‘We are desperate for money’: Pakistan's Imran Khan flies into political storm in Saudi Arabia

Exclusive: In his first interview with foreign media since becoming prime minister, the country's new leader talks about the 'shocking' death of Jamal Khashoggi, his country's economic problems and batting off questions about Donald Trump

Kim Sengupta
Monday 22 October 2018 19:21 BST
Imran Khan sworn in as Pakistan's prime minister

Imran Khan is heading for a trip to the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh – the business forum being widely boycotted by international attendees following the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the nation’s consulate in Istanbul.

Pakistan’s prime minister, however, is in no position to follow such gestures of disapproval. His country is in deep economic crisis, and there is an urgent need for Saudi largesse. Failure to get funds from the kingdom and China, Islamabad’s long-term ally, will mean turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Pakistan’s 13th bailout – with inevitably harsh conditions – since the country’s birth 70 years ago.

Speaking to The Independent in his first interview with foreign media since he came to power two months ago, Mr Khan seeks to explain why he is making the visit. “What happened in Turkey is just shocking, what can I say? It’s shocked all of us,” he says. “But that aside, the reason I have to take this opportunity is because we are a country of 210 million people and we have the worst debt crisis in our history.”

“We are desperate for money,” Mr Khan adds. “Unless we get loans from friendly countries of IMF, we actually won’t have foreign exchange to either service our debts or to pay for our imports, so unless we get loans, or investment from abroad, we’ll have real, real problems.”

The meeting with The Independent and two Middle Eastern publications, a few weeks after the former Pakistan cricket captain won his unexpected victory at the polls, is timed to allow him to have fully gauged what needs to be done to fulfil his election pledge of tackling poverty and social inequality while trying to balance the books.

But the death of Khashoggi, and the storm it has created, now hangs over any dealings international leaders have with Riyadh. Is Mr Khan, leader of one of the most populous Muslim nations in the world, a country that is one of the kingdom’s closest military allies, in favour of full disclosure? Will he raise the issue with the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who many have accused of being linked to the killing? Did he believe the Saudi version of what happened, that Khashoggi had “died in a fistfight”, was credible?

“I will probably meet crown prince Mohammad at the conference. The question has been raised at many forums, and I presume the Saudi Arabian government will have to come up with answers for what happened. They have said that he was killed in a fight, in a scuffle, that’s what I have heard,” says Mr Khan.

“My position is that I will go along and I will wait for whatever the final explanation is. We hope there is an explanation which satisfies people, and those responsible are punished. But again I repeat that as a democrat, as a human being, I find the whole thing sad beyond belief.”

Mr Khan’s wife will not be accompanying him to Saudi Arabia, something which could perhaps spare embarrassment. Bushra Bibi, his third and current wife, declared recently that apart from the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, this century has had only two really genuine international leaders – her husband and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Imran Khan sworn in as Pakistan's prime minister

At a time when the Turkish president is engaged in a high stakes diplomatic manoeuvre with the Saudis over the Khashoggi affair, declaring on Sunday that he will reveal the “naked truth” about the killing, Ms Khan’s admiration for Mr Erdogan may not have gone down well in the kingdom. Pakistani government officials have been keen to point out there is no need for Ms Khan to accompany her husband on such a working visit.

The meeting with Imran Khan takes place at his home in Bani Gala, a modern airy house of clean lines in the hills over the sprawling urban landscape of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. It is a home designed to the taste of his first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, a decade and a half ago.

We speak in the prime minister’s private office, a relatively modest sized room with windows looking on to the blue green waters of Rawal lake. There are photos of his two sons on the desk, and cricket paintings alongside landscapes on the cream walls. Mr Khan, casually dressed in a plain dark blue shalwar kameez and black sandals as befits his image of a man of simple tastes, fingers prayer beads as he speaks.

It is difficult to avoid cricketing terms with a prime minister who is fond of using them fairly frequently. Asked, for instance, about gaining power after 22 years in Pakistan politics, he responds: “I played international sport for 21 years ... One of the most important things for a sportsman is self-belief, when you step on the field you always think you’re going to win.” On governance: “You have to keep your eyes on the ball at all times, focus and keep a straight bat.” On his view of Donald Trump: “If I wasn’t the prime minister I would have given my views. Being the prime minister I have much more responsibility so I’ll just, as in cricket, leave it to go past the off-stump to the keeper: ‘well left’ you may say.”

Relations between the US and Islamabad are at a particularly low ebb at present. Successive American presidents have threatened to cut aid to the Pakistani military unless action be taken against the Taliban and other violent Islamist groups like the Haqqani network, who the West and the Afghan government claimed were fed and watered in Pakistan while carrying out murderous attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly denied this.

Donald Trump’s first tweet this year stated that the US “has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33bn (£25bn) in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools”. Last month the US administration announced that it was cutting $300m in aid to Pakistan’s military.

Imran Khan with the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, at Al-Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah in September (Getty)

But it is the US that has harmed Pakistan gravely, holds Mr Khan, by insisting Islamabad tackles terrorist sanctuaries in tribal areas. The resultant backlash has led to a bitter insurgency killing thousands.

“What should never happen again is that Pakistan, on anyone’s insistence, including the Americans, ever sends troops against its own people. What should happen instead is [looking at] the only way out of this quagmire in which the Americans are stuck in Afghanistan,” Mr Khan says.

“There has to be a political settlement is what I am saying. For advocating political settlement 10 years ago they called me ‘Taliban Khan’. They said I was pro-militant, pro-Taliban – this was what I was dubbed in newspapers here and abroad as well,” he adds. “Finally there is a realisation now everywhere, [by the] the Americans and the Afghan government, that there must be a political settlement. Finally the Americans are also on the same wavelength, previously this was not the case. Finally talks have started with the Taliban.”

Talks have indeed started in Qatar. But in reality talks have been going on with the Taliban on and off in Qatar and elsewhere for more than a decade without success. And Imran Khan did not get the monikers ‘Taliban Khan’, the ‘beardless Islamist’ and other similar sobriquets just for advocating a political settlement in Afghanistan. It was also because he had taken a hardline stance on a number of religious, social and political issues, including supporting the country’s draconian blasphemy laws which carry the death penalty.

It may well be the case that Imran Khan, once the habitué of London nightclubs and filler of gossip columns with his various girlfriends, has indeed become a devout and conservative man of religion. His new wife Bibi is a spiritual guide (pir) who wears a niqab in public. He only saw his future bride’s full face, Mr Khan has said, on their wedding day.

The prime minister’s opponents claim, however, this has been largely a political act to gain the support of Islamic political parties and also to get the support of the military, a force which has made and broken civilian governments since independence.

The accusation that the prime minister is the military’s man is made by supporters as well as adversaries. Parvez ‘PJ’ Mir, a broadcaster, former professional cricketer and a backer of the new government, has said: “This is an army state. This country is not ready for democracy, we have our own habits. The man in the street does not understand democracy, he just wants strong government.”

Supporters of Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician celebrate his election in July

Mr Khan insists the country’s military regimes have in the past been more benign than some civilian governments, and the army now promotes and safeguards civilian rule.

“I can tell you that under General Zia’s military rule there was less political victimisation than in the last 10 years of Nawaz Sharif and [Asif Ali] Zardari,” he says. “The intentions of the Pakistani military are being misrepresented – in fact it currently promotes and safeguards civilian rule.

“The military’s role in politics depends on one man, the army chief,” Mr Khan says. “The establishment of General Bajwa is probably the most pro-democratic establishment in our history. I mean the way they have conducted the elections. The army was inside the polling stations and outside, they protected the election on the day.

“A lot of people were killed during the elections and I was under severe threats. It was the security forces which provided the security for me to stand up and conduct rallies, that is why this is the most pro-democratic institution under General Bajwa”.

Ultimately it is the state of the economy rather than the army which is likely to decide the fate of Imran Khan’s government. There is growing discontent over the rising cost of electricity and other commodities while unemployment continues to rise.

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With the growing crisis the Khan government has turned to China, as well as Saudi Arabia, for help. Pakistan is very much a part of Beijing’s “belt and road” programme of infrastructure development. The Chinese are building a port in Gwadar in southwestern Balochistan. There are other infrastructure projects and loans, and invitations for other countries to join in.

The US, Japan, Australia and India are among the countries that have rejected Beijing’s plan, seeing it as seeking to spread economic hegemony alongside military expansion, the “string of pearls”, in the Indian ocean.

Within Pakistan there are fears among some of debt dependency to Beijing being suffered by many others involved in the “belt and road” policy. Sri Lanka, for example, has had to cede a port to China for a naval base after ending up owing huge sums. Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh have all recently turned away Chinese financing of infrastructure projects.

There have been reports that Mr Khan was opposed to some elements of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor deal. But Mr Khan says he saw it as a “silver lining” for the country.

“It has given Pakistan an opportunity to really take off because of the connectivity and the investment that came in, the only investment and very cheap loans that came into Pakistan when noone else was giving us money,” Mr Khan says.

One of the key conditions of any IMF bailout of Pakistan, as stressed by the organisation’s managing director Christine Lagarde as well as the US, is that the money provided should not be used to pay off some of the large debt owed to Beijing.

As he juggles various rescue options, Mr Khan says he understands “the great expectations from people”.

“They are going through a bad time whatever we do, we will have to raise the price of electricity, gas. The gas sector is bankrupt, the power sector is bankrupt,” he says.

“So people are going through a tough period. But once people realise that reforms are taking place, once people see changes coming, then they will realise they will struggle for a while, they’ll put up with bad times.”

It remains unclear just how much time he will be allowed. Two by-elections have been lost since his government came to office two months ago. While international focus remains on Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Mr Khashoggi’s killing, Mr Khan’s visit to the kingdom – taking place in the shadow of that raging controversy – is a matter of huge significance for the future of Pakistan.

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