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Pakistan ties with Saudi Arabia suggest a marriage where divorce is not possible

September 1, 2020 at 4:16 pm

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (R) talks with Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan in Makkah, Saudi Arabia on 1 June 2019 [BANDAR ALGALOUD/Anadolu Agency]

In international relations, statements of mutual appreciation are the norm and as long as mutual interests align, all can be plain sailing. The real test arises when differences arise. Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are a good example.

Last year, on a state visit to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman said, “Consider me Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.” In 2018, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chose the Kingdom for his first official overseas visit.

On 5 August, though, it was the first anniversary of India’s abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A which had deemed Kashmir to be an autonomous region. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, voiced his country’s frustrations at the inept approach of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) towards the resolution of the Kashmir issue. He indicated that a further lack of action would compel Pakistan to turn towards Muslim countries which had, over the years, supported Pakistan’s concerns regarding Kashmir, namely Turkey, Iran and Malaysia.

In December 2019, these three countries co-hosted the Kuala Lumpur Summit (also known as the Perdana Dialogue). The aim of the summit was to find solutions to the challenges facing the Islamic world. The Saudis viewed this as a challenge to their influence, especially at the OIC. Pakistan was due to go to Kuala Lumpur but pressure from the Saudis resulted in Imran Khan cancelling his trip at the last minute.

Qureshi’s comment was meant to be a wake-up call for the Saudis but it boomeranged badly, with the Kingdom not taking it very kindly; Riyadh immediately recalled a third of the $3 billion loan it had given Pakistan in 2018. The $3.2 billion oil credit facility which was also a part of the 2018 deal has not been renewed since May.

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When Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff visited Riyadh on 17 August, for what were ostensibly meetings with his Saudi counterparts, many believed that the main purpose was to smooth the recent hiccup in relations. Concurrently, Khan also dispelled rumours of any differences by stating that Pakistan had no deviation in its relations with its long-time ally.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have always shared close ties, primarily because of religious affinity. They also share decades-long strategic ties and have on numerous occasions supported each other both diplomatically and economically. Examples of their synergisms can be seen in Pakistan troop deployment in the Kingdom, with up to 4,000 troops there at any one time; joint military exercises; Saudi’s provision of oil amidst sanctions on Pakistan due to its nuclear tests; and Saudi’s benign economic assistance, the most recent of which was bestowed during Bin Salman’s visit in 2019, when he pledged investment deals amounting to $20 billion.

As with every relationship there have been complications which have required compromise, albeit asymmetric. There were reprisals following Pakistan’s refusal to send troops within the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war in 2015. In a decision that prompted many raised eyebrows, former Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army, General Raheel Sharif, was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance.

Do the countries need their relationship to work? The short answer is yes. Saudi Arabia is home to more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates whose remittances contribute significantly to Pakistan’s economy. Indeed, overseas remittances make up around 86 per cent of Islamabad’s foreign reserves. Out of these, approximately 30 per cent are inflows from the Kingdom. Furthermore, Pakistan imports roughly a quarter of its oil from Saudi Arabia. In 2019, 74 per cent of the bilateral trade totalling $1.7 billion was due to oil imports.

Not only that, but Saudi Arabia is home to the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah, which are revered by Muslims all over the world. In 2019, almost 500,000 pilgrims from Pakistan performed the “small pilgrimage” of Umrah and each year (this year excepted, for obvious reasons), an estimated 200,000 Pakistanis go to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.

Pilgrims around the Kaaba during Hajj season on 29 July 2020 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

Pilgrims around the Kaaba during Hajj in Makkah, Saudi Arabia on 29 July 2020 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is important because it provides troops as well as security advisors under their 1980s security pact. Moreover, even though it is keen to pursue its own nuclear programme, for the time being Saudi Arabia pins its hopes on Pakistan’s nuclear capability to ensure a degree of deterrence against its enemies.

Riyadh cannot afford the relationship to splinter, because of its arch-rival and Pakistan’s neighbour, Iran. This fact has been made all the more important given the recent China-Iran Chabahar deal which is essentially morphing China’s Belt and Road Initiative with the region’s geographical tapestry. Imran Khan is adamant that his country has a solid relationship with all Muslim countries notwithstanding their personal rivalries, which would confer a feeling of isolation for the Saudis, one that they can ill afford.

READ: Pakistan’s FM rushes to China after Saudi snubs its top army chief

In furtherance of this point, it is important to note that the Kingdom also relies on its ideological reach beyond the Arab world. With the second largest Muslim population in the world, Pakistan cannot be discounted in this respect.

Finally, the Saudi economy has suffered heavily from falling oil prices, the war in Yemen and the Covid-19 pandemic. Hajj revenues for this year took a major blow with the pilgrimage scaled down to 1,000 pilgrims instead of the usual 2.5 million. For the Kingdom, realising Vision 2030, which involves a move away from reliance on oil and more towards foreign investment, is of immense importance. Pakistan is imperative as an ally because of its ample supply of manpower; its market for Saudi oil; and its investment opportunities courtesy of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Gwadar.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia rely on each other and cannot afford to damage or cut ties. However, it is important to note that every association or union, regardless of any dissymmetry, demands mutual respect on all fronts. Pakistan needs to tread carefully and focus on enhancing relations in other spheres with the Kingdom. Likewise, Saudi Arabia needs to be cautious, since threatening Pakistan with economic and political repercussions every time there is a minor disagreement, will slowly but surely push it elsewhere. Theirs is a marriage of mutual convenience which simply does not allow for divorce.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.