US diplomat’s ringside view of a changing Saudi Arabia: Interview with Consul General Matthias J. Mitman
• Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman captures the dynamism that exists within Saudi Arabia, says Mitman
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, June 13, 2018
“I did not anticipate the degree to which change would occur in the Kingdom when I came here in 2016,” he said.
“The changes have been very rapid. I think they have been welcomed by the vast majority of Saudis, so it has been more than I expected. I think we have developed a very good and solid relationship with our Saudi counterparts, and that has been very useful and productive.”
Mitman’s job as a diplomat meant that he had a ringside view of these momentous changes. He took time out from his preparations to leave the country — now his posting is almost over — to welcome Arab News to his residence in the US Consulate in Jeddah’s Al-Ruwais district.
During an exclusive interview, he reflected on his time in the Kingdom and shared his thoughts about an eventful assignment, his impressions of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his views on the Saudi people — in particular the youth.
“It has been a very dynamic and interesting period,” he said. “The Saudi Arabia that I came to two years ago is not the Saudi Arabia we are living in today. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put into place his Vision 2030, which has resulted in remarkable changes in the economic landscape, as well as in the cultural and social environment.
“I feel very fortunate to have served here in a period when there has been more change than perhaps in any other period in Saudi Arabia.”
Mitman said the crown prince had impressed him with his leadership, his vision for the country, and his ability to strategically plan its implementation.
“I have met (the crown prince) and I think he is a very dynamic leader,” he said. “He has a vision for the future of Saudi Arabia. He thinks strategically and he is dedicated to formulating a plan to bring about that vision. He wants to work closely with the United States so we have worked very closely with him on a number of issues related to Vision 2030.
“I think he captures some of the dynamism that exists within Saudi Arabia — and because the majority of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, that is captured by the support they give to the crown prince.”
Mitman met many young Saudis during his posting, an experience that gives him confidence for the future of the country.
“I am very impressed with young Saudis who are interested in working in the private sector, their use of technology, and the fact that they are so familiar with what is going on everywhere,” he said. “I have been very impressed with how knowledgeable they are about world affairs, politics, international trade, and their interest in studying in the United States.”
Among the many changes that Mitman has witnessed in the past two years, a few stick out as particularly noteworthy.
“One of the reforms that I have seen is the promotion of the private sector as an engine of growth in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The Saudi economy was traditionally dependent upon the export of hydrocarbons — oil and gas. Graduates at one time expected to work for the government, and what I have now seen is a vibrancy, dynamism and entrepreneurship, especially in young people who are interested in forming their own companies and businesses. These will be small- and medium-sized enterprises — and in any economy the engine of growth for job creation is people who start out as small businessmen.
“Apple, Google and Microsoft started out as small companies with one or two people, and in many cases they were working in their garages. Yet now they employ hundreds of thousands of people, and the net worth of a company such as Apple is approaching $1 trillion in capital value. That is what the private sector can do.
“But the basis of that really is individual entrepreneurship and starting out with your own company, which grows from an idea that uses technology. I see a very strong interest in this among young Saudis. They are very technologically sophisticated. I think that is a very positive sign for the future of the Saudi economy as they will be able to form companies.”
Ultimately, Mitman said, the Kingdom’s most valuable resource is not oil, but its people. As such, the empowerment of Saudi women is a crucial development.
“I have visited universities in Madinah, Tabuk, Taif and Abha and I have seen the majority of students are women,” he said. “These women are a tremendous human resource that is skilled, talented and educated.
“I think one of the most profound changes is the one that enables women now to enter the labor force more easily, with greater flexibility, and part of this is a greater understanding of what is necessary to facilitate women working in the private sector.
“There is also the transportation issue, and we saw this week women getting their driving licenses. Thus you see a process by which women will have greater independence, freedom to drive themselves, and that will facilitate their being able to work and their entering the labor force.”
This, he said, “will have very positive long-term benefits for the Saudi economy.”
A career diplomat with the Senior Foreign Service, Mitman arrived in Jeddah in August 2016. He speaks Greek, Russian, Spanish and some German, and is a distinguished graduate of the National War College, earning an MA in National Security Studies in 2006.
Prior to his career with the State Department, he was an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University. Before arriving in Jeddah, he was consul general in the Iraqi cities of Irbil and Basra. Earlier in his career, he worked at the US embassies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Moscow.
“Coming (to Jeddah) as consul general was my first assignment here and my first trip to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Jeddah was a new experience for me and one which I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Tourism is an important area that the Saudi authorities are keen to develop and promote as part of Vision 2030, and Mitman believes that the Kingdom has plenty to attract visitors.
“The United States is well-known for its natural beauty,” he said. “Equally, Saudi Arabia has natural attractions and I have visited several of them. I think Madain Saleh is clearly outstanding, and from an archaeological and historical standpoint it is one of the most interesting sites that I have seen. I think it has tremendous potential for tourism development.”
There is no shortage of opportunities, he said, to develop and promote the Kingdom’s natural beauty.
“I have gone up to Tabuk and along the Red Sea coast, where there are two of the projects launched by the Crown Prince — Neom and the Red Sea Project. I think both have tremendous potential,” he said. “I own a condominium in Florida, on the state’s Atlantic coast, and the area on the Red Sea is much more beautiful. There is the potential to attract people who want to go scuba diving or who just want to go to the beach.
“I think there are lots of opportunities in Saudi Arabia and I believe this is one of the crown prince’s priorities, which he has outlined. I think it will take some investment in infrastructure, and US companies have a lot of experience along those lines.
“I think they will be interested in being part of the hospitality or travel industry, or any industries that facilitate tourism.
“We already have about 75 travel agencies in the US that organize trips for Americans to come here for Hajj and Umrah, so we are talking about more than 20,000 people from the US who come here every year for religious journeys. The same skills and knowledge in arranging those trips can be used to arrange tourist trips that will appeal to Americans.
“Most Americans have never traveled to Saudi Arabia. In the past, it was somewhat of a challenge to get a tourist visa, but I think the Saudi government is now looking at ways to make the process easier to facilitate tourists coming to the Kingdom.”
As part of his work, Mitman met religious leaders and reported back to Washington on evolving attitudes, to give policymakers a more accurate present-day view of the country.
“I have had very positive and productive discussions with the religious leaders about Islam and I have come away very impressed with their level of tolerance and their emphasis on moderation in the practice of Islam,” he said.
“I have also been impressed by their understanding of the importance of having friendly relations with Americans. We have about 3 million Muslims living in the United States and there are several thousand mosques there. We brought the imam of one of the Washington, DC, mosques to Saudi Arabia to conduct workshops and to talk about Islam as it is practiced in the United States. He also performed Umrah while he was here.
