Why Saudi Arabia is a safe haven for ousted leaders

Though it may look like an unlikely destination for ousted leaders, Saudi Arabia has, in fact, hosted many of them. Popular guests include Ugandan dictator Idi Amin

File image of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. AP

After Maldives and Singapore, former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa now seems to be headed for Saudi Arabia.

From Sri Lanka’s exotic beaches which have attracted international tourists to the conservative Gulf kingdom, it will be a major change for him.

Though it may look like an unlikely destination for ousted leaders, Saudi Arabia has, in fact, hosted many of them. Popular guests include former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Ousted leaders hosted by Saudi Arabia

Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was forced to flee after his country’s capital Kampala fell to Tanzanian troops in 1979. He first went to Libya but in 1980 shifted to Saudi Arabia, where he stayed until his death in 2003.

To date, Amin is considered one of the world’s most brutal dictators. Nearly 500,000 people were killed under his regime which was marred by ethnic persecution and extrajudicial killings.

In 1972, he ordered the expulsion of Europeans and Asians mostly Indians from Uganda.

From Nawaz Sharif to Gotabaya Rajapaksa Why Saudi Arabia is a safe haven for ousted leaders

Then-president of Uganda Idi Amin Dada (L) & Saudi King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz in July 1972 in Riyadh during the former’s Omra pilgrimage. (AFP)

Despite the human rights abuses under his rule, Amin found sanctuary in authoritarian Saudi Arabia where lived in comfort though he was rarely seen in public.

After the 1999 military coup, then-Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif fled to Saudi Arabia where he stayed at a residence managed by the government of the Gulf kingdom.

As anti-government protests began spreading across Saudi Arabia’s neighbourhood in 2010s as the Arab Spring, the oil-rich nation hosted one more leader who fell from grace.

In 2011, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and his family found a safe haven in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah.

The country’s favours on rulers of neighbouring countries continued. In 2017, it was reported that former Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi had been living in Saudi Arabia albeit under house arrest.

Why Saudi offers sanctuary

The question is why Saudi Arabia offers sanctuary to these ousted leaders? The answer varies in each case.

One thing common among all the leaders mentioned above except for Rajapaksa, is that they were Sunni Muslims.

The Sunni-dominated Gulf kingdom is believed to favour Muslim rulers belonging to that sect of Islam.

Under Amin’s rule, Uganda’s relations with several nations including India, Israel and the UK hit an all-time low. But he had not done anything in particular to harm Saudi interests.

As for Nawaz Sharif, Riyadh and Islamabad enjoyed close relations during his tenure as the PM. A businessman himself, Sharif made several investments in Saudi Arabia.

Daunted by popular uprisings in its backyard, Saudi probably sympathised with Tunisia’s Ben Ali who was ousted by protesters.

In the case of Yemen’s Hadi, it was about tackling arch-rival Iran. Hadi’s government was toppled by Houthi rebels backed by Shia-dominated Iran.

Saudi Arabia which has been ruled by a single family can also easily accept infamous leaders because of a lack of backlash from the public and Opposition. In Maldives, both the public and the Opposition parties protested against the government’s decision to allow entry to Rajapaksa.

Almost a day later, Rajapaksa fled to Singapore which has also been trying to distance itself from the disgraced Sri Lankan leader saying that he has not been granted asylum.

Why Saudi is allowing entry to Rajapaksa

What’s interesting is why, if at all, Saudi Arabia has become a safe haven for Rajapaksa.

He is a Buddhist. Even if he has money to offer, the oil-rich nation doesn’t seem to be much in need of some.

With Nawaz Sharif, Saudis had hopes that he might return to power in Pakistan and he eventually did. But the kind of disgraceful exit Rajapaksa had, it is highly unlikely that he will ever come back to Sri Lanka.

In the final stages of his attempt to flee, airport authorities refused to approve his documents in the VIP queue. He was instead asked to take the normal route where he was at the risk of facing angry passengers. He eventually fled the country on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane.

Saudi Arabia likely does not see any apparent benefits in hosting Rajapaksa but it does not see any harm either.

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