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Is Saudi-Pak relationship under threat?

By Lieutenant General SYED ATA HASNAIN (Retd)
August 26, 2020 18:24 IST
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Given all the turbulence created by Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi's unexpected tirade against Saudi Arabia it, is likely to be business as usual between the two countries, albeit with a bit of caution on the part of both, observes Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd).

IMAGE: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan is welcomed by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, September 19, 2019. Photograph: Bandar Algaloud/Reuters
 

Very early in its existence, Pakistan identified both Saudi Arabia and Iran as two core Islamic nations whose geostrategic location and geopolitical strength at various times could work to its advantage.

An evaluation of the Pakistan-Saudi-Iran triangle makes an interesting study in Islamic geopolitics especially in these challenging times which are witnessing rapid and unpredictable change in the world order based upon emerging dynamics and a new balance of power.

This analysis examines the Pakistan-Saudi relationship which has been an enduring one and highly beneficial to both, but now seems to be having an attack of hiccups.

Currently, there appears a crisis in Pakistan-Saudi relations.

Paradoxically, it has arisen because of the long existing special relationship between the two nations leading to all kinds of mutual expectations.

Pakistan expected a committed and energetic Saudi backing to its efforts to rally the Islamic world against India in the wake of the Indian decision on August 5, 2019 to fully integrate Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating all special provisions for J&K which existed in the Indian Constitution.

Commonly referred as Articles 370 and 35A, these were a kind of lifeline Pakistan exploited to promote separatism and anti-India sentiment with intent of J&K's eventual secession.

Given the exponential improvement in India-Saudi ties since 2014 and an emerging altered approach to its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to treat India-Pakistan relations with a binary approach.

The Indian decision on J&K proved to be an occasion when the Saudis exercised prudence instead of blind support for Pakistan based upon Islamic ties.

It chose to term India's decision as an internal affair and refused to convene an OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) meeting to discuss the issue, much to the chagrin of Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia's change of stance has been based upon realist pragmatism nudged by the US-Israel combine to view future potential conflicts in West Asia where Iran could be the common nemesis.

The Saudis are aware of India's proximity to the US-Israel combine and also view India as an important customer for energy besides the non-partisan Indian expatriate community which makes up a large part of its working population.

Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the heir to the throne and virtual controller of Saudi Arabia's destiny, has larger designs to see his nation emerge from its obscurantist make up to a modern state even at the cost of contestation against the clergy.

In his quest, he is supported by the US which too does not favour Pakistan's obsessive pursuit of its J&K agenda.

Pakistan's agenda which was threatening to get relegated due to the Saudi response led it to first agree to join Turkey, Iran and Malaysia in attending an Islamic summit at Kuala Lumpur outside the aegis of the Saudi-controlled OIC in December 2019.

The summit with an agenda to discuss increasing international Islamophobia was an obvious attempt to dilute the Saudi hold over the international Islamic fraternity.

Among the nations competing for leadership role of the Islamic fraternity is Turkey.

It seeks eventual restoration of primacy for itself almost akin to a recall of the Ottoman times by overturning Kemal Ata Turk's cultivated secularism.

Iran being Saudi Arabia's sectarian nemesis was on board too, as was Malaysia seeking its own primacy perceiving its economic strength as a passport to a potentially greater role within the Islamic fraternity.

Pakistan had no reason to attend this other than to raise the issue of J&K.

However, under deep obligation to the Saudis for the financial bail-out packages of 2018 Prime Minister Imran Khan had little option than to withdraw from the Kuala Lumpur summit under prodding from Saudi Arabia.

As a facesaver, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced that the Saudis had accepted the holding of an OIC foreign ministers's meet in Islamabad in April 2020; the Saudis had no such intent and April 2020 passed with the COVID-19 pandemic at its height.

The signs of divisiveness within the Islamic nations were therefore manifest even before the pandemic.

IMAGE: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, September 19, 2019. Photograph: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters

On the first anniversary of the Indian decision to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A and reorganise the J&K administrative set up Pakistan was under internal pressure for the relative lack of meaningful action on J&K which was progressively leading to better Indian integration of the territory.

Earlier, in late 2018, with the Pakistan economy in shambles and a severe balance of payments crisis looming it was Saudi Arabia which had provided Pakistan two economic packages.

First was a loan cum aid of $3 billion and the second a $3.2 billion line of energy credit.

