Could Saudi Arabia be parting ways with Pakistan?

Could Saudi Arabia be parting ways with Pakistan?
Riyadh's passive stance on Kashmir has caused a rift with Pakistan as changing regional alliances threaten their strategic relationship.
6 min read
20 August, 2020
Cracks are appearing in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's strategic alliance. [Getty]
A growing schism between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has unfolded in recent weeks as tensions threaten their strategic partnership.

The problems began when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi hinted that he had lost faith in the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), saying that if a high-level meeting was not held to discuss the Kashmir crisis then other options, such as meetings with other Islamic countries, would be explored. 

Pakistan has pushed for action since August last year, when India revoked the Muslim-majority region's special status, but with limited success. The OIC has only held low-level meetings on the Kashmir crisis despite Islamabad's demands. It was unusual, however, that Qureshi voiced such forceful opinions publicly.

Irked by these comments, Riyadh did not issue an official statement, but Saudi ex-ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Awadh Asseri, responded with an article in Arab News.

"Where does FM Qureshi's diatribe stand after this? Will PM Imran Khan remind him to be careful in future, as any damage to our brotherly ties goes against our respective national interests and public aspirations?" he wrote. 

In the past, the 57-member OIC had supported Pakistan's stance on Kashmir, and the OIC Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir, established in 1994, held a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year.

Pakistan has pushed for action on Kashmir since August last year, when India revoked the Muslim-majority region's special status

The bilateral crisis escalated last week after Saudi Arabia forced Pakistan to repay $1 billion given as part of a $6.2 billion package announced in late 2018. The deal consisted of a $3 billion loan and $3.2 billion oil credit facility, which was announced during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Pakistan. Riyadh is also yet to respond to Pakistan's request to extend the oil credit facility, which expired last month. 

Soon after, the Saudi envoy to Pakistan met with the Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Over the weekend, Bajwa visited Riyadh for prescheduled military talks, but it was also a good opportunity for some damage control. According to a statement from Pakistan's Army, the chief met his Saudi counterpart to discuss "military to military ties, including training exchanges". 

Are billion dollar investments in India prompting Saudi
Arabia's silence over Kashmir?

The Pakistan Army Chief also met Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman who later tweeted, "Met today with my brother, H.E General Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff. We discussed bilateral relations, military cooperation, and our common vision for preserving regional security." 

A special relationship

Over the decades, Saudi-Pakistan bilateral relations have remained strong and relatively stable. Initiated in 1940 when Saudi delegations visited leaders of the All India Muslim League in Karachi, Saudi-Pakistan relations have been known for their depth and a bond of trust.

Over the decades, the two countries have worked together on various bilateral, regional and global forums. Pakistan is also a founding member of the OIC, which was created in 1969.

In this equation, Riyadh's role remained mostly economic while Islamabad was more focused on providing support on the security front. Since the 1960s, Pakistani troops have had a sizable presence in the oil-rich state and have provided assistance and training to the Saudi military. Furthermore, some 70,000 Pakistani nationals are estimated to serve in Saudi Arabia's armed forces.

Having had a bilateral security cooperation agreement since 1982, Islamabad has assisted the kingdom in defence production capabilities and Pakistani special forces were often appointed to guard the royal family. Saudi pilots and soldiers have also received their training in Pakistan or from the troops stationed in the kingdom in training and advisory roles.  

Saudi business relations with India have recently received a massive boost, which may partly explain Riyadh's reluctance to be proactive on Kashmir

Notably, when the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) was launched in 2015, the ex-armed forces chief of Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif, was asked to head the 41-nation army. 

On the economic front, Riyadh has helped Islamabad in times of financial crisis or during sanctions. In addition, nearly three million Pakistanis work in the Kingdom and send home remittances to the tune of up to $8 billion every year. 

Saudi Arabia has also long been suspected of bankrolling Pakistan's nuclear programme and was among the few countries that congratulated Islamabad after it carried out its first nuclear trials in response to India's nuclear tests in the late 1990s. 

Where foreign policy is concerned, both countries issued a joint policy statement in 2014 expressing a common understanding on Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine and other conflicts in the Middle East. 

'Another Palestine': Kashmiris fear demographic change under India's new domicile law

Cracks appear

Over the years, both countries have also faced challenges in their close bilateral relationship, with Riyadh in recent times flexing its influence over the south Asian state

In December, Saudi Arabia used its influence to dissuade Pakistan from attending a Kuala Lumpur Summit where 400 Muslim leaders, scholars and thinkers from 52 countries convened to explore solutions for problems that affect the Muslim world. Riyadh considered the event a direct challenge to the OIC. 

In 2015, both countries faced another divergence when Pakistan refused to join Saudi and Emirati forces in their military operations in Yemen, opting to stay neutral as it did not want to aggravate sectarian issues at home. 

On a geopolitical level, Saudi business relations with India have recently received a massive boost, which may partly explain Riyadh's reluctance to be proactive on Kashmir. This is a major discrepancy between the two allies, as drawing attention to the Kashmir crisis is a top priority for Pakistan.

Both countries have faced challenges in their close bilateral relationship, with Riyadh in recent times flexing its influence over the south Asian state

Since 2014, ties between Riyadh and New Delhi have been on an upward trajectory and on his maiden trip to India last year Mohammed bin Salman discussed investment plans worth over $100 billion. India's Reliance Industries, the largest private sector corporation in the country, intends to sell 20 percent of its shares to Saudi Aramco, making it one of the largest foreign direct investment deals in India.

For the moment, Saudi Arabia will have to delicately balance its ties with India and Pakistan, nuclear rivals and neighbours who have fought several deadly wars over the Kashmir crisis.

Read more: Does Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the
new Muslim alliance?

Likewise, any upgrade in ties between Pakistan and Iran will require extra vigilance to avoid a heavy-handed Saudi response. For decades, Pakistan's foreign policy has focused on balancing ties with Tehran and Riyadh on an equal footing.

Recently, China and Iran discussed the possibility of a strategic partnership which, if it materialises, could see Iran joining the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). On a trip to Pakistan last year Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced large investments in Gwadar, and Islamabad will have to delicately balance relations with both rival countries. 

Moreover, in a new development, Riyadh has constructed a nuclear technology facility and started several joint nuclear projects, including one to extract uranium from seawater, with Chinese help. Saudi Arabia is therefore getting closer to Beijing, which already has a growing footprint in the GCC region. Even the UAE has inaugurated its first nuclear power plant in the Arab world with Chinese cooperation.

In the past Saudi Arabia had shown little interest in a nuclear program, as Pakistan, the only nuclear Muslim state, had always guaranteed the security of the Holy Sites in Saudi Arabia and helped in military matters.

Eventually, these moves could have implications for Saudi-Pakistan relations. Even though Islamabad would remain a close defence ally, China has also become an important strategic partner.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi