The strategic ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are likely strong enough to weather regional geopolitical shifts, but in the long term the two powers might not remain as close as they would like.
The longstanding strategic relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is facing daunting challenges. Given their close historic relationship, Riyadh and Islamabad are unlikely to experience a serious breakdown in bilateral ties. However, geostrategic shifts and changing foreign policy priorities will continue to place Riyadh and Islamabad at odds with each other, despite their subjective preferences to the contrary. The United States must factor in this drift between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as it increasingly relies on regional players to do the heavy lifting in security matters for both the Middle East and South Asia.
The recent diplomatic spat in the wake of Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s open criticism of Saudi Arabia for not extending support over the Kashmir dispute between Islamabad and New Delhi indicates a conflict of interest and change of national priorities for the two close allies. Some very candid comments from Pakistan’s top diplomat showed deep frustration with the Saudi response on the Kashmir dispute since the Aug. 5, 2019, Indian revocation of the Muslim-majority region’s autonomous status.
The recent diplomatic rift is not likely to disrupt or even worsen bilateral ties because of the grave implications for both sides – and for the region beset by rivalries, sectarian conflict, and geopolitical tug of war. Nonetheless, recent strained relations portend that a range of regional issues could challenge both countries as they work to maintain a cooperative and close relationship.
Fraternal Relations Turning Sour
Relations between Islamabad and Riyadh have developed over time, becoming one of the strongest regional alignments deeply rooted in shared religious, social, political, and security interests. Both countries have enjoyed cordial ties for the most part of their history – an alliance that has survived government and leadership changes in both states. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.
What Pakistan needs is financial assistance, which Riyadh has long provided whenever Islamabad slides headlong into an economic abyss – which it frequently does. For instance, two years ago when Pakistan risked defaulting on its foreign debt commitments, Saudi Arabia rushed to the rescue by providing a $6.2 billion relief package – well before a $6 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund last July. Also, more than 2 million Pakistanis work in the Kingdom, sending remittances home – foreign currency desperately needed and well appreciated by authorities in Islamabad. In addition to financial generosity, Pakistan’s ruling elite as well as a litany of Sunni religious actors have enjoyed Saudi hospitality as royal guests when visiting Islam’s holy sites. As a result, Saudi Arabia has a great influence on Pakistan’s domestic politics as well as external and internal policy decisions.
In return, Pakistan has been a trusted security and military partner for the Saudis since the 1960s. Pakistan dispatched thousands of troops to defend the Kingdom during the 1991 Gulf War. Under a bilateral military arrangement, Islamabad has also been exporting arms and conventional weapons to Riyadh as well as providing military training for Saudi forces. Pakistani elites – both civil and military – have always displayed unquestionable loyalty to the Saudi royal family.
However, the recent shift in priorities when Riyadh and Islamabad adopted policies based on their respective national interests is not surprising. The relationship between the two countries faced its first major test when the Yemen war started in 2015 and the Saudis asked Pakistan to commit a large military task force to the war effort against the al-Houthi rebels. It was a tough decision for then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has very close ties with the Saudi rulers because of his long years of exile in the Kingdom. After long deliberation, Pakistan’s parliament decided against sending troops to Yemen and voted unanimously in support of a resolution that clearly defined the country’s approach: “Pakistan should remain neutral” in the Saudi-Yemen conflict.
All things being equal, Sharif, who has been particularly close to the Saudis, would probably have offered substantial support to the Kingdom in the form of troop deployments in either the conflict zones or Saudi territory. But it was not possible, due to the bitter political polarization in Pakistan as well as a vibrant media featuring diverse and even anti-involvement voices. It was a wise decision on Pakistan’s part to stay out of the protracted conflict in Yemen while Islamabad has been bogged down in a decades-long fight against militants in areas bordering Afghanistan. The Saudis were deeply disappointed, but they accepted the reality that the Pakistanis would not be contributing to the Yemen war. Two years later, and in an effort to work around the problem, Pakistan’s former army chief, retired Gen. Raheel Shareef, was made head of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance – also described as the “Muslim NATO.”
Another event straining Riyadh-Islamabad relations took place early this year when Pakistan requested a special meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to highlight alleged atrocities committed by Indian troops in the Indian-administered Kashmir region. Riyadh turned down this request to avoid jeopardizing its flourishing friendship with India.
From a regional perspective, one can see Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s bold attempt to diversify the oil-dependent Saudi economy by opening up new channels of trade and multiple economic projects. This generates a rarely-seen pivot in the usually-cautious Saudi diplomacy, expanding Riyadh’s proactive and multi-dimensional efforts to broaden its alignments in the region and beyond. In this new foreign policy orientation, India appears as a prized partner. While Islamabad is certainly not happy with the blossoming friendship between Riyadh and New Delhi, it has so far avoided public criticism in order to avoid antagonizing the Saudi rulers. After all, Pakistan has avoided criticizing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs to avoid harming their flourishing economic relationship.
