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Strong Allies, Severe Setbacks, And…

Soon after the meeting between Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh in October 2021, the Saudi Government agreed to provide USD 4.2 billion worth of assistance to cash-strapped Pakistan, in order to support the latter’s Economy. Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed the news, saying on Twitter: “Saudi Arabia’s announcement supports Pakistan with USD 3 billion as deposit in Pakistan Central Bank and also financing refined petroleum products with USD 1.2 billion during the year.” The Minister also tweeted that PM Khan expressed gratitude to the Saudi Government for its recent commitment “to deposit USD 3 billion and financing USD 1.2 billion refined petroleum products”.

Later, Carol Christine Fair – the American Political Scientist, Associate Professor in the Security Studies Programme within the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and author of ‘Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War’ and ‘In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’ – explained why Saudi Arabia decided to bail out bankrupt Pakistan, despite its Iranian tilt. In an article published in Firstpost online portal on November 5 (2021), she mentioned that while Saudi Arabia had no interest in limiting ties with India at Pakistan’s behest, Riyadh did want to limit the temptation for Pakistan to reassert ties with Iran.

Carol Christine Fair

Fair recalled that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan used to value each other for reciprocal reasons in the 1960s. At that period of time, Saudi Arabia had welcomed Pakistan’s decision to train the Saudi Armed Forces as a countermeasure to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Socialist Regime in Egypt. In return, Riyadh helped Pakistan forge an international presence in the wake of its defeats to India in 1965 and 1971. The two countries came closer after the loss of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In the late 1970s, Riyadh and Islamabad came even closer due to some important global events, such as the dissidents’ 1979 siege of the mosque at Mecca, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. In 1981, the Government of Pakistan declared that “1,500 to 2,000 military men are on duty in Saudi Arabia in what they describe as engineering and training assignments“. Islamabad also admitted that it received USD 1 billion in financial aid from Riyadh. According to Fair, Western intelligence agencies were well aware of Pakistan’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb during this period of time.

With Pakistan’s economic situation becoming more disorganised in the 1990s, the South Asian nation’s reliance upon Saudi Arabia deepened. Saudi Arabia not only deferred loan payments for subsidised Pakistani oil imports, but also helped its friend build large networks of madrassas, apart from dampening impacts of sanctions following Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. Since then, Pakistan’s financial dependence upon Saudi Arabia has increased a lot.

However, things changed in 2015 as then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in spite of his close ties with Saudi Arabia, started maintaining a distance with the Pakistani Army. It made his government unreliable in the eyes of Riyadh. PM Sharif tried his best to boost the bilateral ties. However, he failed to get success. After becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018, Imran Khan successfully strengthened ties with Riyadh. Immediately after Khan came into office, the Pakistani Army secured an economic package from Riyadh. Showing gratitude, the Imran Khan Administration (unlike the Global Community) did not criticise the Saudi Crown Prince for his alleged involvement in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist residing in the US. Fair mentioned that Pakistan expressed desire to join a Saudi-led coalition against Iran in March 2019, as a part of its commitment to the West Asian nation.

Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman with Pak PM Imran Khan

When India dispensed with Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, Pakistan thought that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would criticise the Narendra Modi Government in New Delhi. However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi remained silent on this particular issue. As far as the Islamic World is concerned, only Turkey and Malaysia joined Pakistan’s anti-India chorus, forming an alternate Islamic Bloc given Arab insouciance about India’s bold move. Mahathir Mohamad, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, declared that his country, along with Pakistan and Turkey, would serve as an alternative bloc “to the inert, Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC)”. However, Saudi threats prevented Pakistan from attending the Kuala Lumpur Summit called by PM Mohamad. Qatar, Turkey and Iran, considered as Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals, attended the Summit.

On the first anniversary of India’s decision to strip Kashmir of its special status, Pakistan did not hide its frustration with Saudi inaction over the outrage. Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi asked Saudi Arabia to play a leadership role on the Kashmir issue, and to convene a special meeting of the OIC. As Riyadh rejected the request, Malaysia, Turkey and Iran backed Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir in order to put Saudi Arabia under diplomatic pressure. Interestingly, unperturbed Riyadh asked Islamabad to immediately repay USD 1 billion that was a part of the USD 3 billion lent to Pakistan in November 2018. The changing Geopolitical Landscape in Asia prompted China to step in in order to bail out Pakistan. Here, Fair, whose works are primarily focused on counter-terrorism and South Asian Politics, raised an important question: “What leverage does aid-dependent Pakistan have over its long-standing benefactor?” She added: “So what happened? Economics happened.

Fair explained that Saudi Arabia has always considered India as a valuable trade partner. In 2019-20, the value of India-Saudi trade was more than USD 44 billion, while Saudi trade with Pakistan was just USD 3.6 billion. She wrote: “Under Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia cares about cash not concord across the Muslim world. To underscore this point, Mohammad bin Salman endorsed China’s policies in Xinjiang, which other states have decried as a genocide. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner.” It may be noted that Saudi Arabia has maintained silence on the most important development in the region: the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. According to Fair, it is because of Pakistan’s unstinting military, diplomatic and political support to the terror outfit. In 2013, the Taliban opened their first foreign office in Doha. Since then, Qatar, China, Pakistan, Turkey and the US have helped the Taliban come to Power in Afghanistan for the second time. Saudi Arabia did not play any substantive role.

Time and again, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is not interested in limiting ties with India at Pakistan’s behest. It seems that Riyadh is well aware of the fact that Pakistan’s proximity with China and Iran is based nearly entirely on loans, and it cannot replace Saudi’s heft in the Islamic World. On the other hand, Pakistan knows that it won’t receive Saudi’s support on the Kashmir issue. Hence, it would be better to receive cash from Riyadh.

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