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Walking Diplomacy

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  • Walking Diplomacy


    Saudi Gazette 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.