On tour with Imran Khan, Pakistan's wildcard candidate

With Khan laid low by an accident at a rally, Samira Shackle reports on his campaign so far.

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

As Khan zooms around the country, his staff are trying, as best they can, to keep up by road, which is no mean feat given the huge distances in Pakistan. On the four hour drive from Islamabad to Faisalabad, his team tells me how security has got tighter and tighter over the course of the campaign. For this particular rally, we’ve had to submit our names and other details to the organisers to facilitate backstage access.

But that information isn’t doing us any good with the police, who seem to be enjoying the power trip. We can see the stage gate, which is about 30 metres from the barbed wire. “No-one goes through without a security pass,” says the policeman, smugly. We try to explain that our passes are at the gate, if someone could just go and check our names, but they are having none of it. The senior PTI workers I’m with are unimpressed, to say the least, but their status is doing nothing to budge the police.

Suddenly, there is a kerfuffle. A man has broken through the side of the barricade and is making a run for it to the gate. People are shouting after him but he’s just a retreating back, like the Roadrunner, cutting a shape through the line of armed security guards. “Who is that?” I ask. The reply comes: the local candidate, who has effectively had to break into his own rally.

The security last Sunday may have been over-zealous, but it is with good reason. According to the Interior Ministry, Khan is high up in the “top five” targets for terrorists, with only Nawaz Sharif, current electoral frontrunner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), facing a greater risk.

While members of the media tend to be on the stage with Khan rather than in the crowd, it’s probably one of the least safe places to be. He is one of the only politicians who refuses to address the crowds from behind a bulletproof glass, although in a concession to security, he has taken to wearing body armour under his trademark salwar kameez. Khan’s frenetic road show across the country has made media access very difficult; journalists have no option but to join on the campaign trail where they can and fight through his army of close supporters to grab 10 minutes with him before he helicopters to his next event.

As it has played out, it was not terrorists that struck Khan down but an unfortunate accident. At a rally in Lahore last night, he fell 10 feet as he was being lifted onto the stage. Luckily, Khan is not in a serious condition, though he is reportedly in considerable pain due to injuries to his skull and back. Images and videos of the incident instantly beamed around the globe. There is a sense of pathos that Khan has been stopped in his tracks, so near the conclusion of his momentum-building tour. In almost every area, the crowds and the energy really have been impressive.

The doctors have advised a week of bed rest. Tomorrow’s huge rally in Islamabad, which was supposed to be the climax of a hectic campaign, will go ahead – but Khan will address the crowds by video link.

This being Pakistan, home of the conspiracy theory, many people are speculating that “external forces” contributed to Khan’s “accident”, and that someone caused it deliberately to sabotage his campaign. Clearly, watching the video, this is absurd. After all, Pakistan is hardly known for its stringent health and safety standards.

More importantly, Khan’s accident may have brought an early end to his rousing public appearances, but it is unlikely that at this stage, it will make much difference. Sharif remains the frontrunner, and Khan remains the wildcard candidate: victory would be a surprise, but it is not totally inconceivable. As Khan said from his hospital bed, in a TV statement released just hours after his fall, it is now up to the voters.

Khan speaks from his hospital bed. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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