Back on track – Nasim Zehra


Past the misplaced hype regarding what was imminently achievable through the Pakistan-India backchannel, important developments have taken place regarding one of Pakistan’s most significant bilateral relationships.

Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations, having been recalibrated, are now largely back on track. There is realization and acceptance on both sides that states will always pursue their own independent interests and neither can mirror the other; however, where common interests overlap, it is within that space that bilateral relations are strengthened.

During Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia, issues relating to security and economy involving the interests of the two countries have been settled. Pakistan remains the core of the Saudis’ security setup. Saudi troops, pilots and special forces receive training from Pakistanis both in Saudi Arabia and in elite training institutions in Pakistan. Pakistan, since the eighties, has also had a sizable number of troops stationed in Saudi Arabia under a comprehensive security agreement. Given the internal and external security threats the Kingdom faces, Pakistan as a critical security partner remains indispensable. This is an old, tried and tested relationship.

Whatever military equipment they may procure and grand strategic engagements they may plan with countries – from the US, UK or even India and maybe Israel later – there are active threat perception divergences which would spell built-in vulnerability for the Saudis, a fact illustrated by US president Donald Trump who in April 2020 demanded that Saudi Arabia slash its oil output to prevent crash in oil prices or else the US would withdraw its troops protecting Saudi oil facilities. We are protecting your industry while you are destroying ours, the Saudis were told.

Now, some steps taken by President Biden emphasizing on human rights as his administration’s priority have raised questions regarding some Saudi-related issues. And, contrary to Trump’s anti-Iran position, the Biden administration has re-engaged under the JCPOA umbrella with Iran.

For Pakistan, the significance of this historic and dependable relationship with Saudi Arabia has economic, security and political dimensions. Saudi Arabia has been a lucrative job market for a million-plus Pakistanis; its oil facility on deferred payments and its dollar deposits support for Pakistan’s balance of payments position have significantly contributed to Pakistan’s overall economic stability. Security ties, including Saudi support while Pakistan was developing its nuclear weapons programme, have hugely contributed to Pakistan’s security. And, post-Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia provided significant support to the Pakistan Army.

Cooperation during the Afghan war turned out to be a double-edged sword since the emergence of militias of different sectarian orientations contributed to Pakistan’s subsequent sectarian wars. The 1979 Iranian revolution also coincided with the beginning of the covert war and so sectarian militias found patrons in Riyadh and Tehran.

Subsequently, as the Iran-Saudi political contest for power acquired sectarian dimension in the broader Middle East and partially in the Maghrib, Pakistan emerged as the primary production ground for the training and arming of these militia groups.

Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were derailed by several factors including Saudi Arabia’s expectations that Pakistan would singularly pursue diplomatic, political and security routes involving Muslim countries only within the ambit of the 57-member OIC, and agree to send its troops for engaging the Houthis in Yemen.

The issue of Pakistani troop deployment was not new. Perhaps only a more emphatic replay of a significant divergence in April 2015. Then the Nawaz Sharif government took to parliament the Saudi request for Pakistani troops to be actively engaged in Yemen. The consensus across the political spectrum was that Pakistan must stay neutral and there be no deployment of troops to engage third country forces; the consensus was also to commit to defending Saudi territory.

Connected to the Saudi question is the very significant Iran question. Pakistan in recent months has significantly enhanced it’s relations with Iran, especially on the economic and security front. The setting up of border markets and greater cooperation on border security are two measures that have contributed to increased trust between the two neighbours. Pakistan has consistently viewed it’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran as complementary and of significance to both Iran and Saudi Arabia as well.

Ever since the Iranian revolution, Pakistan has tried to encourage greater cooperation and understanding between the two arch rivals. The Kingdom has tended to look at the Pakistan-Iran relationship in zero-sum terms, an approach which in the recent weeks has certainly changed. By engaging the Iranians in recent weeks and now acknowledging publicly that the officials of the two countries have met on Iraqi soil, the Saudis will revisit their own zero-sum approach towards Pakistan’s engagement with and historical ties with the Iranians. Significantly Saudi rapprochement with Qatar, Turkey and Malaysia is already underway.

As Pakistan and Saudi Arabia move ahead as bilateral partners, with more realistic expectations of each other, there are specific divergences that are here to stay in the short run at least or in the short to medium term. Three are important. One, that Pakistan will judge it’s future diplomatic and political path within the Muslim world not necessarily within only the OIC framework or a Saudi shared framework. Ideally, while Pakistan would seek a cooperative strategy to work on matters of security and issues like Islamophobia etc the country will not be restricted to a linear Saudi path.

Two, that the Saudis will continue to develop their ties with India according to their own national interest and vision, which would read, as a dilution of Saudi stands on the question of Kashmiri self-determination and of Indian atrocities in Indian-held Kashmir. Three, Pakistan will conduct its relations with its regional neighbours and with countries beyond as it considers appropriate for its own economic and political and security wellbeing. And, further, while Saudi Arabia would support Pakistan economically, there would be no ‘free lunches’ and any Saudi decision related to trade, commerce and investment would be taken on the basis of its financial viability.

The silver lining that has now appeared after that dark patch indicates that the relationship now is on a sounder footing. Both capitals need to be clear that neither tantrums nor unilateral decisions will be acceptable by either side. Hence a more robust framework of the Pak-Saudi relationship is on track.