The curious case of Saudi-Pak ties

Aisha Saeed

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan maintain strong diplomatic ties. Established in the 1960s, the relationship has evolved from a simple alliance to a strong strategic bond. The recent rumors of a rift between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have brought forth the question of where the brotherly ties are heading. The answer however is simple- the entente cordial has become a matter of strategic partnership in a changing world order.

Here, the concept of strategic partnership in foreign policy can be defined in the context of a nation’s strategic interests; that can implemented only on the grounds of the bilateral cooperation with the other state holding similar strategic interests. Cooperation in such a case involves a military (security and defense), political and economic partnership.  A country maintains diplomatic relations with other countries but not all diplomatic relations can be called strategic partnerships.

Concretely, Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia a trusted ally due to its support for Pakistan on  regional and international issues deemed critical for it. Apart from the noticeable religious factor towards Riyadh by Islamabad for Saudia being home to the two most secret religious sites of Islam, the two countries’ military, diplomatic and economic ties form the basis for this relationship. The Kingdom staunchly supported Pakistan during the wars of 1965 and 1971 with India. The country has been supportive of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, although cautiously and less ardently over the recent years.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia engage extensively at the international level and are part of several important global organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation .Saudi Arabia remains the key exporter of oil and petroleum products to Pakistan .Saudi Arabia has also been providing key financial assistance to Pakistan, including oil supplies at critical moments. Till date, Saudi Arabia hosts approximately 2.5 million Pakistanis with remittances of over $.821 million.

Saudi Arabia sought Pakistan’s military expertise in establishing its armed forces. A bilateral defense deal was signed in 1967 that laid foundation for strong military relationship between the two counties. Pakistan had also helped in the formation of the Royal Saudi Air Force during that time and trained its first batch of jet fighter pilots. The PAF still trains Saudi cadets as aeronautical engineers. Since then a number of Pakistani troops have been stationed in different parts of Saudi Arabia for training and educational purposes. Pakistan and KSA also conduct joint military exercises under the defense pact. The Saudi troops participated in 2017’s Pakistan day parade and the aerobatics team of Saudi Hawks performed on the 23rd March parade. Later, Pakistan’s former army chief General Raheel Sharif was appointed as the Military Commander of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.

Hence, Pakistan maintains this bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia as one of its most important diplomatic relationships.  

But no relationship is without a cost. These bond came under question when Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi wondered why Saudi-led OIC is dragging its feet on Pakistani foreign policy’s most cardinal issue of Kashmir with India. He complained that OIC is reluctant to call a foreign ministers’ conference to deliberate on the issue.

The news of payment woes over oil also surfaced at the same time as Pakistan scrambled its diplomatic corps for reaffirmation of strong ties with Saudi Arabia.  This patch between the two countries may be uncomfortable but certainly should not undermine the relationship in future.

The Kingdom has traditionally followed a quiet foreign policy but over the recent years has adopted assertive position on many foreign policy matters. On the other hand, Pakistan was betrothed by its own national interests and decisions. But it is clear that because of emergence of realignments of countries in the fast changing world order the two countries are going through a transition phase of their foreign policies and greater strategic interests. While Pakistan is coming out of the shadows of the US influence, Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince is enthused by the American policies.

The relationship came under strain when Saudi Arabia urged Pakistan to participate in its war on Yemen. The request was debated in the Parliament of Pakistan but given the bitter experience of Pakistan’s participation in the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad in the 1980s and U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Islamabad could not afford to join yet another war of others. Pakistan hence opted to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict and politely refused to send troops under the pretext that its troops are already engaged at home front against Taliban militants. In reality, Pakistan could not jeopardize its efforts to keep a balanced relation with the Kingdom and Iran. The Saudi- Qatar spat placed Pakistan in an awkward position once again. Pakistan maneuvered this spat by calling for a peaceful resolution of matters between all the parties. 

Saudi Arabia publically expressed its displeasure with Pakistan over its decision regarding Yemen and Qatar. This was the first sign of a shift in the strategic approach of the two countries. Saudi Arabia wanted to pose Pakistan as deterrence against Iran in the Gulf region. While Pakistan maintained a strong support to the Kingdom in case the Two Holy sites were threatened, Pakistan could not side with the Saudis against Iran in a diplomatic or military offensive.  The point of deference in the Pakistan –Saudi relationship is the nuclear capability of Pakistan which the Saudis have long sought for their own safety. With India mostly filling in any diplomatic vacuum left by Pakistan, the country’s ties with the Kingdom shall remain a priority for Islamabad despite the temporary discomfort.  

The regional and international developments could cause occasional turbulence in the Pakistan- Saudia relations. But it is also an indication of evolving national policies and strategic interests. The regional dynamics of the Middle East and South Asia have changed drastically since Pakistan and Saudi Arabia first established diplomatic relations.  For Saudia, much of its foreign policy may remain “militarized” under the new leadership in the coming years. Pakistan will likely to continue accommodating Saudi Arabia where and when it possibly can. But Pakistan seems to have drawn a legitimate line and recent developments must be taken as a signal by the Saudis to stop expecting Pakistan to diverge from its national or strategic interests.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia hold significant positions in their respective regions.  It is imperative for both to progress and not clash that may disregard years of cooperation. For as long as the Pakistan -Saudi Arabia’s bilateral relations maintain a mature level of respect and understanding, minor differences over national policies should not be reason for a major split between the two strategic partners.

Aisha Saeed is an independent analyst on media and foreign policy of Pakistan. She tweets @MsAishaK.

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