Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.
The Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations went through a tumultuous path during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) tenure. Changing international political dynamics, change of guard in the kingdom itself, the subsequent ideological rift between the old and the new guard, and the changing political equation in Pakistan, all these factors have played an important role in destabilizing the much-relished Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations.
However, things seemed to have taken a turn for the better when the interior minister of the kingdom, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Naif Bin Saud, arrived in Pakistan on February 7, 2022, for a one-day visit with his entourage of six. The official statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office regarding this visit also signaled the relative normalization of the relations. However, once the diplomatic flair is removed from the statements, a more complex reality emerges than the one projected by the official channels.
Pakistan-Saudi Arabia Relations: Through the Eye of History
In 1937, Quaid-e-Azam in his address to the Muslim League Conference stated:
“I find that a very tense feeling of excitement has been created …The Muslims of India will stand solid and will help the Arabs in every way they can in the brave and just struggle that they are carrying on against all odds.”
This captures the gist of the sentiments that an ordinary Muslim living in colonial India had for Hijaz (or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), and by proxy for Arabs, at that time. The relationship between the All India Muslim League and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was solidified when the Saudi delegation paid a visit to the Muslim League leaders in Karachi in 1940 and when King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud doled out a hefty donation of 16,000 pounds sterling to ease the suffering of the Bengalis hard-hit by the famine.
In a similar vein, in 1946, the Saudi delegation lent a helping hand to the Muslim League leaders in the United Nations against the Indian National Congress delegate. These events highlight the very essence that came to define the formal Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations by laying bare the three elements-ideology—aid (economic and military), and diplomatic support—crucial for generating the goodwill between the Muslim League and the kingdom in those early days.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia maintained pleasant ties during the ’50s, barring Saudi apprehensions regarding Pakistan’s involvement in SEATO and CENTO. The 1960s, however, added a layer of complexity and depth to the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations, marking a shift from relatively casual to strategically significant ties.
Pakistan strengthened the strategic alliance by deploying its troops in Saudi Arabia and providing a protective cover to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia also came through for Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war and the carnage that followed. The ideological undercurrents animating this alliance become evident via King Feisal ibn Abdul Aziz’s remarks during his official visit to Pakistan:
“If we have shown brotherly feelings and cooperation for this Islamic country it is because this is the least of what our religion and belief demand from us… In the face of international upsets and undercurrents, the Muslims are more than ever in need of solidarity and unity of purpose.”
Both states kept extending diplomatic support to each other during this decade. The advent of the chaotic 1970s set the stage for further strategic cooperation which only grew stronger in the upcoming decades. During this time, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan both supported each other in their strategic endeavors and propped up each other on the diplomatic front, owing largely to their synchronous ideologies.
The year 2014 marked a particularly high point in the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations vis-à-vis foreign policy and monetary aid. Pakistan endorsed Saudi Arabia’s position on Syria with Saudi Arabia calling for the settlement of the Kashmir dispute as per the UN’s resolution in a joint policy statement. More so, 1.5 billion dollars were also loaned to Pakistan in a bid to help its struggling economy.
A rupture seemed to appear in the relationship after Pakistan refused to be part of Saudi’s airstrikes in Yemen as well as an Islamic coalition spearheaded by the kingdom. The subsequent attempt by the Saudi officials to strong-arm Pakistan into joining the coalition began to spell trouble in paradise. However, both states soon reached a compromise. Nonetheless, these events highlighted a shift in the foreign policy interests causing a tear in the hand-in-glove relationship of the yesteryears.
Amidst this backdrop, Imran Khan jettisoned to the kingdom soon after becoming the prime minister. Later on, he attended the Future Investment Initiative Conference (FIIC) in Riyadh when many countries boycotted the conference on account of the alleged involvement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi’s murder.
Saudi Arabia, on its part, helped Pakistan by providing a 6 billion dollar bailout package. Another peak moment soon followed when the Saudi crown prince came on a two-day visit to Pakistan and signed “20 billion dollars” worth of MoUs (memorandums of understanding) and declared himself the “ambassador of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia.”