These helped Pakistan stay afloat until the IMF agreed to provide a $6 billion loan after much US scrutiny.

Although deeply indebted to the Saudis, Pakistan's leadership lost its balance when in the wake of the first anniversary of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi bitterly complained of the alleged Saudi lack of sensitivity towards J&K.

He also threatened to recommend to Prime Minister Imran Khan to convene a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with Pakistan on the issue of J&K.

With Pakistan's options severely curtailed after August 5, 2019 and little traction in its international campaign, Qureshi's uncharacteristic complaint took many by surprise.

There were reports of Pakistan being forced to return the Saudi loans with commensurate borrowing from China.

However, the importance of the Saudi-Pak relationship may have been underestimated.

Pakistan made ardent efforts to neuter Qureshi's insensitive comment especially in the light of an article by Dr Ali Awwad Asseri, a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, in the Arab News of August 17 2020.

Dr Asseri, largely known for his promotion of the Saudi-Pak relationship, expressed surprise at Qureshi's obstinacy.

Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa rushed to Riyadh along with ISI Director-General Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, but was denied an audience with Prince Mohammad bin Salman, further confirming that the Pak-Saudi relationship was under threat but not necessarily dead and buried.

Qureshi has since denied any effect on the relationship and return of loan or stoppage of the energy deficit.

IMAGE: Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman in Riyadh, August 19, 2020. Photograph: Handout via Reuters

The Saudi-Pak relationship in the past has been transformational in many ways.

Saudi Arabia always considered Pakistan's large Muslim population base suitable for the propagation of its obscurantist Wahabi form of Sunni Islam.

A less educated populace, with poverty and a feudal society was always tailor made for this.

With changing dynamics Prince Mohammad bin Salman is under pressure from the US-Israel combine to alter this course.

He is probably confident that Shia Iran and Sunni dominated Pakistan cannot have an enduring strategic relationship; at best a relationship of convenience.

The US-Saudi strategy therefore possibly looks at diluting Pakistan's drift towards obscurantist ideology which has helped Pakistan's deep state survive and become the international core centre of extremist violence.

Yet, given the hold Saudi Arabia has had over Pakistan's survival and the depth of the political-military-diplomatic relationship it is unlikely to see a complete cleavage with Pakistan due to abiding alignment of interests.

Pakistan had provided Saudi Arabia with as many as 15,000 troops for almost 25 years, including a palace guard.

That is an option Saudi Arabia may yet wish to return to in the future given its comfort with the Pakistan army.

Till recently former Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif occupied the high profile post of head of the 39-nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition created by Saudi Arabia.

The one other event which appears to dictate the dynamics of West Asia was the Israel-UAE deal brokered by Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law.

Saudi Arabia is now under pressure to similarly recognise Israel and give greater substance to their informal relationship.

It's a tricky one involving sentiments which drive leadership issues in the Islamic fraternity.

It puts the Saudis in a bit of a spot and under pressure.

It affects the Saudi-Pakistan relationship too given the fact that Pakistan has refused to recognise Israel, but too maintains an informal relationship.

IMAGE: President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Rashtrapati Bhavan, February 20, 2019. Photograph: Vijay Verma/PTI Photo

Thus, given all the turbulence created by Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi's unexpected tirade against Saudi Arabia, it is likely to be business as usual between the two countries, albeit with a bit of caution on the part of both.

The US-Saudi combine itself would not like to take such radical steps that are bound to push Pakistan into the emerging 'other axis' of North Korea-China-Iran-Turkey.

The Saudis momentarily put Pakistan on notice, but played the situation out diplomatically.

China continues to leverage its economic might and outreach to look at potential strategic tie ups; in all of them Pakistan plays a significant role.

By virtue of its crucial geostrategic location at the centre of multiple civilisations Pakistan still remains an important nation sought after by all important powers.

That is something well realized by India and factored into all its diplomatic-strategic dealings.

The Modi government's investment of energy, time and goodwill with the West Asian nations, particularly those of the Gulf, is standing it in good stead.

It must continue to play as pragmatically as hitherto fore, but outreach to Iran must also form a part of its policy especially if a change of leadership occurs in Washington in another 10 weeks' time.


Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM is one of India's most respected commentators on national security.
The general commanded the Indian Army's 15 Army Corps in Kashmir and was known as the 'People's General' in the Kashmir Valley.
General Hasnain is a frequent contributor to Rediff.com.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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