Pak-Saudi relations—a timely reset

Pak-Saudi relations—a timely reset

  1 comments   |     by Taj M Khattak

Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have enjoyed very close and cordial relations with each other since the creation of Pakistan. Both countries have strongly supported each other in times of need. KSA’s support to Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India deserves special mention, as the country’s morale was low after loss of its eastern wing due to interference and subsequent aggression by a hostile neighbour. A unique feature of this relationship is that Pakistan has no political motive either and its sole resolve is to provide unstinted support for protection of the two holiest sites in Islam.

However, as the monarchy in KSA transitioned from old guard to new generation and global politics took a turn, the bilateral relationship between KSA and Pakistan came under stress. The first hiccup came in 2015 when Pakistan’s parliament voted down the Pakistan Armed Forces’ participation in the Yemen war, where KSA was facing difficulties. This was a well-considered decision since the country had suffered enormously by participating in other countries’ wars and, in the end, it proved to be the right step as later events proved.

Next came KSA’s opposition to Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad’s proposal to bring five Muslim nations together to achieve socioeconomic development and stand up against Islamophobia in the west. KSA considered it a challenge to its leadership of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and pressured Pakistan to back off or be prepared for the repatriation of its labour, which would have affected foreign remittances and added to joblessness. The threat worked, but not without a strong realisation in Pakistan that its foreign policy cannot forever be yoked to KSA’s interest.

KSA’s relations with Iran have been turbulent since the Islamic Revolution and Pakistan has been doing a tightrope balancing act for years. While KSA is a strategic ally, Pakistan shares a 1000-kilometre border with Iran and is home to the second largest Shia population in the world. Successive governments in Pakistan have made attempts to bring down political temperatures between these two important Muslim countries but with little success.

Iran-Saudi relations reached a new low in 2016 when Iran snapped diplomatic ties with KSA after it executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. After the attack on ARAMCO, which KSA had blamed on Iran, Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan had said, ‘There is no dialogue with Iran, they know only war and we are up to it.’ Only a few weeks ago, in an interview, the Crown Prince said, ‘At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country, all we ask is to have a good dignified relationship with Iran.’ This stance has come a long way since 2016 and it is obvious that as understanding of global realpolitiks improves in the new generation of KSA’s monarchs, its approach is becoming more pragmatic.

There were other regional and global developments which brought about a change in Riyadh’s thinking. Its ill-advised war in Yemen, the Jamal Khashoogi incident resulting in a damaging US intelligence report, the institution of a Democratic government in Washington after elections which adopted a totally different approach towards KSA, Joe Biden’s stiff line on human rights abuses by Saudi regime and the Biden administration’s praise for Pakistan in promoting peaceful resolution of Afghan conflict; it all hints at renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and easing down sanctions, China’s deal worth US $400 billions with Iran and insufficient US support after deadly attack on ARAMCO oil refinery, are all factors which synergised the catalysis in KSA towards re-setting its relations with old and trusted friends like Pakistan.

The recent visit of both General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan to KSA paved the way for a transformative nature of relationship between the two countries. Earlier, Pakistan had expressed its support for the Saudi leadership in the wake of a US intelligence report on the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoogi in Istanbul. General Bajwa’s six-day visit to the Kingdom in advance of the Prime Minister’s three-day visit, reflected Pakistan’s seriousness in bringing bilateral ties back on keel. Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s gesture of reciprocity in personally receiving Prime Minister Imran Khan at the airport worked well towards the intended outcome of this effort. In the interim when Pak-Saudi relations were lukewarm, India had tried to exploit the situation given the two countries convergence of economic interests. The Indian army chief also paid a first-ever visit to the Kingdom which was quite odd in many ways. It was in Pakistan’s interest to neutralise these overtures and re-establish its strategic and historic relationship with KSA.

After considerable diplomatic activity in the two capitals, KSA now better understands Pakistan’s apprehensions not to get dragged into the Yemen war, and its position to act neutral in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. Unlike the final months of Trump’s presidency, when Pakistan declined to recognise Israel under Saudi pressure and in retaliation, KSA abruptly asked for the return of its loan, this time around it didn’t ask for the final tranche of three billion dollars loan to Pakistan. KSA’s previous action was construed as an arm-twisting tactic and had antagonised Pakistanis at all levels.

The bilateral agreements which were signed during the recent visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan and COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa, included the establishment of a Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council, an MoU on combating illicit traffic in narcotics, drugs, psychotropic substances and precursor chemicals, a framework MoU with the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) for financing projects in energy (hydropower generation), infrastructure, transport and communication and water resource development, a cooperation agreement in the field of combating crime, and an agreement on the transfer of convicted prisoners. KSA again expressed interest in setting up an oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Gwadar, which had been discussed off and on in the past.

As Chanakya, the author of the ancient Indian political treatise said, ‘There is self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interest. This is the bitter truth.’ So it is natural that there is considerable public speculation as to what KSA expects from Pakistan in this new era of relationship. Yemen? Unlikely, as Pakistan has clearly stated its principled stand and is a closed chapter. Kashmir? Again, unlikely as Pakistan has taken a clear stance against India’s actions of August 5, 2019 in Kashmir. It is well-nigh impossible to climb down, although KSA would much desire Pakistan to tone down its diplomatic and moral support for Kashmiris, just as it used to be during previous regimes. If anything, Pakistan would like the OIC to show its solidarity with Kashmiris, just Like Pakistan did during the recent Israeli attack on Gaza.

Military cooperation with KSA? There is nothing new here as the two countries have a time-honoured understanding on this. Pakistani people have a huge emotional attachment with the cradle of Islam and the two holiest places in Makkah and Madina and safeguarding the sovereignty of KSA is as close to their heart as their own country. Pakistan’s security detachments have been stationed in KSA in the past and regular military exercises take place between the armed forces of the two countries.

China? KSA has its own sound diplomatic channels with Beijing and doesn’t need Pakistan’s good offices. Iran? Would the KSA want Pakistan to act as a bridge between Tehran and Riyadh? Perhaps yes, since both countries have complete confidence in Pakistan’s sincerity to bring about rapprochement between them. USA? Does KSA want Pakistan to act, to an extent that it can, to influence President Joe Biden to go soft on Crown Prince MBS in the Khashoggi affair? Not likely, as KSA is aware that Pakistan doesn’t have that kind of clout in Washington and has its own issues with the US after its strategic tilt to Pacific region. OIC? For decades now, there is a perception that this important Islamic bloc makes a distinction between issues concerning Arab and non-Arab Muslims. In recent years, the organisation has fallen well short of expectations to counter Islamophobia in the west and blasphemous actions against Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) under the garb of freedom of expression. KSA might have its own reasons because it follows stringent Sharia code and is viewed with suspicion for sponsoring extremism, but the rest of the Muslim world, most notably Pakistan, is getting increasingly agitated and wants the OIC to lead more effectively. It is likely that KSA wants Pakistan to taper down its voice so that other countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are not encouraged to follow an alternate and independent path.

Both countries are clearly vying for some degree of strategic autonomy. As they bury their past misunderstandings and embark on a new era of mutually beneficial relationship, in both geo-startegic and geo-economics domains, there are strong indicators that they now better understand each other’s constraints and compulsions. One can expect that future actions of both countries will increasingly be tempered with pragmatism, which would not only be in their own best interest but would also be welcomed by neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan.

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