“We are always looking for ways in which we can help people understand that we promote freedom of religion in the United States … that is an integral part of what it is to live in America. Many of the first settlers who went to the US hundreds of years ago went there because they faced religious persecution in Europe, and they wanted to go somewhere where they could practice their religion freely.”
With so many professional obligations, time for recreation was perhaps limited, but Mitman fondly recalls a few highlights.
“I enjoyed going out on a boat along the coast and snorkeling,” he said. “I enjoy swimming. I have visited a number of cities. In Taif, I walked along the mountains and saw the baboons — I never realized there were baboons in Saudi Arabia. And I visited some of the museums that feature Saudi history and show the cultural development of the Kingdom.”
Mitman said he is also a big fan of art and had enjoyed exploring Jeddah’s “very vibrant artistic community, with world-class galleries.” He added: “We have worked closely with the Saudi Art Council, chaired by Princess Jawaher (bint Majed bin Abdul Aziz), in bringing Arab-American artists such as Helen Zughaib here and holding an exhibition of her work.”
With the reopening of cinemas and the Kingdom’s recent participation for the first time in the Cannes Film Festival, it is fitting that Mitman also enjoyed a professional visit by American filmmakers.
“We brought people from the Hollywood film industry here who are producers and writers and they gave workshops,” he said. “This is important as Saudi Arabia is now creating its own entertainment sector. One of the areas will be film production — and producing films about Saudi Arabia directed by Saudis, acted by Saudis — and so we brought in two Hollywood experts. They went to Effat University, where there is a course in filmmaking, and this was something that I enjoyed a great deal.”
As his time in Saudi Arabia draws to a close, there are memories Mitman will carry with him.
“I have been invited into Saudi homes during the month of Ramadan, which is a very special month for all Muslims,” he said. “I have been taken into the homes of many Saudi contacts who have become close friends and who invited me to break the fast and to stay up much later for sahoor. On some nights, I have had iftar in one house and sahoor in another.
“Those have been special moments because Saudis have opened up their homes and shown me great hospitality. I am not a Muslim but they allowed me to participate and be a part of their celebrations. Those have been very special moments for me as I was away from my family. My wife works in the State Department in Washington and we have two adult children, both of whom are working (abroad).”
During times of change the role of a healthy media is to monitor and report on events truthfully and fairly. Mitman believes Arab News has a key part to play in this.
“I think Arab News plays a very important role in reporting developments in Saudi Arabia for the expatriate communities and for people who don’t read Arabic,” he said. “It is one of two newspapers that I read every morning.
“I have an excellent relationship with Editor in Chief Faisal Abbas. I saw him regularly and we exchanged ideas and had conversations about what was going on in Saudi Arabia.”
Mitman has a few parting thoughts for Americans and Saudis, based on his time in the Kingdom.
“For the Americans, I would say if you haven’t visited Saudi Arabia recently you might be pleasantly surprised with the natural beauty, the attractions, and the warmth and hospitality of the people,” he said.
“To Saudis, I would say thank you for hosting me and allowing me to live for two years in your country. I am grateful for the friendships that I made with many Saudis who helped me to build a bridge between America and the Kingdom. And I thank them for the great cooperation between our two countries in economics, trade and investment.
“Many Americans are interested in investing in Saudi Arabia and many Saudis are interested in investing in America. The exchange of goods and services between our two countries will continue to grow.”
By SIRAJ WAHAB in JEDDAH
WHEN Saudi Arabia’s King Salman named him as the deputy crown prince a year ago, few outside the royal circle knew who Prince Mohammed bin Salman was. The Western media, more specifically journalists in America, scrambled to find more information as it became clear a new younger leadership was emerging in Saudi Arabia.
One important reason for this lack of information was that he did not go abroad for higher education like most other members of the royal family. He is a product of King Saud University and had remained inside the Kingdom throughout his young life. He was therefore an unknown quantity.
Complicating matters for the foreign media was that there was very little on the Internet about him except for sparse details about the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud Foundation (MISK) that he still leads. That was in May 2015. A year later, he has turned out to be Saudi Arabia’s best-kept secret.
The first hint of Prince Mohammed’s genius was revealed six months later in a column written by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times. Entitled, “Letter From Saudi Arabia,” the November 2015 column was based on Friedman’s interview with Prince Mohammed, the young Saudi leader’s first interview with a major foreign media outlet.
This is how Friedman began his column: “I spent an evening with Mohammed bin Salman at his office (in Riyadh), and he wore me out. With staccato energy bursts, he laid out in detail his plans. His main projects are an online government dashboard that will transparently display the goals of each ministry, with monthly KPIs — key performance indicators — for which each minister will be held accountable. His idea is to get the whole country engaged in government performance. Ministers tell you: Since Prince Mohammed arrived, big decisions that took two years to make now happen in two weeks.”
As he explained it to Friedman, Prince Mohammed’s plan from the beginning was “to reduce subsidies to wealthy Saudis, who won’t get cheap gas, electricity or water anymore, possibly establish a value-added tax and sin taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks, and both privatize and tax mines and undeveloped lands in ways that can unlock billions — so even if oil falls to $30 a barrel, Riyadh will have enough revenues to keep building the country without exhausting its savings. He is also creating incentives for Saudis to leave government and join the private sector.”
“Seventy percent of Saudis are under age 30, and their perspective is different from the other 30 percent,” Prince Mohammed told Friedman. “I am working to create for them the country they want to be living in in the future.”
That interview was widely discussed inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The young prince instantly became a hero for what he said and planned to do. He immediately struck a chord with the 70 percent of Saudis under the age of 30. In him they saw someone who thought like them and understood their problems, and a leader ready to take action that would insulate the Saudi economy from global risks.
A series of decisions since then have burnished his image as a no-nonsense leader who says what he means and means what he says. Twitter and other social media have been abuzz with his virtues. Within a few months of his appointment as deputy crown prince, he made high-profile visits to Russia, France and the United States, winning the crucial battle of perception. The media and world leaders started taking note.
After one meeting, US President Barack Obama said Prince Mohammed surprised him with his crystal clear ideas about the Saudi and global economy, and Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the outside world. Obama said Prince Mohammed had ambition, energy and knowledge of a wide array of complex public policy issues. “He is wise beyond his years,” is how Obama described him after their meeting in May 2015 at the United States-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David.
Since then he has won over his critics and pleasantly surprised his huge number of followers. The path-breaking interview that he gave to Bloomberg in April was the clearest indication of his coming of age. Nothing was off the record in that interview.
He talked about spending a few days a week at the late King Abdullah’s palace. He tried to push through several new reforms. “It was very difficult to do with the presence of a number of people,” he told Bloomberg. “But I remember to this day there’s nothing I discussed with King Abdullah that he didn’t give the order and implement.”