Trouble in Paradise
“Today, I am telling the OIC to convene the meeting of the council of foreign ministers. If they cannot do it, then I will be compelled to ask the prime minister to call a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiri Muslims…Today Pakistanis, who are always ready to sacrifice their lives for Mecca and Madina, need Saudi to play a leading role on the Kashmir issue. If they will not play their role, then I will ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia.”
These remarks made by Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, which can easily be discerned to be a wake-up call for the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and Saudi Arabia, backfired badly. More so, Qureshi’s statement about Pakistan not joining the Kuala Lumpur summit on the behest of Saudi Arabia did not help the matter.
The kingdom retaliated by asking for the immediate repayment of $1 billion (out of $3 billion) worth of loans given to Pakistan in 2018. Moreover, the $ 3.2 billion oil credit facility – agreed upon in 2018 and not renewed since May of 2020 – also seemed to be in peril. In a bid to iron out the differences, Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa jettisoned to the kingdom, and former Prime Minister Imran Khan shrugged off any rumors of the rift.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in his 31st August meeting with the Saudi ambassador, declared that “Pakistan stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kingdom.” Within the span of two days, Hussein Ibrahim Taha (OIC’s secretary-general) communicated OIC’s unwavering commitment to the Kashmiri cause.
A complete severing of ties might have been averted, but the diplomatic crisis brought underlying fault lines to the fore. The affable Indo-Saudi relations and the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni and Syrian conflict have created significant differences between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as regards their respective foreign policy interests.
In a similar vein, the strengthening of diplomatic and economic ties between Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia, also stands in contrast with the kingdom’s foreign policy interests. Hence, the ideological bedrock on which the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations is standing seems to be shifting, if not splitting.
Moreover, with international outcry about the adverse environmental impact of fossil fuels, the kingdom’s petrodollar supply is going to dwindle which will make it harder for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to extend economic support to Pakistan, as it has done in the past.
Rekindling the Old Flame?
On April 7, 2022, Saudi interior minister Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif came on a day-long visit to Pakistan. During his visit, he met with various state dignitaries and reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s support for Pakistan. Later on, the statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office signaled the strengthening of ties, but even a cursory analysis of that statement reveals that the knot is getting reconfigured, if not coming undone.
The condemnation of “Houthi militia attacks targeted towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and ensuring “Pakistan’s full support for the kingdom’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity” keeps Pakistan in a tight spot and goes against its foreign policy interests.
Unlike the past when the foreign interests of both the states ran parallel, today, owing to the emerging complex regional dynamics vis-à-vis Iran, Turkey, and China, the Kingdom’s involvement in the Yemeni and Syrian conflict runs counter to Pakistan’s regional and national interests. So, given the shifting regional dynamics, Pakistan is highly unlikely to act out the Saudi script in Yemen’s war theatre which will only agitate the Saudi leadership.
Likewise, going full throttle after India over its acts of aggression in Kashmir runs against the kingdom’s interests. Subsequently, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s gratitude towards the kingdom for its “steadfast support to Pakistan, especially in challenging times” rings hollow-particularly after the OIC debacle.
In conclusion, the statement that “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are bound in a fraternal relationship marked by mutual trust and understanding, close cooperation, and an abiding tradition of supporting each other” only holds true for a bygone era when Pakistan and the kingdom had mutually inclusive domestic and foreign interests.
When it comes to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s relationship, sailing into the sunset no longer seems to be the case. In the yesteryears, ideology, aid (financial and military), and diplomatic support, have kept the two states tied together. However, shifting foreign policy interests, dwindling supply of petrodollars, and the change of guard has changed the ideological configuration of both states.
Hence, moving forward, the relationship between Pakistan and the Kingdom is going to look more like the “marriage of convenience” that it has come to be, than the “ideological union” that it was. The earlier Pakistan’s leadership understands this, the better.
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