Pak-Saudi relations: An inevitable reset
PAK-Saudi relations are an example of one of the strongest and most stable relations in the world.
Saudi Arabia has been an important pillar of Pakistan’s foreign policy since its inception. It strongly supported Pakistan in its wars with India in 1965 and 1971.
It has been providing key financial assistance to Pakistan, including in the form of oil supplies whenever Pakistan faces economic crisis.
There is a special regard for the Kingdom in Pakistan because of it being the birthplace of Islam and its status as the custodian of the Harmain Sharifain.
[Former] Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki Bin Faisal has described the ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.
The changing geopolitical situation of the region has put the relationship under serious strains.
The unease in the relationship came into sharp focus when Pakistan was asked for a repayment of part of the loan it had taken from the Kingdom. Part of the money was returned with China’s help.
However, what is important is that such a demand from the Riyadh was unthinkable in the past. What happened was just a manifestation of what was brewing for a while.
The first setback happened in 2015 when Pakistan’s Parliament voted against its participation in the Yemen war which rages to-date. The decision by Pakistan has passed the test of time.
The Yemen war is a humanitarian disaster and the United States under Biden has distanced itself from it.
More damage happened when Pakistan supported the Kuala Lumpur summit 2019, an initiative of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammad to bring five Muslim nations together to achieve socio-economic development.
Saudi Arabia perceived it as an alternative to OIC and a challenge to its leadership of the Muslim world.
However, Pakistan post announcement of attending it on Saudi persuasion withdrew, add to the mix the growing warmth between Saudi Arabia and India.
The recent visit to the Kingdom by both General Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan, on the Kingdom’s invitation, indicates a cool down of tensions between the two. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are all set to what many are calling a reset of the relationship.
There is apparently a transformative thrust to it also.
Riyadh has opted not to ask for the final tranche of its three billion dollars loan. There is talk of an Aramco oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the port city of Gwadar.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office also issued a statement of support for the Saudi leadership after the release of the damaging US intelligence report on the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
According to the joint statement released by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pakistan on Prime Minister’s recent visit to the Kingdom, the bilateral agreements include an agreement on establishment of Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council; MoU on Combating Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals; Framework MoU between SFD and Islamic Republic of Pakistan for financing projects in Energy, Hydropower Generation, Infrastructure, Transport & Communication and Water Resource Development; Cooperation Agreement in the Field of Combating Crimes; and Agreement on Transfer of Convicted Prisoners.
Previously, the UAE had openly acknowledged its role in bringing down tension between the two nuclear states. This is perhaps for the first time India has accepted a third party role in Pak-India relations.
In some ways, it is fair to say that after last year’s crisis, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are actively pursuing a reset of relations.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Programme of Brookings Institute, said, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia is an attempt to reset relations to their former very close level.
Michael Kugelman, at the Wilson Centre, was of the opinion that General Bajwa’s visit ahead of Prime Minister’s visit was clearly meant to convey Pakistani seriousness of purpose in advance of Khan’s arrival.
The new geopolitical reality of the Middle East is the US’ steady retrenchment from the region and Saudi Arabia along with the entire Middle East adjustment to it.
Given this dynamic, the Kingdom has already started negotiations with Syria, engaged Turkey, established some communication with Israel towards normalization, rehabilitated ties with Qatar and attempted to resolve the intractable Yemen crisis by militarily disengaging. These developments are favorable for Pakistan.
Biden Administration’s tough stance towards the Kingdom has triggered this new desire to strengthen ties with old allies including Pakistan. The core goal for Islamabad is economic assistance from Riyadh.
However, restoring the perception that the relationship is back on level ground is also extremely important for Islamabad.
The tightrope walking for Pakistan is, not to get dragged into Saudi wars and Saudi Arab-Iran rivalry.
One caveat is also how India has conveniently exploited the distancing between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE to its advantage.
Pakistan would also want to rectify that. Pakistan is and will remain a strategic partner for Saudi Arabia, a place India is unlikely to fill despite the economic convergence and decent optics.
Having said this, Pakistan is dealing with a new Saudi Arabia where the unconditional support element of the past is not a part of the new equation. We will see more quid pros than unconditional pouring in of the resources.
The stress by both sides on the need for concerted cooperation between two Islamic countries to confront extremism and violence and reject sectarianism should be comforting for both Iran and Afghanistan.
In 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan had attempted to calm down animosities between the rival Muslim powers.
For years now, Pakistan has tried to balance its relationship with Saudi Arabia, a geostrategic ally, and Iran with which it shares 1000-kilometer border. Pakistan also houses second largest number of Shiites in the world.
This particular visit is seventh since Imran Khan took office, comes at a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia have held secret talks to defuse tension.
The two regional powers had cut ties since 2016; post the execution of the Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom squarely blames Iran for the Yemen war also.
Overall, it seems the new convergence between the two Muslim countries, which is in some ways also transformative, is a step in the right direction which would go a long way in restoring both balance and stability in the region.
The recent developments have made it more time-appropriate and are indicative of its sustainability and growing momentum.
A big win for Pakistan’s foreign policy both geoeconomically and geostrategically. The optics have also been amazing.
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.