Will Pakistan tilt towards Saudi Arabia?

Pakistani flag
6 min read
03 May, 2022

Last month, the winds of change blew through Pakistan as Imran Khan lost a no-confidence motion instituted against him by opposition members in parliament.

After a prolonged constitutional confrontation, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition, comprising nearly a dozen parties, made its way to power and Shehbaz Sharif, their joint candidate, was sworn in as prime minister.

The Sharif administration’s parliamentary term extends until 23 August 2023, after which new elections will be held.

However, after his ouster, Khan has upped the ante with weekly rallies that are drawing large crowds. The possibility of early elections can therefore not be ruled out.

Nevertheless, the return of the Sharif political dynasty into power was well-received by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"Sharif represents the 'old Pakistani order' based on stronger links to the army - still a top priority for Saudi Arabia"

A few days after he became PM, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called Sharif to congratulate him on his new role, wishing him success in achieving the “aspirations of the Pakistani people” and reiterating that the Kingdom is keen to strengthen bilateral relations.

Last week, Sharif made his maiden foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, a country that has been a source of financial relief for Pakistan’s ailing economy and a long-time intelligence partner.

According to local media reports, Pakistan secured sizeable financial support in the region of $8 billion from Riyadh during Sharif’s visit.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia affirmed its continued support to Pakistan and its economy including the discussion of augmenting the three billion USD deposit with the central bank through term extension or otherwise,” Pakistan finance minister Miftah Ismail tweeted on Sunday.

This will also include options to further finance petroleum products and support economic structural reforms, he added.

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“Under Imran Khan, bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia were driven by periods of contestation and conflict,” Dr Sebastian Sons, a researcher at CARPO-Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient in Bonn, told The New Arab.

“Personal relations between MBS and Khan remained cool, as Khan has presented himself as a promoter of Muslims globally which challenged MBS’s image as the leader of the Islamic world.”

Consequently, in Dr Sons’ opinion, “his [Imran Khan’s] resignation is considered as a positive step inside Saudi Arabia. In contrast to Khan, Sharif represents the ‘old Pakistani order’ based on stronger links to the army - still a top priority for Saudi Arabia”.

The second leg of Sharif’s Gulf tour saw him visit the UAE as well, and it is expected that he will visit China to court investments at some point.

“Saudi Arabia will take a wait-and-see approach in the short term before granting new pledges to Sharif,” Sons added.

“First, he needs to show that he can play the role of a reliable partner for the Saudis. Second, he has to restore ties with the army, which is considered by the Saudi leadership as a potential security provider amid rising tensions with the US and growing regional escalation.”

Imran Khan
Imran Khan was ousted from power but still commands popular support, meaning early elections can't be ruled out. [Getty]

Saudi Arabia and the Sharifs

Shehbaz Sharif will likely achieve a sustainable understanding with Riyadh. Indeed, relations between the Kingdom and the Sharif political clan go back nearly four decades, with close links and many useful contacts in Saudi circles.

Nawaz Sharif, the elder brother of Shehbaz, ruled Pakistan three times and when his second stint in power ended in 1998 he and his family lived in exile in Jeddah.

After eight years in exile, he returned to the country and served a third term as prime minister from 2013-2017. The Saudi government gave him a $1.5 billion grant in March 2014 to fulfil debt-service obligations and execute large development projects.

But during Nawaz Sharif’s third term Pakistan-Saudi ties went through some low periods.

In 2015, the Saudi-led war in Yemen began and Riyadh expected Islamabad to play an active role. However, Pakistan chose to remain neutral and only offered to provide troops for internal security within the Kingdom.

Following this, relations cooled off for a while and it took intense back-channel diplomacy and a visit by the then-Pakistan army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to revive relations.

"The Sharifs had a close relationship with the Saudis, especially with the late King Abdullah. But now the situation is quite different as relations with the Saudis means essentially relations with MBS"

Then, in 2017, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut off diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on Qatar.

Reluctant to get involved in regional spats, Pakistan’s parliament opted to remain neutral and passed a resolution saying that, “This House calls upon all countries to show restraint and resolve all differences through dialogue”.

Nawaz Sharif had close ties with both the Saudi and Qatari ruling families.

After 2018, even Riyadh’s terms with the Imran Khan administration remained erratic due to insufficient interest by the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in highlighting the issue of Kashmir.

Khan then backed the founding of another Islamic forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, though he backed out from attending at the last minute after Riyadh objected.

Despite initial reports of financial support, it may still take time for Shehbaz Sharif to rekindle the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“In the past, the Sharifs had a close relationship with the Saudis especially with the late King Abdullah. But now the situation is quite different as relations with the Saudis means essentially relations with MBS,” Zeeshan Shah, a political observer and financial analyst in Washington, told The New Arab.

“Whether the Sharifs can develop that type of rapport with MBS remains to be seen.”

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Pakistan's foreign policy

While Pakistan-Saudi ties became frayed, Riyadh’s relations with Islamabad’s rival, India, have made tremendous progress.

Mainly economic, they are set to grow further, and Pakistan must reach out to other countries if it wants to expand its influence in the region.

“Pakistan has yet to come up with an answer with regards to the increasing warmth of Saudi, or UAE, relations with India, which show no signs of abating,” Shah said.

“The obvious response would be exploring other avenues such as increasing ties with Qatar, Iran etc. But as of right now it seems to be more of a ‘head in the sand’ scenario.”

In the larger picture, Islamabad’s foreign relations will likely remain the same, and usually there are no drastic tilts no matter which government comes into power.

When it comes to a time-tested ally like Riyadh, both countries have been strategic partners for so long that it has become institutionalised.

"Pakistan has yet to come up with an answer with regards to the increasing warmth of Saudi, or UAE, relations with India, which show no signs of abating"

Notably, when Pakistan carried out its first nuclear tests in response to Indian ones, Riyadh was among the few countries that congratulated Islamabad.

And when Pakistan faced sanctions, Saudi Arabia provided oil supplies worth $2 billion on deferred payments in 1998 and 1999 and later extended this facility, converting it into a grant.

While a sizable number of Pakistani troops remain posted in the Kingdom throughout the year, many Saudi soldiers and pilots are trained in Pakistan.

According to a report in 2016, Saudi Arabia has also been the largest importer of Pakistani arms and bought small and medium weapons worth millions of US dollars.

While Riyadh has often lent support financially, Islamabad has helped with defence issues on multiple levels.

The Kingdom is also a major remittance source as 2.5 million Pakistanis live and work there. Therefore, it will likely continue to be an inter-dependent, well-grounded relationship.

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

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi