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The Saudi Hollywood Makeover

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The tense relationship between Pakistan and the United States has often been described as a bad marriage. Like a couple teetering on divorce but frozen in mutually dependent inertia, the U.S. wants one thing while Pakistan wants another, at least most of the time. This love-hate relationship long precedes the September 11th attacks. The last ten years just shed light on the ugly side of this relationship. But a relationship that is just as important in the War on Terror, but far less public, is the one the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia. If Pakistan thinks the U.S. has double standards when it comes to what they allow allies to get away with in exchange for cooperation in the WOT, that perception wouldn't be entirely off-base.

It's an open secret that hundreds of Saudi families and nationals were flown out of the States during the days after the attacks. The exodus was organized by Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sulan bin Abdul Aziz, also known as "Bandar Bush" due to his closeness to the Bush family. The ambassador expedited the departures of two families: The Saudi royals and the bin Ladens. But not even the notoriously charming prince could adequately explain why or how 15 out of the 19 hijackers came from a country the U.S. had always claimed as a close ally.

It should, then, be safe to call the Saudi-U.S. relationship a "secret" marriage. Not many Americans know how strong or weak this marriage is, mostly because the Saudis spent billions — and more billions — to spruce up their image or stay hidden from the general public.

The Saudis' initial attempts at post-9/11 damage control backfired — badly. Exhibit A: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's public show of contributing $10 million to New York for disaster relief. Unfortunately for the Kingdom, the prince had the poor judgment to use the opportunity to lecture the U.S. about its foreign policy at the same time. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made it clear that New York had no need for his money.

Realizing that their image needed bolstering, the Saudis did what troubled totalitarian regimes the world over do: They hired a PR firm and a gang of high-powered Washington lobbyists. The PR blitz was a flop.

But this did not stop the Saudis, and now, in an ironic twist, the prince is the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corps, the parent company of Fox News Channel, a notorious source of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The Kingdom's ongoing image woes have long been exacerbated by reports of a barbaric judicial system, beheadings, the second class citizen status of women and the complete absence of human rights and religious freedom. The flow of Saudi petrodollars into the coffers of terrorist groups around the world has been reported on, analyzed and criticized for years, to little effect.

It is no secret either that Saudis have also been instrumental in bankrolling and backing discrimination and violence against the Shias, as described by Khaled Ahmed in his book Sectarian War: Pakistan's Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East:

According to Barnett Rubin, in 1989, the Afghan mujahideen government-in-exile came into being in Peshawar after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. At the behest of Saudi Arabia, the exiled Shia mujahideen of Iran were not included in this government. The Saudis paid over $26 million a week to the 519-member session of the mujahideen shura (council) as a bribe for it. Each member of the shura received $25,000 for the deal which was facilitated, according to Rubin, by the ISI Chief Hamid Gul.

But as the world is watching the developments in the war on terror, the Saudis are out to burnish their image as humanitarians. They know that the someone somewhere might mention the fact that Afghanistan was the training ground and Pakistan was the facilitator, but the majority of the hijackers were the nationals of the Kingdom. Over the last ten years, the situation is Pakistan and Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse, while a major player of this 'great game' has kept itself at a distance with its petrodollars.

Given the Saudis' penchant for funding and exporting extremism and meddling throughout the Muslim world, how would you react if you heard a Saudi prince had bankrolled an expensive research project to create a genetically modified strain of corn that could eliminate world hunger?

The prince does this not for financial gain, but as a gesture of goodwill. The prince also speaks perfect English, appreciates female arm candy and is a target for Islamic extremists at home.

Apparently, the Saudis have found a way to uplift their image.

This prince is a hero, not in a real life of course — but in a Hollywood movie, Unknown. As America prepares to mark the ten year anniversary of 9/11, this pop culture moment is nothing short of extraordinary. The Saudis have achieved a PR coup: Positive product placement. The Kingdom is re-branding.

There's nothing particularly original about the plot, which consists of a series of predictable spy scenarios — a foreign city, inclement weather, amnesia, car chases, the Cold War, evil multinationals. It's been done a million times.

But what is totally unexpected is the depiction of a Saudi royal as a generous benefactor, a plot point that is so rare it captures the attention. Even more remarkable is that there have been no debates, no protests, no boycotts, no outrage. The movie came and went without a peep.

Even more intriguing: The film Unknown is based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert. There is no benevolent Saudi prince in the original version of the story. So how did this plot twist come about?

Since no one in the press or the world of politics seems to care, it may be a while before we find out.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.

This article was first published at The Huffington Post here

Wajid Ali Syed
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Wajid Ali Syed is a journalist from Lahore, Pakistan, who has worked with the leading news networks of the world and has earned great laurels at a young age. He writes for Pakistan Foreign Policy blogs and also for The Pakistan Update.


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Massive Anti-Army Pashtun Rally in Lahore Rattles Pakistan

The rally on Sunday was held in defiance of a government ban.

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LAHORE (Pakistan): Thousands of Pashtuns defied authorities and held a mass rally in Lahore on Sunday, chanting anti-military slogans just hours after security forces cracked down on their leaders.

The rapidly growing Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has rattled Pakistan’s military since it burst onto the scene three months ago with a nationwide campaign against alleged abuses against ethnic Pashtuns by security forces.

