Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship hits a roadblock
In recent weeks, Pakistan’s “brotherly” relationship with Saudi Arabia – with decades of close economic, political and military ties – has hit a roadblock. The immediate reason: on August 5, the first anniversary of India’s revocation of Kashmir autonomy, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, required that Saudi Arabia is “showing leadership” on the Kashmir issue. He asked Riyadh to convene a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, led by Saudi Arabia) to discuss it. This apparently capped months of “frustrationaccording to media reports in Islamabad at Saudi inaction in Kashmir. Qureshi also said that if Saudi Arabia did not call a meeting of OIC foreign ministers, Pakistan would be forced to go to the Muslim countries – Malaysia, Turkey and Iran – which have expressed concern over Kashmir and have stood by Pakistan’s side.
Saudi Arabia did not appreciate this overt pressure. He immediately recalled a $ 1 billion loan, part of a $ 3 billion loan he made to Pakistan in November 2018. China stepped in to cover Pakistan with a replacement loan. A $ 3.2 billion Saudi Arabian oil credit facility to Pakistan was not renewed after it expired in May this year. But while this bump in the road to Saudi-Pakistani relations is notable, it is premature to conclude that it will be lasting.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have long been close. The kingdom has helped bail out the Pakistani economy in several ways. Saudi influence in Pakistan has grown over the decades, with Saudi funding for madrasas leading to the importation of Wahhabi Islam into the country. At the same time, Pakistan also enjoys good relations with Iran, in part because of its strong Shia minority (Saudi Arabia having priority if Pakistan is forced to choose between the two). The desire to balance relations with Iran was one of the reasons Pakistan did not send troops to Yemen, at Saudi Arabia’s request, in 2015 – although it just received a large Saudi loan. In recent months, Pakistan has stepped up this balancing act, offering and trying to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia last fall. Prime Minister Imran Khan has often spoken of a foreign policy based on a strong relationship with all Muslim countries.
Last fall, Khan announced he would attend the Kuala Lumpur summit for Muslim Countries to be held in December, which would also be attended by Saudi rivals Iran, Turkey and Qatar (and to which Saudi Arabia was not invited). It would have irritated Saudi Arabia, and after Khan visited the kingdom, Pakistan abruptly withdrew from the Kuala Lumpur summit, apparently due to Saudi pressure. Saudi Arabia officially denies pressuring Pakistan, but in his remarks this month Qureshi hinted at it when he suggested that Pakistan expected Saudi Arabia to call a meeting of OIC given that Pakistan had skipped the Kuala Lumpur summit.
Saudi Arabia has shown no interest in convening a special OIC meeting on Kashmir. The reluctance can be explained by the economy and the kingdom’s close and growing ties with India: Bilateral Trade between India and Saudi Arabia is $ 27 billion per year, while Pakistan-Saudi trade is only $ 3.6 billion. The implication, then, according to analystsis that Saudi Arabia will not want to irritate India by asserting itself over Kashmir. (It should be noted that Saudi Arabia has also been silent on China’s mistreatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.)
A minister turned rogue or a concerted approach?
Many Pakistanis have been stunned by Qureshi’s recent remarks – which fell short of everything Pakistan has officially said to Saudi Arabia in the past – and opposition parties have strongly condemned them. Some have questioned whether Qureshi spoke unilaterally, but a number of factors (beyond Qureshi’s deliberative nature) suggest that he may not have acted on his own. This is not how the Khan government, which acts in concert with the military, conducts its foreign policy – and especially not on anything to do with Kashmir. There was no immediate backlash from the Foreign Ministry, which stuck to remarks; Qureshi was also not asked to provide any clarifications or apologies, as in the past when members of the government acted alone (for example, in September 2018, when one of Khan’s advisers said that the loans from the China-Pakistan economic corridor had not been negotiated fairly). It seems unlikely that Qureshi acted without the explicit approval of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Instead, his interview may have been a risky pressure tactic on Saudi Arabia that backfired on him.
A military trip to the kingdom
Pakistan has sought to play down the Saudi response and the recall of the loan. But shortly after Pakistan repaid the loan, it was announced that the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, would visit Saudi Arabia on August 17. The trip was billed as planned and for military purposes. Before the trip, the Director General of Interservice Public Relations (ISPR), the PR branch of the military, research to dispel the idea of a split, saying that the relationship with Saudi Arabia “is historic, very important and excellent, and will remain excellent.” There should be no doubt about it. He also said the Saudi “centrality” to the Muslim world was clear.
If the visit of the army chief was a trip to limit the damage, it is not certain that it worked. Details were kept secret, and it went as billed, for military-to-military meetings. There was no official press release from the ISPR and Riyadh issued an alternate statement. Bajwa meet Saudi Chief of Staff and Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman. The director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani spy agency, accompanied him. It appears Bajwa has not met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which is significant. Bajwa and MBS had met during the army chief’s previous visits to the kingdom and during MBS’s visit to Islamabad last year. (MBS also had a close relationship with Khan, who was one of the few leaders who backed him after the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited Delhi after arriving in Islamabad (trip last year) Overall, there has not been a great rapprochement.
While Pakistan felt snubbed by the conduct of the army chief’s visit, it refused to acknowledge it. In an interview last week, Khan sought to dispel the meaning of a flaw. Yet he also seemed resigned to the idea that Saudi Arabia would not act the way Pakistan wanted on Kashmir in the future: “Saudi Arabia has its own foreign policy. We shouldn’t be thinking this because we want something the Saudis to do just that. “
What is clear is that Pakistan’s bold move – concerted or not – has not worked, and the Saudi response shows Pakistan that it cannot be the ‘brother’ Pakistan wants it to be. or at least in Kashmir. The whole episode only serves to bolster China’s status as Pakistan’s closest partner – its “all-weather” friend, as Khan reiterated in his interview last week. (Foreign Minister Qureshi was in China for two days last week for the second round of the Sino-Pakistani foreign ministers’ strategic dialogue, and the two countries reaffirmed their relationship as “iron brothers.” )
It is also clear that Pakistan may have to look to other Muslim countries for the support it wants in Kashmir. Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Qatar seem ready to intervene. But the question is whether Saudi Arabia will let Pakistan get closer to these countries. The kingdom has Pakistan a bit in a box, and the economy on its side. Pakistan can potentially count on China to cover some Saudi loans, as it has – but probably not all, and Pakistan also relies on remittances from over 2 million Pakistanis who have traveled to Saudi Arabia. to work. He simply cannot afford to alienate the kingdom. Indeed, at the end of last week, the Foreign Office reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to the OIC and the actions it had taken in Kashmir in the past.
For now, Pakistan may have to keep a low profile on the issue of Kashmir autonomy. And while there may be cracks in the friendship with Saudi Arabia, it is premature to expect any big realignments.