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PERSIAN GULF: Bhutto's death shakes the region

December 30, 2007 | 10:19 am

BhuttoBenazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Thursday reverberated powerfully in the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms, where many Pakistani and other South Asian expatriates live and work.

Impoverished workers from that region constitute the main labor force driving the Gulf’s booming construction works. The Gulf, emerging as the Middle East's services and financial hub, also attracts skilled and educated engineers, managers and scholars from the South Asian subcontinent.

The Gulf News, a United Arab Emirates English-language daily, said the killing stunned local expatriates. "Pakistanis in the UAE have reacted with shock and grief to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and described her demise as a national tragedy," the paper reported.

The article said that most Pakistani expatriates held Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf responsible for the killing and demanded his resignation. 

The Khaleej Times, another UAE newspaper, described in moving detail the funeral prayer gatherings held for Bhutto in Dubai, where the Islamic world's first female prime minister had lived in self-imposed exile from 1998 until this year:

Emotional scenes were seen yesterday at a large gathering of the Pakistani community which was mourning the untimely death of former prime minister and Pakistan People's Party chairperson Benazir Bhutto.... They cried, hugged each other and remembered the eight years that they had spent close to their leader while she was living in Dubai. "We have lost everything," they said with tears flowing down their cheeks.

In an official statement illustrating the ties between Pakistan and the Gulf, especially during Bhutto’s stay in Dubai, Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan called Bhutto a "great friend" of his country. "I can't find words to express our condemnation for this criminal and cowardly act," he said.

Bhutto left Dubai in October for Karachi to prepare for the 2008 national elections. Editorials across the Gulf cast doubt over the possibility of holding the vote, scheduled for Jan. 8. The Khaleej Times urged a delay:

It seems that the Jan 8 general election, too, will not go ahead as planned. With Benazir Bhutto buried and Nawaz Sharif no longer contesting, there is simply no way the contest can provide what it was designed to — democracy and return of calm to Pakistan’s troubled polity.

But an editorial in the UAE’s Gulf News accused Islamic radicals of killing Bhutto and encouraged elections despite the tragedy:

She knew she could not afford to stay home as she had been told by the religious extremists who vowed to kill her. "No Muslim would dare to kill a woman," she recently mused in an interview with Gulf News. But they did. And their aim is to sabotage any plan to bring back any form of democracy to Pakistan. Therefore, they should not succeed.... The elections must go on. The government and the political parties, including Bhutto's, owe it to her to stick to the scheduled date of the polls.

Other commentators in Gulf newspapers linked the Muslim extremism sweeping Pakistan and violent fundamentalism in the Arab world. "Whatever the motive, the facts indicate that a suicide had taken place following the attack, a modus operandi used in recent times by those extremists following a twisted form of ideology," said a piece in the Arab News, an English-language Saudi paper:

It is not just in Pakistan, but across the Middle East that this phenomenon has taken root to express opposition to a concept or idea that is not palatable to the extremist ideology. We have in our own country witnessed how terrorists try to impose their own interpretation of religion through violence resulting in the loss of many innocent lives.

— Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: A Supporter of Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister of Pakistan, cries as he writes in a condolence book at the Pakistani Association in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which is home to many Pakistani expatriates. Credit: EPA / Ali Haider