The Pashtuns are a fiercely independent ethnic group that straddle both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The April 22 rally was organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or Pashtun Protection Movement, a group started mainly by young ethnic Pashtun activists denouncing perceived high-handedness by security forces.

Manzoor Pashteen, the founder leader of the PTM, delivered an address criticizing the country’s military and its actions in Pashtun-dominated regions of Pakistan.

“I urge professional soldiers not to follow the command of the generals and brigadiers. Refuse to obey their orders because they [generals] can get you killed like they did with people of Waziristan and other parts of the country,” Pashteen said.

The rally on Sunday was held in defiance of a government ban.

The provincial government denied permission for the rally “due to specific threats to the security of organisers of PTM”, according to a statement.

Police also briefly detained at least five PTM leaders, including vocal military critic Ali Wazir, on Saturday evening.

The crowd at the Lahore rally, which included non-Pashtun supporters, chanted slogans critical of the military during pauses in Pashteen’s speech, which he delivered in both Urdu and Pashto.

“We do not accept the Pakistan that is for the generals and the mullahs, we want a Pakistan for the Sindhis, for the Baloch, for the Pashtun and for the working class of Punjab,” said PTM supporter Fanoos Gujar, referring to the country’s major ethnic groups.

PTM has protested since the January killing of 27-year old Naqeebullah Mehsud during what Pakistani police described as a raid on a “terrorist hideout” in the port city of Karachi.

Pakistani police claimed Mehsud was a member of the Pakistani Taliban, which his relatives in his native South Waziristan region deny.

The PTM has been calling for the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas and an end to “enforced disappearances” in which suspects are detained by security forces without due process.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar on April 8, as many as 60,000 people took part in a demonstration to demand the protection of the rights of Pashtuns.

Pakistan’s government rejects allegations that security forces or its intelligence service are responsible for enforced disappearances.

Authorities say military checkpoints are necessary in the tribal areas in order to combat Islamic extremist militants, including Pakistani and Afghan Taliban fighters.

While public criticism of the army is rare, the PTM’s rallies have been marked by the openness of its leaders to call out the security forces.

For its part, the army has been critical of the movement.

Last week, army chief General Qamar Bajwa said the protests were “engineered” by foreign forces, and said his concern was they could reverse the military’s gains against armed groups.

Pashteen denied the claim on Sunday, saying the PTM was “not anti-Pakistan” and was only demanding constitutional rights for the Pashtuns, who make up 15 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million people.

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Swaraj meets Jinping on the Sidelines of SCO Foreign Ministers Meet

Sushma Swaraj is in China to participate in the two-day SCO foreign Ministers meeting currently underway in Beijing.  

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BEIJING (China): External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj continued her engagement with the Chinese leadership on her second day of China visit.

She also met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders and discussed the strengthening of bilateral ties. She called on the Vice President of China Wang Qishan in Beijing.

Sushma Swaraj is in China to participate in the two-day SCO foreign Ministers meeting currently underway in Beijing.

After holding bilateral talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday, External Affairs Minister had announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be travelling hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during an informal meeting on 27 and 28th of this month in Wuhan city in central China.

In a major development, India and China on Sunday agreed to resume the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through the Natha Lu route in Sikkim, 10 months after the pilgrimage was stopped through Nathu La.

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was stopped by China in the aftermath of the military face-off with India last year at Doklam. Ministry of external affairs organises the yatra from June to September each year through two different routes – Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand and Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. The yatra, which holds religious value, cultural significance, is undertaken by hundreds of people every year.

China also agreed to resume sharing of hydrological data of the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers. Sharing of hydrological data crucial to predicting floods in India’s northeast region, prone to natural calamities.

China provides flood season data of the Brahmaputra river between May 15 and October 15 every year.

Speaking at a function organised by the Indian embassy in Beijing Swaraj asked Indians and Chinese to learn each other’s languages as it will help them overcome the communication barriers, which could further strengthen relations between the two neighbours.

Meanwhile, defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also reached Beijing on Monday to participate in the SCO defence minister’s meet, who is visiting Beijing to take part in the foreign ministers meet.

Ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit Meet to be held in China in June this year, the ministers of the group countries are meeting to exchange views on cooperation on the multilateral arena and from counter-terrorism to climate change and sustainable development.

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China Promises ‘Positive Voices Against Protectionism’ at Modi-Xi Summit

China on April 23 said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping will discuss globalisation and the threat of rising protectionism.

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BEIJING (China):  India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Sunday announced that PM Modi and President Xi will meet in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27-28 to improve bilateral relations.

At Wuhan, the two leaders will “exchange views on overarching long-term strategic issues as well as the latest trends of the world so that the world will develop in a more stable way,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.

“As to the background against which this meeting is held, I believe you are clear that the world is faced with rampant unilateralism as well as the rising protectionism in the process of globalisation,” Lu said.

All these new trends in the world have been closely followed and debated, Lu said in apparent reference to a host of measures initiated by US President Donald Trump in his ‘America First’ policy leading to a lot of protectionist measures including the current trade spate between the China and US.

He was responding to question whether there will be a joint message related to trade and protectionism, especially against US unilateral protectionism after the meeting between PM Modi and President Xi.

“So against such a backdrop China and India have a lot to discuss. We are all newly-emerging markets as well as developing countries with big populations,” Lu said.

“So we believe that the two countries will continue to uphold the globalisation so that it will be more inclusive. So we have a lot of shared interests, concerns and propositions,” he said.

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