The prince, as the Bloomberg interview revealed, divides his time between his father’s palaces and the powerful Defense Ministry that he heads, working from morning until after midnight most days. He has frequent meetings with the king and spends long sessions with consultants and aides poring over economic and oil data.
He is awakened most mornings by his children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from one to six. That is the last he sees of them. “Sometimes my wife gets upset with me because I put so much pressure on her for the programs that I want them to have,” he told Bloomberg. “I rely mainly on their mother for their upbringing.”
Prince Mohammed has only one wife and is not planning on marrying more. His generation is not so into polygamy, he explained. Life is too busy, compared with past eras when farmers could work a few hours a day and warriors could “take spoils once a week and had a lot of spare time.” Working, sleeping, eating, and drinking do not leave a lot of time to open another household, he said. “It is tough [enough] living with one family.”
That interview and the one he gave to Al-Arabiya TV on the day his pet project Saudi Vision 2030 was announced indicated the arrival of a young and decisive leader in Saudi Arabia. It was frank and full of candor. He did not consult notes while fielding questions from Turki Al-Dakhil.
Famous columnist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim was highly impressed. “My impression is that he is very confident and aware of the many needs of the Kingdom and its citizens. During the Al-Arabiya interview, he seemed very well-informed about the future path needed to upgrade the standard of life for Saudis. He seemed very transparent in his discussion about the internal issues in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Al-Mulhim says young Saudis admire him and adore him. “They are very enthusiastic about seeing someone young and sharp — it is as if he is talking to each and everyone one of them and knows full well what they need.”
Fahad Nazer, a senior Saudi political analyst with the US-based JTG Inc., said Prince Mohammed has come to symbolize the “new” Saudi Arabia — “more open, more decisive, less risk averse and operating on a much shorter time frame.”
“Many Saudis — myself included — have found the frank tone he has been using in his media interviews to be refreshing. Prince Mohammed has been very forthcoming in acknowledging the economic challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing. He has also been open about the need to re-evaluate previous policies which have led to an over-reliance on oil and the underdevelopment of other sectors of the economy,” said Nazer.
Christopher Williams, an American who lived for many years in Saudi Arabia, was ecstatic with the young prince’s frank talk and ambitious vision. “Prince Mohammed was very poised and gave a very positive impression. He was obviously on top of the situation. He had done his homework very thoroughly and was sure of what he wants for Saudi Arabia and how he believes his goals can become reality,” he said.
Williams thinks he handled the press, both local and foreign, very confidently, referring to the press conference that he held in Riyadh on the night Saudi Vision 2030 was unveiled. “What the foreign press often overlooks is that its opinion is not what is important in Saudi Arabia; there is interest in that opinion of course but ordinary Saudis must be sold and convinced about what the prince aims to do and that is not done by the foreign press. Saudis are his first and primary audience,” Williams added.
Prince Mohammed is seen as a new Arab hero and Arab News Editor in Chief Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi described him aptly in his recent column: “Prince Mohammed is a young enlightened man who is behind a project that will serve the country.
“I once heard him say he had the choice of living the kind of life his circumstances allowed or serving his society no matter the cost. It is clear he made the latter and more difficult choice. As the saying goes, a vision without action is a dream; an action without a vision is a waste of time, but a vision with action can change the world. Saudi Arabia has made an appointment with its future.”
From left: Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, Nadeem Tarin, Saleh bin Fahad Al-Nazha, Sirajuddin Qureshi, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, Dr. Dilnawaz Roomi and Asif Rameez Daudi at the event organized in Jubail recently.
Top Saudi industrialist Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha, Sirajuddin Qureshi, 2nd right, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, right, and Asif Rameez Daudi.
Sirajuddin Qureshi, Mahboob Ali Qaiser and Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha pose for a group picture with the event organizers.
Nobody Wants to Stifle Indian Muslim Community, Says Mahboob Ali Qaiser
By SIRAJ WAHAB
A top-ranking Saudi industrialist has acknowledged the contribution of the Indian community to the development of Jubail as the world’s leading hub of petrochemical industry.
Tasnee President and Chief Operating Officer Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha was speaking at a program organized by Jubail Indian Expats (JIE) to welcome and felicitate Sirajuddin Qureshi, president of the New Delhi-based India Islamic Cultural Center, and Mahboob Ali Qaiser, president of the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee.
“Jubail was a small fishing village in the mid-1970s,” said Al-Nazha. “The government decided to convert it into an important petrochemical base in 1979 and the actual industrial activity began in 1982.”
Al-Nazha said he came to Jubail in 1982 when he joined Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC). “There were many Indians here; they were among the first contributors to the development of this city,” he said. “On behalf of every Saudi, I thank you all for being the real partners in progress.”
There was a thunderous applause from the assembled audience that included some of the best-known Indian expatriates such as Nadeem Tarin, Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, Asif Rameez Daudi, Anis Bakhsh, Meraj A. Ansari, Dr. Dilnawaz Roomi, Amjad Khan, Habib Shaikh, Mohammed Abdulsattar, Rahat Sultan and Parvez Askari.
Al-Nazha expressed total admiration for India and Indians. “I have been to many countries but the one thing that always stood out during my visits to India was the ubiquitous scene at the major traffic intersections,” he said. “Here, in the Gulf, we see people selling bottled water at traffic intersections because it is a hot and humid here, in other countries people sell newspapers, but in India they sell business books at traffic lights; that is something amazing, and speaks volumes about the country’s culture of knowledge.”
Sirajuddin Qureshi, in whose honor the event was organized, exhorted members of the Indian Muslim community to do away with what he described as the “begging bowl mentality.”
“We should depend on the government only up to a point,” he said. “We should not become totally dependent on it because that will stunt our growth.”
Qureshi recalled his various suggestions to many government commissions that were tasked with improving the lot of Indian Muslims. “The Sachar commission report has shown us in very negative light and so did the Ranganath Misra commission report; it is not that the government is not aware of our problems; they have known it for the last 60 years and it will take them another 600 years to solve them,” he quipped in a note of sarcasm.
Qureshi advised Indian Muslims to work hard and concentrate on education. “You, Indian expatriates, who have risen to top positions in your chosen field here in Saudi Arabia, you did not bank on government support, your success is yours, you worked hard for it and achieved it, you are the best example and the real inspiration for the rest of the community in India,” he said.
He said things move grindingly slow in India. “The decision to establish the India Islamic Cultural Center was taken in the early 1980s. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi performed the ground-breaking ceremony in 1984, but the actual center was completed only in 2006,” he said. “It took us 22 long years to bring it to fruition.”
