The seven-decade-old bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is based on shared social, political, religious, and cultural ties. It is no secret that Pakistan’s need for financial assistance and oil supplies has been critical to this relationship. Thus, in 2018, when Pakistan risked defaulting on its foreign debt commitments, Saudi Arabia rescued Islamabad by providing a $6.2 billion relief package. With more than 2.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia, remittances have substantially aided Pakistan’s foreign reserve.
It would be inaccurate to assume that the Saudi-Pakistan partnership extends only to foreign aid delivery and the military support provision. In the past seven decades, both countries have collaborated on geopolitical stability and mutual security interests during the Cold War and post-Cold-War periods, on post-Taliban Afghanistan, and commercial trade.
However, with the ongoing war in Yemen and the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, Saudi-Pakistan ties have encountered strains. Having sent thousands of troops to defend Saudi Arabia in the 1991 Gulf War, Pakistan established itself as reliable security and military partner for Saudi Arabia. However, in 2015 bilateral tensions arose when the Pakistani parliament voted against sending its troops for the war in Yemen. In effect, the parliament unanimously voted for Pakistan to maintain neutrality in the Yemeni conflict.
With divisive politics, political polarization, and corruption charges against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani analysts and media pundits strongly advocated a non-military approach regarding other nations’ affairs. Still recovering from the war in Afghanistan and the West’s global war on terrorism, public sentiment was firmly against sending Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia. No more than 15 months later, Pakistan’s former army chief and retired general, Raheel Shareef, was appointed the head of the then-called Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) to counter the Houthi rebels’ offensive in Yemen.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ascended to the helm of Riyadh’s powerbase with ambitious goals to reform governance, modernize institutions, diversify and develop the Kingdom’s economic base. Mohammed bin Salman is an astute reformer who can drive change while preserving a traditionally conservative society’s fundamentals.
Mohammed bin Salman inherited a Kingdom in coan unstable region with an ever-shifting balance of power. Prince Bandar bin Sultan was criticized and removed for his handling of Syria. Iran’s regional influence was tightening in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana, and Turkey’s ambitions were vividly clear beyond northern Iraq’s Kurdish area and included Syria, Palestine, and the Maghreb. The Russian-Iranian partnership grew even stronger with the war in Syria and efforts in defeating ISIS in Iraq. Meanwhile, Riyadh led the way to sanction the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar for its continued patronization of the Muslim Brotherhood networks.
The combination of Washington’s refusal to act swiftly and consistently against Syria, the signing of the 2015 Iranian nuclear peace deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which revived Iran’s economy, and the lingering war in Yemen signaled that Saudi Arabia must take control of its strategic security. In attempting to deal with a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, Mohammed bin Salman initiated a bold 2030 Vision – a roadmap to ensure reforms in education, governance, housing, privatization, fiscal responsibility, and other major areas.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan
Imran Khan has been in power for 26 months now in a troubled country. Pakistan’s problems extend beyond an $18 billion of debt, involvement in the global war on terror (with over 26,000 civilians dead), corruption, poor governance, and a massively underdeveloped infrastructure network. His Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) vision includes implementing the strict rule of law, providing access to education and accessible healthcare, alleviating poverty, undertaking anti-corruption measures, and protecting Pakistan from the threat of terrorism and violent extremism.
Instead, in his short tenure, Khan was targeted by America’s harsh criticism of aiding militancy in Afghanistan and subsequently suffered the suspension of American aid to Pakistan. On the one hand, he needed to de-couple the military’s decade-long policy of intervention in Afghanistan while simultaneously supporting Washington’s request to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. With the signing of the Taliban peace deal in September in Doha, Khan has met both demands.
When US Secretary of Defense James Mattis released the US National Defense Strategy (NDS) in January 2018, it highlighted the “Great Power Competition” of Russia and China as an “inter-state strategic competition, which is national security.” Pakistan again found itself in the middle of Washington’s aggressive efforts to contain and isolate China’s growing influence.
China is investing in the world’s most extensive infrastructure program—the ambitious, $900 billion New Silk Road, which connects China, Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The New Silk Road will improve Chinese trade by using both land and sea routes to connect 68 countries. As China’s ally, Pakistan benefits from the New Silk Road project, whose China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) entails $65 billion investments in new roads, bridges, geothermal energy, and the establishment of the largest port on the Arabian Sea in Gwadar.
Amid dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, India’s cooptation of Jammu and Kashmir, unfulfilled promises of developing infrastructure, or managing a struggling economy, Saudi Arabia publicly reprimanded Pakistan twice this year. – First, it was for suggesting to attend an impromptu “Islamic Summit” hosted by Malaysia. The second time, for Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s outbursts insisting that the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) convene a Council of Foreign Ministers meeting to apply specific diplomatic pressure on India for its revocation of Kashmir-related legislation.
With the first anniversary of India’s unilateral move on Jammu and Kashmir, and without any real success in obtaining international support for Pakistan’s Kashmir policy, Qureshi’s comments “now is the time to know, either you [OIC] are with us, or against us,” did not bode well with Riyadh.
The Indo-Iranian partnership
Another area of geopolitical concern for Saudi-Pakistan relations is the strong Indo-Iranian relationship. India and Iran’s partnership has emerged gradually over the past 35 years as both New Delhi and Tehran have worked diligently to advance bilateral cooperation. For instance, in 2001, the India-Iran Strategic Dialogue conference focused on regional and international security and their respective defense policies.
