WALKING DIPLOMACY

Saudi Gazette
http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=20120530125 411
May 30 2012
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdy

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prepared the ground
for Ping Pong diplomacy when he visited Pakistan in 1971, and then
pretended illness so as to undertake a secret trip to China. In
Beijing, he met with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong and they held
negotiations for hours. The talks were positive and subsequently,
China invited the US Table Tennis team that was then visiting Japan
to make a trip to the country and play with the Chinese team. Ping
Pong diplomacy paved the way for the historic visit of US President
Richard Nixon to China. It also resulted in China's entry to the United
Nations and being awarded permanent membership on the Security Council.

In recent years, Turks and Armenians used football diplomacy with
the teams of both countries playing each other. The soccer match was
in the presence of Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his Armenian
counterpart Serzh Sarkisian. During the meeting with Sarkisian, Gul
said he hoped the trip, which had been billed as "football diplomacy",
would pave the way for closer ties between the two neighbors. "All
the eyes of the world are watching this meeting, and this match will
help improve bilateral relations which have been severed for a quarter
of a century," he said.

As for Indians and Pakistanis, they have used cricket diplomacy to
improve their strained relations. Prime ministers of India and Pakistan
met in a stadium to watch a cricket match, and that meeting resulted
in reaching a breakthrough in their strained bilateral relations. They
were able to score through cricket what they could not achieve through
political talks among top officials of both countries.

If diplomacy through games has been able to connect people and
countries, I can say with all humility and humbleness that I have
made my own contributions through the diplomacy of leisurely walking
or strolling with a group of prominent Bangladeshis. Let me explain
how I achieved it.

In 1986, I was transferred to the Saudi embassy in Dhaka. Even
though I used to walk in Riyadh, I could not make it a regular form
of exercise. Perhaps, this was because of the lack of a suitable
environment and the absence of others to walk with. However, in Dhaka I
found a very suitable atmosphere and there were several people who were
similarly interested and there was also a special area for walking.

I became acquainted with a group of notable Bengalis, including
engineers, doctors, businessmen, judges, lawyers and some retired
army officials. We used to meet daily in a garden, which was full of
plants and flowers, with specially designed paths for walking around
a natural pool of water.

There were stairs in the garden on which we used to sit after walking.

We used to engage in talks about many topics, including politics,
religion and history. Each one of us spoke about the area of his
concern and interest. The talks were held in a frank and transparent
environment. I felt that I was able to present a true picture of
Saudi Arabia and remove any misunderstanding my friends might have
had about the Kingdom's history, customs and traditions, and even
about various Islamic schools of thought.

In those days, Bangladesh was under the rule of former Chief of
Army Staff and President Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Most of those who
gathered at the garden were against the military-turned civilian
rule of Ershad. Most of them doubted the fairness and transparency
of the elections held under him. The polling day was a holiday in
Bangladesh, and so together with a group of friends I visited some
polling stations where we saw only a handful of voters. But when the
results were announced, Gen. Ershad's party was said to have achieved
a sweeping victory. A few opposition parties, which had decided not
to boycott the election, won the remaining seats.

One Friday, I invited the group for breakfast at my residence where I
proposed launching a club for walkers. My proposal was well received
with everyone readily agreeing to the idea. Our club used to meet
every Friday morning and after walking we would go to the residence
of one of the members of the group. We talked about a lot of things
during our breakfast gatherings. We also agreed on the name of our new
organization: The Pathfinder Club. We named Abdul Wudood Chowdhari,
chief justice of Bangladesh, as president of the club while the eminent
lawyer Abdulrabb Chowdhari was chosen to be the secretary general. I
was named the honorary chairman.

When I was leaving Bangladesh at the end of my diplomatic tenure, they
organized a farewell party in which the president and secretary general
spoke. In my farewell speech, I made the point that they should not be
satisfied with only walking, meeting together and eating but should do
something more. I suggested that they should set up a charity endowment
to support those new converts to Islam who after choosing the right
path were struggling to make ends meet. I also announced a small
amount both as my contribution to the fund and as an incentive for
the new initiative. Everyone responded positively to my suggestion,
and after my departure, they established a charity endowment after
receiving donations from the public to help new Muslims and to spread
the sublime values of Islam.

During a recent visit to Dhaka, I learned that some members of the
club had passed away while the health of others no longer permited
them to walk. However, the endowment is still working even if only in
a modest way. All of this proves that dialogue and diplomacy through
sports and leisure activities can be more fruitful at times than
hard-core negotiations.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdy is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in
Southeast Asian affairs.