Pakistan-Saudi Arabia Relations: End Of An Era – OpEd


The shattering blow to the Pakistan-Saudi relations came when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chopped off Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir from the Pakistani boundaries given in the world map printed on the back of the 20-Riyal banknote KSA had issued to commemorate its presidency of organizing G-20 summit on the coming 21-22 November 2020. Before this, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistani Foreign Minister, had threatened KSA that if it doesn’t raise the Kashmir issue in the OIC, Pakistan will join another bloc. Another bloc means China-led bloc, in which Iran – anti-Saudi country – figures prominently.

Riyadh could not ignore this ‘anti-diplomacy’ statement of the Pakistani foreign minister and reacted with demanding Pakistan pay back instantly 1 billion US$ KSA had given to it to shore up its foreign exchange reserve. To rescue deterioration, Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of army staff of Pakistan, left for Riyadh. But the 30-years-old Crown-Prince Muhammad bin Suleiman – de facto King of KSA – declined to give audience to the Chief of the only Islamic nuclear weapons state. This was the insult of the chief of the powerful army beyond repair.

Now the question is that why the two brotherly countries have gone so far away from each other? Was Qureshi’s unwanted statement responsible for all these abrupt animosities between the two countries or the reasons were being piling up for the long time? Will the relations ever return to the same enthusiasm or at least normalcy? Answers to these questions need some deep description, analysis and evaluation of the reasons and the extent to which the relations have deteriorated.              

Why KSA Moved Away From Pakistan?

KSA and Pakistan were two historically Muslim brotherly countries. More importantly, Saudi had invested a great deal of finance in the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and in its overall defence sector. KSA had the intention to counter Iran and all other threats with the Pakistani nuclear weapons and its traditional defence apparatus. Now the question is that why KSA has moved so far away from the nuclear Pakistan, with one of the strong militaries in the world? To answer this question, we have to evaluate the importance of the nuclear weapons to KSA.

In fact, the threats to KSA interests have not disappeared but KSA had come to the conclusion that it doesn’t need nuclear weapons long before its relations with Pakistan came to the abrupt rupture. Sunni KSA had to counter the proxies of the Shia Iran in the Middle East, especially after the Arab Spring. The war in the ME is, as the matter of the fact, a ‘street war’ fought between the proxies of the two Muslim sectarian blocs. In a ‘street war’, your friends and foes live together. So, in this very complex situation, the light weapon like Kalashnikov, G-3, AK-47, etcetera, are more effective weapons than air force, artillery and any other heavy machinery-like weapon, say nothing of nuclear weapons.

Pakistan is spending 2.5 billion US$ annually on the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal, Nuclear Threat Initiative reports. But, that entire arsenal cannot help it eliminate religious terrorism and ethnic insurgency. Thus, in the civil-war-like situation, immensely destructive weapons like nuclear weapons are useless. Besides, even if Iran succeeds in building nuclear weapons, it will never use against KSA because of the presence of the two holy shrines of Islam on its soil. Therefore, KSA deems it’s better to invest in the light-automatic weapons instead of the nuclear weapons, which are only showpiece to deter your enemy superior in the traditional weaponry. Furthermore, when it comes to the light-automatic weapons and the digitalization of the security, KSA, along with other Sunni-Arab states, has found new source – Israel.

Although around thirty thousand Pakistani retired and on-duty army personnel are deployed to guard Sunni-Arab Monarchy in Bahrain, a country of Shia majority population, Pakistan declined Riyadh’s request to partake in war in the Yemen. Before this, KSA must have received shock when the Pakistani nuclear wheeler-dealer Dr Abdul Qadir Khan was found exporting nuclear know-how and material to Iran. Also, KSA could not tolerate Pakistan befriending Erdogan of Turkey, a last but not least bump in the relations of the two countries. Thus, the diplomatic clumsy made by Qureshi was just the last straw that broke the back of camel.

Why Pakistan Moved Away From KSA?

Pakistan needed KSA for political/diplomatic backing, money and oil. When Pakistan had broken up in 1971, it was the Muslim world, especially King Faisal who helped Pakistan restore lost moral and confidence. The KSA enabled and facilitated Pakistan to host OIC summit in Lahore, Pakistan in 1974. Besides, KSA funded Pakistan cash and imported unskilled Pakistani labor in millions. Pakistan received abundant remittances from Saudi and other Muslim countries, which were called Gulf Bonanza. KSA helped Pakistan establish and streamline its nuclear apparatus. 

However, the KSA of today is, in fact, not the KSA used to be for Pakistan. KSA’s economy is not as strong as it was some time ago. Including, bin Suleiman is not the King Faisal for Pakistan. Prince has his own economic vision to divert economy from oil export to some other sources of income. He doesn’t extend blind charity and oil supplies to Pakistan.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has found China for political/diplomatic backing and money, especially on the Kashmir issue and through CPEC respectively. China is the veto power at the UN. It helps Pakistan diplomatically more than Saudi can. 

Can Relations Be Again Normal Between the Two Countries?

KSA needed Pakistan for its security purposes. When its security purposes could not be served, it has to leave Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan needed KSA for political/diplomatic and money purposes. When Pakistan has found China, Pakistan has to leave Saudi. China can provide Pakistan all three political/diplomatic support, money and security. 

Apart from all above divergences of interest, in international alliance system, Pakistan falls in the Chinese orbit of influence, while Saudi in the US orbit of influence. What is more, Iran also falls in the alliance of China, while Israel in the alliance the US leads. Nevertheless, both countries could maintain cordiality but Iran factor is more decisively divisive than any other factor. In the past, a lot of friction exited between Iran and Pakistan but now both the countries have realized that they need friendship. Pakistan has enemies on its eastern and north-western borders. So, it can’t afford one more enemy on its only peaceful border – Iran-Pakistan border. Iran is also in the somewhat same situation. So, it desires a friendly neighbor on its eastern border.

Also, there is problem in the both Baluchistan of Pakistan and Sistan-Baluchistan of Iran. The reincarnation of Abdul Malik Rigi’s Jundullah (Soldiers of God) into Harkat ul Ansar Iran (Movement of Partisans of Iran) and Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice) in Iran and Baluchistan Liberation Army’s intensifying assaults on the Pakistani army and paramilitary forces and the state installations in Pakistan pose a trans-border-Baluch ethno-nationalist threat to the both countries – Iran and Pakistan.  Thus, both countries need unity to counter the pan-Baluch ethno-nationalist threat. Intensifying Baluch insurgency straddling Pakistan-Iran border will keep both the countries glued for good. So, now KSA has no place with Pakistan. In international relations, friendship and enmity never happen to be permanent. Normalcy or even cordiality can return in the relations of Pakistan and KSA but old closeness is difficult to be restored.    

* Raza Shahani teaches at Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, Sindh, Pakistan

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