Pakistan-Saudi Arabia Relations, Deterioration and Adjustments

Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been its friend and benefactor for decades, suffered a serious setback when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in an unprecedentedly blunt comments slammed the Saudi Arabia-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not extending support to the “Kashmir cause”.
October 2020
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Hossein Ebrahimkhani

Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been its friend and benefactor for decades, suffered a serious setback when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in an unprecedentedly blunt comments slammed the Saudi Arabia-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not extending support to the  “Kashmir cause”. Speaking on August 5, the one-year anniversary of India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and special status, he pointedly demanded that Saudi Arabia “show leadership” on the Kashmir issue. Qureshi said that Islamabad expected the OIC to convene a meeting of its Council of the Foreign Ministers with Palestine and Kashmir on its agenda, otherwise, he would be "compelled" to ask the Prime Minister to "call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir, with or without Saudi Arabia."  This sharp criticism has since been viewed as a threat to create a new bloc that would rival the Saudi-dominated OIC. Pakistani Foreign Minister also criticized the UAE publicly for not backing Islamabad over organizing a meeting of OIC on Kashmir in early February 2020.  Qureshi added that Pakistan last year pulled out of an international summit for leaders of Muslim countries in Malaysia because of Riyadh's concerns that the meeting could undermine the OIC. During the past year, Prime Minister Imran khan has publicly expressed enthusiasm for emulating Turkey and Malaysia and joining them in a new Muslim bloc. Pakistan has repeatedly pressed OIC to convene a high-level meeting on Kashmir but the OIC has only held low-level meetings so far.

Saudi Arabia has not shown much interest in openly siding with Pakistan on Kashmir issue in recent years. The reluctance is partly explained by economics and the kingdom’s close and growing ties with India, not to mention India's ever-elevating international standing as compared to that of Pakistan. Bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia is $27 billion annually, whereas Pakistan-Saudi trade is just $3.6 billion. Also in 2015, both countries faced another divergence when Pakistan refused to join Saudi-led coalition in its military operations in Yemen, opting to stay neutral as it did not want to upset its delicately balanced relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The crisis escalated in July when, according to Pakistani media, Saudi Arabia forced Pakistan to repay $1 billion given as part of a $6.2 billion rescue package announced in late 2018 prematurely, which Pakistan did by quickly securing a replacement loan from China. The package consisted of a $3 billion loan and $3.2 billion oil credit facility Saudi Arabia had announced on November 2018 after a visit to Riyadh by Prime Minister Imran Khan as Pakistan was experiencing a financial crisis with dwindling foreign reserves and a widening trade deficit. Riyadh is reportedly demanding another $1bn of the loan and has also not responded to Pakistan's request to extend the oil credit facility, that expired May this year. Also falling victim to the recent upheaval is the $20 billion worth of investment deals including a $10 billion investment in oil refinery, petrochemical plant and port development in Gwadar pledged by Saudi Arabia during the 2019 fanfare visit of Bin Salman to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is closely allied with the US, which may also be applying behind-the-scenes pressure on Riyadh to stay away from Chinese initiatives, including the Chinese dominated Gwadar port venture.  

Following Qureshi's unusual remarks that drew criticism locally from opposition leaders some damage control measures were quickly initiated so as not to alienate the Saudis any further. On August 10 General Qamar Javed Bajwa Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff met and discussed with the Saudi Ambassador in Islamabad. A week later and accompanied by the Director General of the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) he left for Riyadh on what the Pakistan army spokesman later described as a "primarily Military- affairs oriented" visit. During his 2-day stay in Riyadh Bajwa met with the Saudi deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman and lauded Saudi's role in OIC on Kashmir. He also met and discussed with his counterpart general Ha'med Alrowaily and Fahd bin Turki, the commander of the Saudi-led coalition joint forces operating in Yemen. Unlike Bajwa's previous visit to the Kingdom this time he was declined a meeting with Mohammed Bin Salman, arguably the kingdom’s de facto ruler, which led to the speculation that the most powerful official in Pakistan had not been well received.

On August 20 and against the backdrop of General Bajwa’s apparently less successful mission of mending ties with Riyadh, Qureshi rushed to China for a two-day talks with Pakistan's "all-weather friend". Prior to his departure he stressed that his delegation “represents the stance of the political and military leadership of the country”. The next day, a joint statement issued by the two countries reaffirmed their relationship as “iron brothers” and reiterated Beijing’s support for Islamabad in “independently choosing a development path based on its national conditions.”

These events aside from manifestation of a major shift and steady readjustment of Saudi policy vis-à-vis India and Pakistan is also an indication of a new configuration in Pakistan’s foreign and economic policies by shifting its pivot away from Riyadh, towards China with far reaching repercussions. In recent decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy ambitions, however, have rarely been checked by its actual financial, military, and diplomatic weight. Some analyst suggest that Foreign Minister Qureshi may not have acted on his own in criticizing the OIC. It’s not how Imran Khan’s government, which acts in concert with the establishment, conducts its foreign policy especially not on anything to do with Kashmir.

Imran Khan's recent remarks branding the news of a breakdown in relations with Saudi Arabia as "completely baseless", but at the same time declaring that "Pakistan's future is connected to China" speaks of a difficult situation Pakistan is faced with. Although Beijing has, for the moment at least, supplanted Riyadh as Islamabad's important financial backer and Chinese assistance might partially fill the gap, but in reality Chinese helping hand normally comes with conditions and strings attached, that could upset Islamabad’s dealing with western creditors and donors as well as the IMF and the World Bank.

As for Saudi Arabia, parting ways with a major Muslim country does not serve the interests of the Saudi rulers presently in dire need of rehabilitating their tarnished image among Muslim nations. Saudi Arabia to a lesser extent, still relies on Pakistani military, security and advisory personnel for its defense and security requirements and replacement of Pakistanis with Egyptian nationals that is currently underway may take some time to complete. For Pakistan, tense relation with Riyadh is equivalent to warmer Saudi-India ties and might also be translated into the risk of losing Arab allies over Islamabad's Kashmir policy. Regardless of its growing ties with China, Pakistan does not wish to let its relationship with Saudi to fall away.  Riyadh has repeatedly bailed out Pakistan by providing cash and loans on oil imports. Remittances from millions of Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries are a lifeline for Pakistan’s economy and a large portion of Pakistani exports finds its way in Saudi and UAE markets.

Neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia can afford a total breakdown of relationship and a calculated rapprochement to return to normal – if not the special- relationship may be in the offing .However, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may not depend blindly on each other any longer.

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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