By Nazir Ahmad Mir*
Imran Khan kept tradition alive by undertaking the very first prime ministerial visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is generally believed that Pakistani Prime Ministers seek spiritual guidance from the holy places in Saudi Arabia. As Imran Khan starts his innings, he surely needs the Almighty’s blessings to start the arduous task of steering the economy back from the brink, dealing with the deteriorating relationship with the United States which holds the purse strings of international financial institutions, and managing the challenges of instability in Afghanistan, among others. However, it is also true that Pakistani prime ministers make their first official visit to Saudi Arabia because of the practical reason of that country being a significant political and economic benefactor. Khan was genially welcomed by the Saudis and the doors of the Ka’ba were opened for him, which otherwise remain closed for other visiting Muslims.
Saudi Arabia’s importance to Pakistan is reinforced by two other aspects of Imran Khan’s visit. First, Khan’s visit took place in spite of his announcement that he would not undertake any foreign visit during the first three months as part of an ‘austerity’ drive. Khan making an exception to visit Saudi Arabia underlined that country’s importance “for which,” according to him, “the people of Pakistan have special love.” Second, Khan chose to visit Saudi Arabia even though it was President Hasan Rouhani of Iran who had extended an invitation to him first. Iran wants to have better ties with Pakistan. Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif was the first foreign official of his rank to meet Imran Khan in Islamabad to talk about improving bilateral relations.
Economic and Strategic Aspects
Pakistan has benefited enormously from Saudi Arabia – the Muslim world’s wealthiest nation – through generous financial aid, the supply of oil on a deferred payment basis and aid during crises. For instance, the Saudis provided a grant of US$10 million during the 2005 earthquake, $170 million during the 2010/11 floods, and a $1.5 billion grant when Pakistan faced an economic crisis in 2014. Of late, Saudi Arabia has once again come to Pakistan’s rescue by promising assistance worth $2 billion to stabilise a falling economy.
Besides, there are around two million Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia, and they send back remittances worth over $5 billion every year. Though the trade balance is heavily skewed in favour of Saudi Arabia, the two countries are negotiating a bilateral treaty to help correct the imbalance to some extent. Pakistan has been arguing that “there is huge potential of bilateral trade lying unrealized between the two countries.” It has been importing mainly oil from Saudi Arabia and exports rice, meat, meat products, spices and fruits, footwear and leather goods, and chemicals. Pakistan’s service sector, it is said, has much more potential to expand.
Not only has Saudi Arabia helped Pakistan avoid major economic crises, it has also supported Pakistan’s defence by providing logistic support and financial assistance. For instance, the Kingdom assured Islamabad that it would supply 50,000 barrels of crude oil per day on a deferred payment basis in case Pakistan’s nuclear tests resulted in US and other European sanctions in 1998. In return, Pakistan has stood with Saudi Arabia diplomatically and militarily whenever the latter required such support. Nawaf Obeid, a former advisor to the Saudi Government from 2004 to 2015, summed up the relationship in 2004 thus: ‘We gave money and [the Pakistanis] dealt with it as they saw fit… There is no documentation, but there is an implicit understanding that on everything, in particular, on security and military issues, Pakistan will be there for Saudi Arabia’.
Strains in the Relationship
When, in 2015, Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to join the coalition it was leading to undertake the ground offensive in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis, Islamabad refused and let it be known that it would prefer to stand “neutral” in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. The decision was taken keeping in mind the possible implications of joining the coalition on domestic politics and on bilateral relations with Iran. To pacify an upset Saudi Arabia, Pakistan subsequently allowed former Army chief General Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi-led coalition named “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)”. This latter decision was seen by many in Pakistan as not in the national interest and as violating the resolution passed by parliament in 2015 spelling out Pakistan’s “neutrality” in the Saudi Arabia-Iran conflict.
The Saudi-Iran conflict in West Asia has serious ramifications for Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sees Iranian involvement and growing salience in regional politics as a threat to its security. Saudis argue that “Iran is at the root of numerous security problems now plaguing the Middle East” and that it should be prevented from challenging “1,400 years of majority Sunni domination.” The Saudis feel that their long-term ally, the United States, has grown disinterested about continuing to support the current regional order. To ensure its own dominance in the region, Riyadh has undertaken several measures to secure its interests in the region. It has initiated an expansion in its military capability, for which it allocated $64 billion in 2016. It has also formed IMAFT to check any challenge to its dominance.
Pakistan, for its part, is worried about India’s improving relations with West Asian countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. While Pakistan wants to maintain a delicate balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis are not happy with this balancing game and want Pakistan to support them. In March 2018, Pakistan approved the despatch of 1,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of their extensive defence cooperation. The decision was taken immediately after General Qamar Bajwa’s visit to Riyadh on 2 February, which was his second in two months and came only a few days before Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Saudi Arabia on 6 to 8 February 2018. The decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia raised some eyebrows within the country, with some arguing that it would make Islamabad look like joining one of the camps in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, which was not in the national interest. It is also said that the decision was taken not only because of India’s growing ties with Saudi Arabia but also due to Iran’s engagement with India. Thus the move was directed at both countries. On one hand, it signalled Iran that Pakistan can jettison its “neutral” stand in the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry. And on the other, it was meant to convey to Saudi Arabia that Pakistan would be there when required.
By undertaking his maiden visit as Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia, Imran Khan underscored that Riyadh is going to remain a priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy. During the visit, Khan reiterated the traditional position that ‘We stand with Saudi Arabia’ in case of need. Highlighting that “Pakistan has tremendous opportunities of investment”, he sought a further strengthening of relations by inviting the Kingdom to invest in Pakistan. While the invitation to invest in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was later retracted by pointing out that CPEC is a bilateral project, Saudi investments in an oil refinery in Gwadar and the Reko Diq gold and copper mines in Balochistan are seen as positive developments.
While Pakistan clearly seeks to maintain cordial relations with Iran, it is unlikely that it would be willing to incur the displeasure of Saudi Arabia with which it has greater economic and strategic links. It remains to be seen how the Khan Government is going to retain the trust of the Saudis while at the same time not angering Iran which is an immediate neighbour.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author:
*Dr Nazir Ahmad Mir is a Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
This article was published by IDSA