Nobody took the project seriously, he lamented. “I would pass by this prime land every day and would wonder why was it not being completed. As a member of the center’s founding committee I always impressed upon my fellow members the need for completing the project because it did not reflect positively on the community,” he said.
Qureshi praised Asif Daudi, the architect of the program, for creating awareness about the center among the Indian expatriates in the Eastern Province. “I urge you all to become full-time members of this center; visit our website (http://www.iiccentre.org/) for details; I have special interest in NRIs (non-resident Indians) because they are apolitical; I want to save the center from any possible politicization,” he said.
The highly articulate and suave politician from Bihar, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, congratulated the Jubail Indian community for coming together for a good and constructive cause.
“India is a multi-religious, multi-social, multi-culture nation and the center is the best example of that,” he said. “We as a community need to focus on education so that we can project the true picture and true essence of Islam to other communities.”
Qaiser agreed that there was bias against Muslims in India but said that has not stopped hard-working Muslims from going ahead in life.
“Fifteen percent Muslims are competing with a community that constitutes 85 percent of the country, so naturally Muslims will have to be extremely good, extremely hard-working to succeed, and success will come just as it has come to the highly-positioned Indians here in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Nobody in India wants the community to be stifled.”
Educationist Nadeem Tarin, who runs a number of prestigious educational institutions in India and Saudi Arabia, spoke about the importance of education to the well being of the community.
Syed Baqar Naqvi conducted the proceedings with poise and grace.
Asif Daudi thanked all members of JIE’s core committee, including Mohammad Shibli, Mohammed Farooque Shahbandri, Abdul Haleem, Mufeeduzzama, Nasiruddin, Jamil Akhter, Imteyaz Khan, Aziz Siddiqui, Javed Ashraf, Asif Siddiqui, Shahnawaz, Khalili, Naveed and Sajid for the program’s success.
By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Thursday, September 23, 2010
As Saudi Arabia celebrates its National Day today, there is a significant section of the population that has reasons to cheer more than others. Not that the women of Saudi Arabia were marginalized in the past, but in recent times they have been given the honor, credit and the space that they richly deserve. Saudi society has been a little more welcoming of their pursuits and initiatives. Government institutions have grown more responsive to their needs, and the media have become more vocal, both in reporting their successes and failures. The leadership at the top provided the incentive by appointing a woman as minister. The private sector hasn’t been far behind — opening the doors of their establishments to these women who have achievements that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Not a day goes by where you don’t see talented Saudi women making important contributions in almost all fields of endeavor. Their faces, beaming with pride, adorn the pages and covers of prestigious publications. Foreign journalists visiting the Kingdom, with preconceived notions about Saudi women, have not hidden their appreciation and admiration of Saudi women after meeting them in person. Many have described them as second to none. And yes, they are second to none.
To the Western world all these changes may sound insignificant, but for those who have been watching the Kingdom’s development over the last few years these are no proverbial mirages in the desert. To those in the West, the barometer for women’s emancipation is the ability to drive on Saudi roads. However, that is not the most pressing issue for Saudi women. There are other more important things, and they have learned to work within the system to get things done their way. For a Western observer the image of a Saudi woman is that of an abaya-clad prisoner who can do nothing on her own and is completely subservient to the whims of her male masters. That is certainly not the case, and newspapers here and abroad and social networking sites such as Facebook are proof that Saudi women are making slow yet continuous progress.
Only last month, the newspapers were filled with the success of equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who rode her way to fame with a medal-winning performance at the recent Singapore Youth Olympics.
Among the first people to reach flood-hit Pakistan with relief was Muna Abu-Sulayman. She was among those coordinating the massive relief efforts undertaken by Kingdom Holding Co. Chairman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Hayat Sindi is breaking new grounds in the field of science; Huda Ghosun and Hiba Dialdin of Saudi Aramco have assumed key leadership positions; Asya Al-Ashaikh has given a new and positive direction to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Nora Alturki and Fatin Bundagji are engaged in pioneering research on the needs and aspirations of Saudi businesswomen; Samia El-Edrissi has launched her own business; Amina Al-Jassim’s couture has become the cynosure of all eyes in the world of fashion; Lina Almaeena has created quite a buzz with her passion for bringing women into the world of sports; Hatoon Al-Fassi, the historian, and Samar Fatany, the columnist and radio commentator, have become the most-quoted people for their insightful comments; Lama Sulaiman, Hana Al-Zuhair and Sameera Al-Suwaigh are part of key decision-making within the Kingdom’s chambers of commerce. The list is endless, and it only goes to prove that they are taking the lead and conquering new territories.
All this would not have been possible without the critical push from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. He brought them into the mainstream. He lent them a patient ear and understood the challenges they faced. Once the direction from the top was clear, there were other segments of society which saw the need to engage and harness this great potential.
“It is important for us to remember that the Saudi girl has been struggling for years to redefine her role in society — not only in the workplace and at school but, most important of all, in our collective consciousness and our collective perceptions of what she is and what paths are open to her and what paths should be open to her,” said a prominent Saudi journalist. “What these women sought and what they wanted was not ‘liberation’ in the Western sense of the word. They were seeking — and they attained — the right to do and be what they wanted to do and be; they wanted the same doors open to them as were open to their brothers and other Saudi men.”
There is an interesting joke that all of us hear during free-wheeling conversations here in Saudi Arabia. For the first 25 years of their life, a Saudi man is controlled by his mother; the next 25 years he is firmly in the grip of his wife. And then he becomes harmless!
That may be a joke, but Saudi women have come a long way and so widespread with their success that they will become common and no longer merit front-page treatment.
OIC Foreign Ministers Meet in Jeddah on Monday, Aug. 13
By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Monday, Aug. 13, 2012
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is all set to expel Syria. This is to express the pan-Islamic body’s displeasure at President Bashar Assad regime’s failure to end the bloodshed in his country.
The decision is being described as one of the key outcomes of the two-day Islamic solidarity summit beginning in Makkah on Aug. 14.
The recommendation to suspend Syria was taken at a preparatory meeting of senior diplomats of OIC member countries at the Conference Palace in Jeddah yesterday. The highly significant recommendation will now be presented to the OIC foreign ministers at their meeting in Jeddah today (Monday). Their decision will be final.
Syria’s expulsion from the OIC will complete Assad’s total isolation in the Muslim world. The 22-member Arab League expelled Syria in November last year during its emergency session in Cairo.
The preparatory meeting, chaired by Muhammad bin Ahmed Tayeb, director general of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s office in Makkah Province, lasted nearly 12 hours. It included Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and its permanent representative to the OIC.
Syrian officials were not invited to the meeting. This led the Iranian envoys to raise objections. “The Syrians are still part of the OIC, and, therefore, they should have been invited to the preparatory meeting,” one of the diplomats quoted the Iranians as saying. However, there were few takers for the Iranian view.