Perhaps the most significant bilateral development was when former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visited New Delhi in 2003 to sign the New Delhi Declaration. It was in addition to seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) on increasing trade, exchanging information, technology, and science, and cooperating on counterterrorism.
In February 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to India solidified the Indo-Iranian partnership by allowing New Delhi operational control of the Iranian east coast port of Chabahar for 18 months. The $200 billion projects, only 56 miles from the Chinese-sponsored Gwadar port in Pakistan, creates a transit route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.
The extent of bilateral cooperation was clear when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran and said: “Chabahar can be a very big symbol of cooperation between Iran and India; India and Iran are not new friends, as our dosti (friendship) is as old as history.” With those comments, Modi set forth a new era in the Indo-Iranian relationship.
The JCPOA removed international sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran’s suspension of its nuclear program and acceptance of international inspections. India decisively embraced Iran in the strategic military, technological, commercial, political, and cultural partnerships.
According to “Coal in India,” a 2019 report by Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science, India is the second-largest importer of thermal coal and the third-largest consumer of energy, and desperately needs alternative energy sources to meet rising domestic demands. With the Chabahar Agreement, which includes railroads to Iran’s Zahedan region, India will have special access to potential energy resources stretching from southeastern Iran to Central Asia.
The aspirations do not stop here. Building upon Chabahar, India proposes an International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) sponsored by New Delhi, Moscow, and Tehran, which would transport goods in India and Europe through Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. INSTC will expand the market for Indian human capital and consumer products. At the same time, India will also provide Iran and Central Asia with low-cost intellectual and material assistance in developing information technology networks, roads, ports, railroad projects, and military capabilities.
In addition to forming strategic economic partnerships, New Delhi is interested in using its partnerships to combat religious extremism. India’s largest minority population consists of approximately 165 million Muslims. For political reasons, Prime Minister Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with commentators consistently expose the government’s plan to designate Indian Muslims as the “fifth column” threatening the country’s stability and prosperity.
Both India and Iran, for different reasons, fear the spread of so-called jihadist movements, especially ISIS branches in South Asia, Central Asia, and the broader region. Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to India in February 2019 demonstrated that a Shiite theocratic Islamic republic is extremely capable of political and economic collaboration with a fundamentalist Hindu BJP ruling party, especially for mutual political and economic interests.
Moreover, as India continues to confront growing polarization between Muslim and Hindu communities, exemplified by the communal riots in New Delhi in February 2020, Modi’s relationship with Rouhani provides an opportunity to diminish domestic and international fears that India is an Islamophobic polity. Tehran and New Delhi’s bilateral relationship is also expected to affect Iran’s struggling economy significantly. Indeed, India will better position Iran to become a more viable global trading partner and political ally.
At one level, the Indo-Iranian partnership serves to counter China’s regional interests, which comes with important implications for the Saudis. While Riyadh wants to improve commerce and maximize open access to India’s markets, it does not want to meddle in Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and its active efforts to circumvent China’s New Silk Road.
While the US and India have a common interest in countering China’s regional influence, Washington and Riyadh are not in full agreement regarding Beijing. Many officials within the Trump administration see the Indo-Iranian partnership as New Delhi ignoring the perceived Iranian threats to US interests while failing to help Washington isolate the Islamic Republic at the global level.
Riyadh-Islamabad and the future
Against the backdrop of rapidly evolving geopolitical and economic challenges, the Saudi-Pakistani relationship is foundationally firm due to historically strong bilateral ties and some key mutual geopolitical interests. With occasional public diplomacy hiccups, diplomatic relations between Islamabad and Riyadh will continue to develop to address challenges to the Gulf and South Asia regions.
The changing security dynamics both in the Gulf and for Pakistan will not strain the relationship. They will bring both nations together toward greater cooperation to revisit strategies on peace and security. Riyadh’s $20 billion investment in developing an oil refinery at the Gwadar port indicates strong mutual interests shared by the two countries. However, Pakistan’s security interests will engage Saudi Arabia to play a delicate balancing act in addressing India’s acumen for regional influence, its human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and ongoing communal violence against Muslim minorities.
There is no longer a lone superpower in the Gulf and South Asia region. Instead, the new world is a complex web of multiple states acting under diverse alliances and pragmatic politics. It is a world order of Sino-Indo competition, Indo-Iranian partnership, America’s security notions of “Great Power Competition” and Indo-Pacific Strategy, Russia’s growing footprint in the wider Middle East, and Turkey’s ambitions of increased influence in the Levant and Maghreb. Within this context, the Saudi-Pakistani partnership will continue to address peace and security issues facing the region and identify innovative ways to deal with competing national interests and priorities.
Although some argue that Islamabad’s close relationships with Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Qatar and its aggressive diplomatic efforts to raise support for the Kashmir issue in the international arena will damage Saudi-Pakistan ties, this is very unlikely. Certainly, multilateral relations with a diverse set of nations can be maintained while balancing a long-held relationship with a steadfast ally.
With strong historical ties, both countries face a fast-changing world order with remnants of the past characters of war that remain on the scene. The Saudi-Pakistan partnership is too durable to allow these challenges, brought about by external powers and regional rivals, to undermine their unique relationship.
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