ISLAMABAD: Khalid Mahmood was in Jeddah on the afternoon of May 28, 1998, waiting to receive a delegation, when news broke that Pakistan had conducted five underground nuclear tests under then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Mahmood, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, sat in his hotel room watching TV reports of the tests and awaiting instructions on his next move from the Foreign Ministry.
By that evening, he told Arab News, he decided to break protocol and make contact with the Royal Court, requesting an urgent meeting with then-King Fahd the following day, a non-working Friday.
To Mahmood’s surprise, the king agreed. By then, the ambassador had also received instructions from Islamabad: A diplomatically isolated Pakistan was to seek the support of the king and crown prince.
Mahmood denied the widely held opinion that Pakistani officials had already informed Riyadh of their intent to test. “It’s not true that I conveyed to them (the Saudis) that we were going to have this nuclear test,” he said.
Mahmood described how, with “great fanfare and (motorcycle) escorts,” he was taken to the palace, where the king apologized for not being able to get up to greet him on account of a bad knee. “It was so very gracious of him,” Mahmood said. “Nobody expects the king to get up and receive (diplomats).”
After listening to Islamabad’s reasons for the surprise nuclear tests, Mahmood said the king was brief in his response.
“He said we are against what you have done because we are a member of the non-proliferation treaty. But we know and understand why you have done it. And we will support you more than you expect of us.”
After Pakistan tested the weapons, the US imposed harsh sanctions, including cutting off trade credits, private bank loans and support for loans not based on relief from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Arms sales and military aid to Pakistan were already cut off under separate legislation in 1990, when it was determined that Pakistan had nuclear weapons.
At this difficult moment in Pakistan’s history, Mahmood said, the king’s “depth of brotherly feeling” was touching.
The following day, then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz held a longer meeting, officially reiterating the Kingdom’s support for Pakistan, with assurances in the form of a four-year deferred oil financing facility worth roughly $3.4 billion. This gave Pakistan the confidence to go ahead and conduct another nuclear test on May 30, Mahmood said.
A few weeks later, the envoy was called in again for a meeting with the crown prince, who had been receiving persistent calls from US President Bill Clinton asking Riyadh to reconsider its position on Pakistan.
But the crown prince refused to comply. “Our relations with Pakistan are of a different nature,” Mahmood quoted the crown prince as having told the Americans.