With Iran continuing to support the tottering Assad regime, it found itself totally isolated. The recommendation to expel Syria found instant favor from an overwhelming majority of OIC countries, including hosts Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
“Iran has refused to see the writing on the wall and continues to support a regime that has lost the moral ground to continue in power,” said an Arab diplomat. “This was a good opportunity for Iran to go along with the sentiments of the majority of the Muslim world.”
However, the diplomats attending the marathon meeting, reiterated that the session was not acrimonious. On the contrary, there was a lot of camaraderie among all the member states. Other than its expected stand on Syria, Iran demonstrated willingness to cooperate fully with fellow Muslim states on almost all issues, including Palestine, and repeatedly stated that the OIC should remain the bedrock of Muslim solidarity.
Some nations, notably Kazakhstan, Iraq and Pakistan, suggested that efforts should not be given up to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
There were divergent opinions among the member countries on the issue of the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. One section called for a strong condemnation and rapid reaction, while the other, that included Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Bangladesh, suggested a policy of engagement with Myanmar.
“The Asian nations felt that since the Myanmar government had indicated full cooperation with the Muslim world body, it should be given a chance to come good on its promise of delivering justice and bringing the murderers to book,” said an Asian diplomat.
Mali was not supposed to be on the agenda, but almost all African member states vociferously raised the issue of the unprecedented political crisis in the landlocked west African country. And so finally it was decided to include it in the deliberations.
The meeting recommended that the territorial integrity of the country be respected by all parties and that those who are flying the flag of rebellion against the central government should be stopped and condemned.
At the preparatory meeting, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu’s message was read out by Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Abdullah Alem.
Besides political issues, the meeting discussed cultural and economic issues, interfaith dialogue initiatives and the rising tide of Islamophobia in Europe and other parts of the world. All these issues will find mention in the final communique.
Pressure Tells on Military Junta in Myanmar
By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012
The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is one of the key issues to be discussed at the Islamic solidarity summit convened by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah in Makkah on Aug. 14-15.
With just two days to go for the conclave of the world’s most important Muslim leaders in the most holy city, pressure is mounting on Myanmar’s military junta to allow international and Islamic relief agencies access to the besieged Muslim population of the Arakan province.
Two important delegations to Myanmar — one led by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the other by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — this week have revealed signs of panic and desperation among the junta’s top leadership.
“They have been caught out and have now realized that what they have done to Rohingya Muslims constitutes a war crime,” one of the diplomats at the Jeddah-based OIC told Arab News.
“There is no doubt that the state was and possibly still is involved in the planned pogrom of Arakan Muslims, and they are now trying to reach out to the Muslim world to lessen the impact of the expected robust and unified Muslim response at the Makkah summit,” he said.
Besides Davutoglu, the Turkish delegation included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife Emine and daughter Sumeyye. The delegation called on Myanmar President U Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and visited the Banduba refugee camp where more than 8,500 Rohingya Muslims have taken shelter.
The delegates received a first-hand account of what exactly happened to the Rohingya Muslims in the last few weeks. They talked to a number of victims and, at one point, according to reports in the Turkish media, the prime minister’s wife was reduced to tears while listening to a harrowing account of a Rohingya Muslim woman.
Davutoglu later told journalists that he would present his findings to the Muslim leaders at the Makkah summit. His findings will hold the key to the future course of action from the Muslim world at the summit.
According to a top Jeddah-based diplomat, there are a number of measures that the Muslim world can think of against Myanmar.
“We can haul the country’s top military leadership, including President Thein Sein and the Arakan provincial head, to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and try them like Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leadership,” he said. “Among the other viable options are that of approaching the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council.”
The diplomat also hinted at pressurizing and persuading the world’s leading powers to constitute an international peace-keeping force to save the Rohingya Muslims from being obliterated and uprooted from their historic homeland.
The OIC delegation to Myanmar was headed by former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Among others, it included OIC Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Atta Manan Bakhiet and presidents of the Qatari Red Crescent and Kuwaiti International Humanitarian Commission.
The OIC delegates apprised President Thein Sein of the outrage in the Muslim world at the deplorable humanitarian conditions in the Arakan province of Myanmar.
The delegation asked for access to Muslim humanitarian organizations to provide emergency aid to inhabitants of the worst-hit Arakan province “without any religious discrimination.”
According to a press-note issued by the OIC yesterday, Myanmar president welcomed the OIC delegation and stated that that what had happened was not a direct result of religious differences. Instead, he blamed the massacre on what he called as “social problems between various ethnicities in the province.”
Thein Sein pointed out to the OIC delegates that the international media distorted the events and presented wrong information and exaggerated the killings.
“President Thein Sein stressed his eagerness for the Muslim world in particular to know the truth about what occurred in Arakan, and he mentioned that he had sent an invitation to OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu recently to visit Myanmar to observe the real situation in the affected province,” said the OIC press note.
The president welcomed the OIC humanitarian delegation to Arakan and agreed to allow the OIC and its partner organizations to provide humanitarian aid to the province in an urgent manner and to open an office in the region in coordination with the central government in Yangon and the local authorities in the province. He instructed the relevant ministries to sign an agreement with the OIC to complete the arrangements.
"Children of Abraham at War"
By SIRAJ WAHAB | RIYADH
Published in The Sunday Guardian and Arab News on Dec. 12, 2010
The new book Children of Abraham at War by Indian ambassador Talmiz Ahmad was hailed as an unbiased counterpoint to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, at its launch in the Saudi capital this week. Ahmad worked on the book for more than five years. “Its origins lay in the concern that, after 9/11, Western, particularly US, discourse was increasingly demonising Islam — the religion, and Muslims — the people,” he said during his presentation.
“Bernard Lewis’ two books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, were readily seized upon by the American public and had considerable impact in solidifying the prejudices and animosities of Western readers with regard to Islam and Muslims,” Ahmad said. “Such a broad-brush approach denied all political context or legitimacy to Muslim grievances and did not attempt to take into account the complexity of Islamic history and contemporary politics and culture.”
Veteran Indian regional expert Ranjit Gupta praised the book for its perspective. “The title of this book reminds one of another book, much celebrated when it first hit the stands, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. To me it appears that the author of that book had already decided his conclusions before commencing writing and then worked backwards to offer rationalisations,” Gupta told an audience of Indian, Saudi and foreign nationals gathered at the Indian embassy in Riyadh. “It reeked of arrogance, the tendency to see all right on one’s own side and all wrong on the other, the self-assured, conviction that “my civilisation is superior to yours, yours is narrow minded, bigoted and doomed to be defeated in the looming and inevitable clash of civilizations’.”
Gupta said Ahmad’s work presented a more accurate view of events absent of Western tendencies to vilify Islam and the Arab people. “Due to the Western domination of the world during the past two centuries, Western parameters and narratives of discourse have set the standard of what is right and what is wrong. Since the West essentially controls the media and the flow and interpretation of information it becomes extremely difficult for a more balanced viewpoint to get traction,” Gupta said. “In Ahmad’s scholarly and impeccably researched effort, which for additional credibility is based overwhelmingly on Western sources, we see the beginnings of the breaching of these bastions.”
He likened Ahmad to a walking encyclopaedia on the Middle East and its many issues. “This is manifested in his learned articles, in books and journals, his speeches and presentations at umpteen professional forums,” Gupta said. “He is among India’s top two or three experts on the Gulf region.”
Amid the commendations for the five years of research for the 476-page book was one lament about the duration of the project “I hope it won’t take him five years for another book,” Ahmad’s wife, Sunita Ahmad, said to a smiling audience. “This book kept him away from me for quite awhile.”
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on April 2, 2011
JEDDAH: A range of poets from Pakistan, including some of the most famous names in the Urdu world, regaled hundreds of expatriates at a mushaira (poetry recitation evening) organized by the Aalami Urdu Markaz at the Pakistan International School in Jeddah's Aziziya district on Thursday, March 31, 2011.
Such was the interest and enthusiasm among the listeners that they remained glued to their seats in the packed school auditorium throughout the five-hour event, cheering the poets and egging them on to recite more through a chorus of wah-wahs (appreciations).
This was the fourth annual mushaira conducted by a dedicated team of Pakistani expatriates in Jeddah led by Ather Nafees Abbasi and supported fully by the Pakistani Consulate.
In attendance were more than a dozen poets. It was nothing short of a treat listening to all of them but the elderly Sarshar Siddiqui, the erudite Sahar Ansari, the genius Iftekhar Arif, the romantic Peerzada Qasim, the refreshing Saleem Kausar and the soul-stirring Dr. Khurshid Rizvi were the pick of the day. Each one of them lent their magic to making the evening one of the most memorable ones. The fact that these six poets were sharing the same stage was eminently gratifying.
They weaved their delicate thoughts in words with such precision that the listeners were left astounded at the poets’ craft. Since poets have their fingers on the pulse of society and since they are the first ones to hear the beat of bruised humanity, every listener was eagerly waiting for them to translate the trials and tribulations and the fears and frustrations through their couplets. The poets did not disappoint them.
Iftekhar Arif struck the right chord among the audience. In what can be surmised as an oblique reference to the series of drone attacks along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, he told of the helplessness of his countrymen through his lines: "Muqqadar Ho Gaya Hai Be-Dar-o-Deewar Rehna/Kaheen Tai Paa Chuka Hai Shehr Ka Mismar Rehna; Tamasha Karne Waale Aa Rahen Hain Jokh Dar Jokh/Gir-o-He Pa Ba-Jawlan Raqs Par Tayaar Rehna."
Master wordsmith that he is, Iftekhar Arif then went on about the emptiness and rootlessness that one experiences in one's own city: "Teri Shorida Mizaaji Ke Sabab Tere Nahi/Aye Mere Shehr Tere Log Bhi Ab Tere Nahi; Maine Ek Aur Bhi Mehfil Me Unhe Dekha Hai/Ye Jo Tere Nazar Aate Hain Ye Sab Tere Nahi."
Sahar Ansari is considered to be an authority in different genres of Urdu literature. Be it poetry or literary criticism, he enjoys a unique status. A highly decorated poet, he was chairman of Karachi University's Urdu Department for many decades. His couplets demonstrated why he is revered, respected and adored with such intensity by Urdu lovers. The pick being: "Sada Apni Rawish Ahl-e-Zamana Yaad Rakhte Hain/Haqeeqat Bhool Jaate Hain Fasana Yaad Rakhte Hain; Hame Andaza Rehta Hai Hamesha Dost Dushman Ka/Nishaani Yaad Rakhte Hain Nishana Yaad Rakhte Hain."
Even at 85, Sarshar Siddiqui was at his delightful best, rendering his meaningful poems in a refreshing idiom. “Doston Se Ye Mili Daad Wafadaari Ki/Tohmaten Sar Pe Liye Phirte Hain Ghaddari Ki; Sirf Ek Shaksh Tha Jisne Mera Dil Toda Tha/Maine Kyun Saare Zamaane Ki Dil Azaari Ki; Kuchh Munafiq Bhi Mere Halqa-e-Ahbaab Me The/So Maine Bhi Unse Mohabbat Ki Adakari Ki.”
Dr. Khurshid Rizvi's couplets reflected his deep insight into the human psyche and the complexities of a multilayered life. His phraseology, his idiom, his medium and his diction were all very impressive and had an air of authority. His flawless creativity was unparalleled. "Ham Ahl-e-Junu Hain Hamen Faaregh Na Samajhna/Kar Jayenge Wo Jiska Iraada Nahi Hoga; Ab Umr Ka Anjaam Hai Ab Kaaheka Dar Hai/Jo Kuch Ke Huwa Usse Ziyada Nahi Hoga."
It was very difficult to decide to whom the evening actually belonged. However, many would agree that it was Karachi University Vice Chancellor Peerzada Qasim who was the crowning glory. He kept the listeners spellbound. His mellifluous rendering of highly lyrical couplets added to the beauty of his craft. Every single couplet that he recited was worth quoting. No wonder everyone was swooning and crooning after him. And why not? "Ab Harf-e-Tammana Ko Samaa'at Na Milegi/Bechonge Agar Khwab To Qeemat Na Milegi; Lamhon Ke Taa'aqub Me Guzar Jaayengi Sadiyan/Haan Waqt To Mil Jayega Mohlat Na Milegi; Aye Aayina Sifat Waqt Tera Husn Hai Hum Log/Kal Aayine Tarsenge To Surat Na Milegi."
Peerzada Qasim also referred to the pain and pathos of his countrymen in the current state of affairs. "Duwa Yehi Hai Ke Ab Dil Shikasta Logon Ko/Dawa-e-Dil Na Sahi Dard Aashna Koyee De; Ye Log Jaagti Ankhon Se Khwab Dekhte Hain/Ab Aise Khwabon Ki Taabeer Bhi Bata Koyee De; Koyee To Doobti Kashti Ko Laaye Sahil Par/Ye Mojeza Hi Sahi Mojeza Dikha Koyee De."
Saleem Kausar, whose fame knows no limits, was an instantaneous hit as well. He recited a number of well-crafted couplets, but the ones that the audience wanted to hear were the verses that made him a household name in the Urdu world more than two decades ago. "Main Khayaal Hun Kisi Aur Ka Mujhe Sochata Koyee Aur Hai/Sar-e-Aayina Mera Aks Hai Pas-e-Aayina Koyee Aur Hai; Kabhi Laut Aaye To Poochna Nahin Dekhna Unhe Ghaur Se/Jinhen Raaste Me Khabar Huwi Ki Ye Raasta Koyee Aur Hai."
Other poets who recited at the mushaira included Professor Inayat Ali Khan, Ajmal Siraj, Salman Gailani, Sajjad Babar, Aziz Jabran Ansari and Qamar Warsi. There were local poets, and Naeem Bazidpuri was extremely popular. So was Aalami Urdu Markaz President Ather Abbasi. Other local poets included Mohsin Alwi, Zammarud Khan Saifi and Farooq Moonis.
No poetry recitation evening can succeed without a stellar anchor. In Amir Khurshid, the organizers found the perfect choice. He anchored the evening with poise and aplomb. He introduced the poets through a selection of delectable couplets that simply whetted the literary appetite of the listeners.
Earlier, Pakistani Consul General Abdul Salik Khan congratulated Aalami Urdu Markaz President Athar Abbasi, Yasin Haider Rizvi, Syed Mahtab Ahmad, Hamid Islam Khan and other team members for organizing a successful mushaira. "The markaz has done a great job in promoting Urdu and they are carrying out a national duty. We will support them in every way," he said.
AMU Injected Into Its Students a Sense of Belonging & Brotherhood, Which Has Remained With Us for a Lifetime, Says Islam Habib Khan
Islam Habib Khan is a 1951 commerce graduate of AMU. A senior financial adviser at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources in Riyadh, he has been in Saudi Arabia since 1973 and worked for Petromin before joining the ministry. He was the chief guest at the 2009 Sir Syed Day celebrations at Dhahran International Hotel in Alkhobar.
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009
Prominent alumni of India’s historic Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) have called for concerted efforts to promote the mission and ideals of the university’s founder, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.
They were speaking at Sir Syed Day celebrations over the weekend organized by the Eastern Province AMU community at Dhahran International Hotel. The event brought together hundreds of AMU alumni in various Saudi government institutions and private sector firms in Dammam, Alkhobar, Jubail, Ras Tanura and Khafji.
Islam Habib Khan, a 1951 commerce graduate of AMU, delivered the keynote speech. A British national, Khan is a senior financial adviser at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources in Riyadh. Khan has been in the Kingdom since 1973 and worked for Petromin before joining the ministry.
Khan said Sir Syed was a visionary who set about to halt the degeneration of a nation by initiating a series of constructive steps that led to the beginnings of the university.
Khan, who attended the university from 1942-1951, said the institution was not just a place for classroom education. “It injected into its students a sense of belonging and brotherhood, which has remained with us for a lifetime. This is what created the spirit of Aligarh which still exists today,” he said.
Khan said there was an even more-senior AMU alumna in the Eastern Province. “She is my elder sister, Salma Zuberi, who graduated from Girls College in 1948 and lives here in the Eastern Province with her son,” he said.
Dr. Jamil A. Qureshy, director of libraries at Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, noted the efforts of the AMU community in organizing the event but said more steps should be taken to carry forward the cause of Sir Syed.
“Just one program a year is not enough to promote the message of Sir Syed. His was a mission that needs to be reinforced,” he said and called on the initiators of the program to form an AMU alumni chapter in the Eastern Province.
M. Rahat Sultan, a very senior and respected Indian executive and one of the key organizers, said the overwhelming response from the local AMU community was delightful. “We never expected so many people to turn up. A lot of us owe our jobs in Saudi Arabia to our education at AMU. This was one small way of acknowledging our gratitude to the university.”
Another guest was Iftikhar Alam who worked for 22 years in the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department. He is now a technical director at the Eastern Province-based Al-Khodari and Sons Group. “The university played a significant role in the life of the nation and also in the lives of a huge number of students who studied there,” he said.
Mukarram Ali Khan, a veteran at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, recalled the events that led to the creation of the university. Interspersing his speech with interesting Urdu couplets, he drove home the point that Sir Syed’s idea was to inculcate a spirit of knowledge and scientific inquiry.
Senior alumnus Parvez Askari said the program was the first step to bring the AMU community together, and that an Eastern Province alumni directory is planned.
Arab News Exclusive Interview With Mani Shankar Aiyar: ‘India and Pakistan Can Live Together as Good Neighbors’
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on March 2, 2012
Mani Shankar Aiyar, 71, is India’s former minister of petroleum. A powerful and learned diplomat, he went into politics during the tenure of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Always a Gandhi family loyalist, he drafted some of Rajiv Gandhi’s famous speeches. He is currently the member of India’s upper house of Parliament.
A staunch secularist, Aiyar has always fought for the rights of minorities, especially Muslims, and is a big supporter of peace between India and Pakistan. He was six when India and Pakistan became two independent sovereign nations. His father had a thriving practice as a chartered accountant in Pakistan at the time of partition and Aiyar was born in Lahore.
Aiyar’s television program, Politically Incorrect on NDTV, has a huge following in India and abroad. He was in Saudi Arabia last week at the invitation of the alumni of India’s historic Aligarh Muslim University. In this interview with Arab News, he answers questions on Rahul Gandhi, Congress Party’s electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh and his views on partition and Indo-Pak ties.
Following is the interview:
Q: How is India balancing its relationships with Riyadh and Tehran? Managing all those contradictions must be difficult.
A: We do not see Riyadh and Tehran as mutually exclusive. If there are differences between Riyadh and Tehran, they are to be resolved by Riyadh and Tehran. If anybody wants our assistance in this regard — and I don’t think anybody does — we are prepared to offer ourselves. Saudi Arabia is the single biggest Arab country and the single richest Arab country and Iran is the inheritor of a major civilization. They are entirely capable of resolving their issues between themselves. I don’t think anybody in Riyadh is demanding that we break off our relations with Tehran, and I don’t think anybody in Tehran is asking us to break our relations with Riyadh. The problem is neither Riyadh nor Tehran. The problem is Washington. I think Washington is right in worrying about Iranian nuclear weapons but why aren’t the Americans also worrying about Israeli nuclear weapons? Israeli nuclear weapons exist. The Iranian nuclear weapon, if anybody is making it, lies in the future.
Q: So India’s role should be to defuse tensions rather than promote them?
A: We should be promoting a cooperative atmosphere in West Asia (the Middle East) rather than becoming a party to internal disputes within the continent. We must be consistent in championing the Palestinian cause because, after all, it is the Palestinian cause that is at the heart of all problems in West Asia. If there were peace in Palestine there would be peace in West Asia as a whole. But you cannot have peace in Palestine without justice in Palestine. And I don’t see that the Americans are able to persuade the Israelis to give justice to the Palestinian people.
Q: You have seen Rajiv Gandhi’s family from a close quarter. What is your assessment of Rahul Gandhi?
A: Rahul Gandhi has decided to become a probationer in Indian politics. He comes from such a distinguished political lineage that he could have easily done what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has done — “Since my father was the boss, so I am the boss.” Rahul Gandhi has definitely said no. He said, “First I want to go into the most difficult state for the Congress Party which is Uttar Pradesh.” In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was the dominant party till 1989. For the last 20 years, we haven’t had any presence there. In the elections of 2002, the Congress Party got four seats. We succeeded in getting more in 2007 after Rahul Gandhi went in. Now we are an accepted and acknowledged political presence in Uttar Pradesh largely because of Rahul Gandhi. We know that the Congress Party’s votes are going to increase considerably, but we don’t know by how many seats. What I think is commendable is that Rahul Gandhi has said that he is not obsessed with becoming prime minister; that he is in Uttar Pradesh for the long run; that the Congress is not going to align with any political party after the elections; and that the Congress will either pull itself up by its own bootstraps or fail, but we are not going to rise by catching somebody else’s coattails. Rahul Gandhi wants to rebuild the Congress in Uttar Pradesh because he knows that without capturing Uttar Pradesh the Congress will not be able to capture Delhi on its own. All this indicates a humble but mature young man.
Q: What are Congress’ chances in the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh? The results are going to be out next week.
A: I am not an astrologer and I do not make predictions. It seems to me that the vote of the Congress Party is definitely going up, that the vote of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is definitely going down, and that the Samajwadi Party remains an important political force in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), because of its agitation over the Babri Mosque, has completely destroyed itself in Uttar Pradesh for which I thank Allah. It is a nonentity. So the one result I will predict is that the BJP will come fourth. I think all these spoilers such as the Peace Party and others will only remain spoilers. They are not going to become major political elements.
Q: You are a great supporter of peace between India and Pakistan and have served as India’s high commissioner in Pakistan. What is happening vis-à-vis the peace process?
A: We are at a very encouraging milestone. I think we should seize this opportunity. Having known Pakistan very well, I think the velocity of change in the mindset in Pakistan vis-à-vis India is faster than the velocity of change in the mindset in India vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Q: And why is this?
A: Pakistan has reached a stage where it does not need to define itself negatively in terms of India. Fortunately, that generation is gone. I think 95 percent of the population of Pakistan never knew what it is to be an Indian. Similarly in India, 95 percent of our people have not known an India of which Pakistan was an integral part. We have reached a stage where we can easily look at each other as neighbors and not as dissidents and not as separatists. Pakistan is a separate sovereign entity as is India. The pull of West Asia on the Pakistani mind is very strong. In West Asia, or what they say here is the Middle East, uniformity is the basis of unity. In South Asia diversity is the basis of unity. Therefore, the attempt to put Pakistan in the West Asian framework has resulted in confusion over the nature of their nationhood. You have to respect diversity, not only of language and culture but much more importantly of religion. In South Asia, Islam has always coexisted with other religions. We in South Asia live with the most amazing linguistic diversity. Here in West Asia, from Muscat to Mauritania, they all speak one language. There may be variations in pronunciation or accents but otherwise it is one language. So Pakistan, essentially being a South Asian country, has to define its nationhood in a manner that places Pakistani nationhood in the South Asian context of unity in diversity.
Q: And what about the concept of nationhood on the Indian side?
A: On the Indian side, our nationhood will never be complete until and unless we have complete secularism. Secularism is the bonding adhesive of our nationhood. Pakistan can more easily affirm its diversity if it has a good relationship with India. And India will not be able to consolidate its nationhood until we resolve our relationship with Pakistan so that no Indian is left looking with suspicion and the Muslims of India don’t feel under siege that they have to prove to their non-Muslim brethren that they are not Pakistanis. India will never acquire the status that it deserves in the international world so long as the Pakistan albatross is around our neck. By quarreling with Pakistan we diminish ourselves. As for Pakistan, it has spent 65 years being the frontline state in somebody else’s interest. It is time Pakistan became a frontline state in its own interest. There is recognition in Pakistan that a good relationship with India is in its interest. The only way we can successfully move forward is to initiate an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue.
Q: Sometimes you sound like an idealist?
A: I don’t think you can ever, ever get anywhere by only being pragmatic. It is having a larger vision that enables you to get somewhere. If you don’t reach for the stars will you ever get onto your roof?
Q: Were you a witness to the horrors of Partition?
A: What happened in those two weeks in August 1947 destroyed the 1,000 years that Hindus and Muslims have lived together. Rivers of blood flowed and our hands are still stained with that blood. Unless and until we wash away the stain and unless and until we don’t see tomorrow in a new light and in a new way without the baggage of the past, we will continue to remain trapped in those weeks of bloodletting in August 1947. When the country was partitioned, my mother and the four of us children stayed in Simla. So, on Aug. 14, 1947, we found ourselves Indians and because my father was in Lahore, he found himself a Pakistani. Let me narrate one incident from my childhood. I remember I was a six-year-old and the house in which we lived in Simla was known as Three Bridges. There were very few buildings in the area which had three floors. In Three Bridges there were three floors. On the ground floor, there was a Muslim family. All members of the family had come to this place for safety. There were little ones. I remember one night, about 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., there was a knock at the door and a large group of Sikhs with bloodshot eyes was waiting outside. They asked my mother: “Where are the Muslims?” My mother said, “They have all gone to Pakistan.” At that moment I wanted to say, “No, no, they are on the ground floor.” I was about to say that when I saw something in the eyes of my mother that told me to keep my mouth shut. I did and the group left.
Q: And what was your father’s experience on the other side?
A: As I told you, my father was in Lahore at the time of Partition. His chartered accountancy and income tax advisory practice spread from Lahore to Rawalpindi and Peshawar and down to Karachi. I was born in Lahore on April 10, 1941. When my father was asked where he would go, he said, “My entire practice is here so I will become Pakistani. What do I have to do with India?” My father’s grocer of Beadan Street suggested that he place a big lock on his door, and if somebody were to ask about him, then the grocer would say that Shankar Sahab had gone back to India. “When this madness is over in a couple of weeks, things will be all right,” he said. Three days later the same man pulled a knife and attacked my father but my father survived. To this day, I wonder whether he pulled the knife to actually kill my father or to convey a message to those who were baying for his blood. I don’t know. We were consumed by madness. That era is over. We can now all live together as good neighbors.