Pakistan’s grief and disappointment are understandable because of its India-centric foreign policy. Kashmir still lies at the heart of Pakistani foreign policy. Given the unique place of Saudi Arabia (as the Custodian of Islam’s Two Holy Places) in the high esteem of Islamabad, Pakistan has expectations of a more active Saudi policy to help and address the plight of the Muslims in Kashmir being suppressed by large number of Indian troops. In return, when Pakistan faced Riyadh’s unmistakable indifference regarding the Kashmir conflict, it only deepened resentment among the ruling elites in Islamabad, culminating in the latest diplomatic spat.
Toward a New Muslim Bloc
Currently, Turkey is one of the most-talked-about and popular countries in Pakistan’s socio-political discourse – thanks to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s patronage and state broadcast of Turkish historical TV drama “Dirlis Ertugrul,” which is often described as the Muslim “Game of Thrones.” Pakistan has cultivated warm and strategic relations with Turkey in recent years, much to the dismay of Saudi Arabia. Turkey, along with Malaysia, has openly supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir in international forums, ignoring Indian claims that Kashmir is India’s internal issue. Also, both Turkey and Malaysia, along with Islamabad’s most-trusted friend, China, have rescued Pakistan from downgrading from “grey list” to “blacklist” by the global watchdog Financial Action Task Force.
During escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islamabad has preserved its relations with both countries by carefully navigating through the rift. But now the Saudi perception, no matter what its correspondence with actual reality, that Turkey and Malaysia want to establish a new bloc of Muslim countries with the help of Pakistan has put Islamabad again in an odd position with Riyadh. Saudis fear that the emergence of a new bloc of Muslim countries would be tantamount to challenging its leadership position, isolating the Kingdom, and ultimately weakening the existing Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
But such an idea did not come out of the blue. In fact, Pakistan’s Khan first hinted at the formation of a Muslim bloc last year in a speech on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Khan indicated that the new bloc would be headed by Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia. He also proposed the setup of a TV channel to counter what he called Islamophobia and Western propaganda. For Pakistan, this new bloc may provide a set of opportunities to dwell upon – receiving financial assistance from the Kingdom and Malaysia, while securing unswerving Turkish support for Islamabad’s cause on the Kashmir dispute in other international forums. But for the Saudis, any effort toward a new Muslim bloc rivaling the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is a red line, and crossing it could be a big setback for the partnership that has defined Saudi-Pakistani relations.
One recent disagreement occurred when Pakistan skipped a meeting of Muslim countries last December in Malaysia after pressure from Riyadh. Riyadh shunned the meeting because of the fear that it was a move by the Kingdom’s regional rivals Qatar, Iran, and Turkey – all of which attended the meeting – to isolate Saudis. At the height of regional diplomacy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying that Pakistan had to comply with the Saudi wishes “due to its economic difficulties.”
As things stand, it appears that the Saudi-Pakistani relationship has an uncertain future because of the growing undercurrent of mutual distrust. As ties between Islamabad and Riyadh have largely involved finances and security, Pakistan’s changing security dynamics and Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification would make it hard for the two countries to maintain their relationship based on these old parameters in a changing region and amid shifting strategies. In the short term, Riyadh will continue exploiting Islamabad’s economic vulnerabilities to secure Pakistan’s support and allegiance in its widening regional agenda, and both countries will try not to allow specific differences to hobble their relations. But in the longer term, Riyadh cannot ignore the rise of India in the region, and the two countries may become close allies – something that will mostly likely increase the strain on Pakistan-Saudi relations.
Islamabad could get closer to Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, and even Iran in the pursuit of aggressively raising the Kashmir dispute in international forums, which could be detrimental for Pakistan-Saudi ties. With a mixed sense of pragmatism and realism, both countries would most likely preserve their partnership, but won’t remain the same warm and fraternal friends against an emerging array of odds, competing national interests, and conflicting priorities in the region.
Meanwhile, Washington needs a stable Pakistan, especially as it is in the process of exiting neighboring Afghanistan and while it is in the throes of dealing with Iran, which will try to exploit the Saudi-Pakistani rifts. Washington’s approach to both the Middle East and South Asia is increasingly dependent upon a balance of power among nations there. Therefore, the next U.S. administration will need to ensure that this ongoing evolution in Saudi-Pakistani relations and its implications do not undermine the American calculus for security and stability in the world’s two most volatile regions.
Imtiaz Ali is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst and consultant whose work focuses on political, security, and development-related issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ali worked at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute as a curriculum specialist (2011-15). He has also served as a Jennings Randolph Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (2009-10), a Yale World Fellow (2008) and a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University (2006-07). Ali has also had a long career in journalism while working in Pakistan for the Washington Post, the BBC, Daily Telegraph, and Pakistani newspapers, The News and Dawn.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.