Saudi Arabia and Pakistan always have had old traditional ties between them sharing the same religion and Saudi Arabia always found in Pakistan a convenient turf to spread its Wahabi ideology. For this, it has pumped billions of dollars for theological education, construction of mosques and Madrasa curricula. Many deposed Pakistani politicians, in turn, found in Saudi Arabia a comfortable refuge enjoying political patronage and rehabilitation. Other than political interests, Saudi Kingdom was lavish in granting oil credits and bailed out Pakistan umpteen times from economic turmoil’s.
However, Saudi Arabia is surely irked with Pakistan for its recent provocative statements against the former, compelling Pakistan to pay $1 billion of a $6 billion package earlier agreed by Riyadh in 2018. Importantly, the snapping of the deal, including the oil credit, was abrupt and decisive. It has naturally strained the bilateral relationship which looks beyond repair, at least for the time being.
Rubbing on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia driving it to take such a drastic action exposes Pakistan’s amateurish diplomacy and stark tactlessness. The Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is unnecessarily garrulous on undesirable occasions, stated last week that Saudi Arabia must convene a meeting of the council of Foreign Ministers from the Saudi led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss Kashmir. The tenor of his exhortation was obviously belligerent and unsavoury to the Saudi palate.
Qureshi further compounded the issue by asserting that if Saudi Arabia failed to comply Pakistan’s plea, the latter would take the recourse to seeking solution of the Kashmir problem outside the ambit of the OIC. That was enough to light the fire as he also hinted garnering support from the Muslim countries sympathetic to Pakistan on Kashmir. He also tactlessly tried to underline an exaggerated version of the sensitivity of Kashmir which the Saudi rulers refused to buy.
The domestic constituency in Pakistan also seems upset by the bizarre Pakistani stand against Saudi Arabia which is being described as foolhardy, unrealistic and suicidal. Principal opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), openly condemned such immature Pakistani position against their old ally Saudi Arabia. Newspapers in Pakistan too are chiding the Imran - Qureshi combine for undermining the well established relations.
Pakistani watchers, in the meantime, reckon that Pakistan has been trying to woo Saudi Arabia for economic packages, more conspicuously since last year, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) Islamabad visit in 2018 resulted in assurances of loan and oil credit to address Pakistan’s economic concerns. Prime Minister Imran Khan also met MbS in September 2019 in Jeddah to concretise the economic assurances. But the recent faux pas caused by Qureshi has demolished all the efforts placing Pakistan on a challenging footing to repair the damage.
To put things in perspective, it seems imperative to recapitulate that Pakistan’s stand in the Kuala Lumpur Islamic summit earlier this year had angered Saudi Arabia as it, being the leader of 57 member OIC, wants to have its comfort zone at the optimal level as the undisputed leader of the global Islamic fraternity. It had cracked a whip in Pakistan restraining it from attending the KL summit.
Here, another international player is on the constant move to play a more vital role in the world Islamic affairs and he is President Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan who is pushing his agenda of a revised Ottoman type rule in Turkey, is seen very close to Pakistan. However, Saudi Arabia, under no circumstances, will allow Turkey to usurp the world Islamic leadership even though Erdogan has emerged taller than before in the Islamic world in the wake of conversion of Hagia Sofia into a mosque in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia tacitly disapproves Turkey making inroads to Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is tightening its stranglehold on Pakistan as it knows fully well that Pakistan will find it difficult to survive without Saudi help in a wide range of areas. Pakistan’s 87% of migrant labour works in Saudi Arabia bringing huge remittances and revenue to the battered Pakistani economy. This is a leverage Riyadh always exercises over Pakistan.
On its part, India seems to have played its cards well. Diplomatically, it countered every move to checkmate Pakistan to prevail upon Riyadh on the sensitive issue of Kashmir. Saudis have also invested in a huge way in Indian enterprises. They are also thinking of increasing their investments. Prime Minister Modi ‘s visit to Saudi Arabia and the Indian security establishment‘s successful engagement with the Saudi regime to ensure that Riyadh stayed on course and not strayed towards Pakistan. Significantly, the card of religion has not played any role. Only realpolitik and economic interests have. And that’s a striking feature.
According to James Dorsey, senior fellow at the Singapore based Rajaratnam School of International Studies, because of robust growing relationship between India and Saudi Arabia, Saudi government is steadily distancing itself from Pakistan. This said, Saudi Arabia should also have a cautious approach in dealing with Pakistan especially when Iran is coming close to Pakistan, geo politically, with China thrown in. This aspect can’t be possibly ignored. Also, Saudi Arabia has a sizeable Shia population which adheres to the Teheran leadership for political directions. Iran and Saudi Arabia are daggers drawn also because of Saudi military onslaught against Houthi rebels (all Shias) in Yemen. It’s a tricky situation perhaps meriting a more balanced approach.
From the Indian point of view, Riyadh distancing from Islamabad might also mean that China would come more closer to Pakistan filling the vacuum which may possibly be detriment to Indian security interests. As the mess created by the impulsive and hasty decision of the key Pakistani leadership in annoying Saudi Arabia beyond redemption, Pakistan, under pressure from the Army, notably under the ISI , has just now decided to dispatch the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Qamar Ahmad Bajwa to visit Riyadh for ending the impasse. It’s interesting to watch how things would unfold but as of now, Pakistan has to reap what it has sown by a stark display of immature act of diplomacy.
More importantly, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry stands completely exposed for lack of vision and absence of diplomatic statecraft bringing the country to such a pass. Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s office seem to be afflicted with intellectual bankruptcy of the worst kind. To cash it’s foreign policy in the name of Kashmir, Imran Khan has burnt his country’s bridges with its erstwhile staunchest allies.
Bajwa’s forthcoming mission to Riyadh also signals that the Islamabad foreign office is toothless and muted. Functionally, it’s replaced by the deep state. Would this mean the armed forces are being ambitious to fish in the troubled waters for a greater role in the near future?
The writer is a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are personal.