried with Khashoggi.
Put another way, while Pakistan, according to Khan is in dire straits, Salman himself is in a very tight spot, one from which he is unlikely to emerge unscathed. That’s where Pakistan’s negotiating space lies. And yet, that’s not something on which Khan should have held forth publicly. This is where we come to the second problem with what he said in the interview: coming on the record about the murder and the incredible explanation that has come out of Saudi Arabia.
You cannot talk about desperation and in the same breath make it known that you think the Saudi story is bollocks, even though it is. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already weighed in with a cautious and balanced statement calling on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to “jointly address the matter.” That was enough. For the prime minister to go beyond what has been officially stated and make it known that he thinks Riyadh (read: Mohammed bin Salman) needs to come up with an explanation that satisfies the world is going much beyond what the stated official line is.
Put another way, if you are desperate, you cannot be cocky. Salman’s troubles give you space, but the point needs to be made in private, not publicly.
The Greater Middle East, never an easy place to negotiate, is now disconcertingly complex. Riyadh’s longtime strategic partner and the guarantor of its safety, the United States, is faced with its own predicament since the Khashoggi murder: it cannot simply ignore what has happened, nor can it take an approach so punitive that the House of Saud begins to unravel, a development that could not only lead to that country imploding, but also result in a regional imbalance, even conflagration.
Any regional imbalance will work to the advantage of Iran and that’s a big no for the U.S. Meanwhile, Turkey has its own interests in the Middle East, especially in Syria. It is now vying actively for a leadership role in the region and as a Sunni state is unavoidably pitted against Saudi Arabia.
Any unraveling of the Sauds would also mean the internal fault-lines, from Hejaz in the west to the Eastern province in the east will become sharper and deeper. The region is also home to extremist groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh who would be the obvious beneficiaries of such chaos.
Into this mess there is also the physical-military presence of both the U.S. and its allies as well as Russia. While the deconfliction agreement between the U.S. and Russia has worked so far in Syria, that is no guarantee that one or the other side, or an ally, cannot miscalculate. A good example is the downing of the Russian surveillance plane and the controversy generated by it. This is just a bird’s-eye view and by no means covers the full ambit of the region’s complexity.
Khan will need to understand that. Alternately, he will need to know enough to know that he doesn’t know enough and, therefore, mustn’t go into an interview without hard preparation. There are enough good professionals in the MoFA who can brief him on the talking points as well as the background.
Another strategy could be for Khan to focus on the domestic agenda—insiders know that he isn’t much thrilled by the intricacies of interstate relations—and let his foreign minister and foreign secretary deal with the outside world.
In Riyadh, during a conference session interview, Khan talked about corruption in Pakistan while wooing the investors! While we are all familiar with his pet subject, he is no more an opposition leader. You can’t ask someone to come in with his money by telling him that up until now we have all been thieves.
To sum up: Mr. Prime Minister, do not ad-lib; do not go anywhere without hard preparation; stick to the prepared text; if you aren’t interested in a particular area, delegate to whoever knows it best.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider