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Pakistani Parliament Questions Saudi Largesse

Pakistan's top military commander General Rashad Mahmood met Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz in February.
Pakistan's top military commander General Rashad Mahmood met Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz in February.
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani lawmakers are examining a $1.5 billion grant by Saudi Arabia, which has strengthened the country's currency and reinforced security ties between the two nations.

Opposition lawmakers are asking whether the aid is payback for Islamabad's reported support of Syria's Sunni rebels, who are bankrolled by Riyadh to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Several members of the Pakistani senate are now pushing new legislation that will make it mandatory for the government to seek parliamentary approval for all agreements with other countries.

Growing criticism of the government's handling of the Saudi aid this week prompted Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's foreign policy advisor, to hold a closed-door briefing for the senate's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. He told lawmakers that the $1.5 billion hard cash was a 'gift' from Riyadh, and denied reports that it was tied to Islamabad’s support for Syrian rebels.

But the lawmakers were not convinced. Haji Adeel, head of the committee, said they want the government to come clean on the controversy and assure them of Islamabad's neutrality in conflicts between Muslim countries in the Middle East. "We asked the advisor whether any conditions were attached to such a generous grant."

Adeel said that the proposed legislation is aimed at ensuring transparency in Pakistan's foreign policy dealings. "We are still not satisfied with the government's assurances."

During the past couple months Pakistani media reports suggested that the recent visits of several senior Saudi officials were meant to gain Islamabad's support for the kingdom’s Syria policy. While Islamabad denied reports that it agreed to sell Riyadh advance weapons for Syrian rebels, it has not denied allegations that it will provide training to Syrian insurgents in Jordan.

Saeeda Iqbal, a lawmaker from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, was unimpressed by government assertions. "Pakistan has been suffering for a long time. Why the Saudis did not send cash to the previous government if they are sincere in helping Pakistan?" she asked.

"In today's world no country offers such a huge sum without attaching any strings," Iqbal said. "There must be some kind of secret understanding. Obviously, it is Pakistan’s policy towards Syria,” she argued.

Ghulam Ali, a senator with the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Party, says that the government's reluctance to disclose information about its dealings with Saudi Arabia has generated speculation. "The aid has been wrapped in confusion. First, the government was reluctant to publically name the donor nation [and vaguely said it was the gift of a friendly Muslim nation]," he said. "[After a great deal of criticism] it told us that the cash was given by Saudi Arabia as an assistance grant without any conditions."

But he too wondered how a country could provide so much money without any guarantees or asking for something in return. He warned that Islamabad's involvement in the Syrian war will prove disastrous. "We will debate this issue in the parliament and reject the aid if we establish that the money was aimed at using us against another Muslim country."

The Saudi money, reportedly paid earlier this month, bolstered Pakistan's falling foreign currency reserves by 18 percent. It helped the Pakistani Rupee appreciate nearly five percent in just three weeks.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lived in Saudi Arabia for years after he was ousted by a military coup in 1999. He reportedly has close family ties with the Saudi royal family, and his family members run businesses in the oil-rich kingdom.

Written by Daud Khattak. Ahmadullah reported this story from Islamabad, Pakistan.