Pakistan-Saudi Relations: Diplomatic Reality Versus Social Reality – OpEd


In the wake of tension between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan once again becomes an important asset to the Saudis. Nothing proves this fact more than the recent visit of the Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad Bin Salman to Pakistan for an assurance from the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan stands strong with the House of Saud.

In a time where the social and political scene in the Middle East has completely shifted, Saudi Arabia finds itself cornered and alone. Due to the structural factors, economic, and sociopolitical factors, the crisis in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Egypt have left Saudi Arabia with only one trustworthy friend in the Eastern region, Pakistan. In a face-off with Iran for executing the prominent Shiite leader, Nimr Al Nimr, Saudi Arabia is in need of Pakistan; however, one cannot disregard the discrepancy between the diplomatic reality and the social reality between the two countries that pledged allegiance to each other for the days to come.

What is the diplomatic reality of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Jonah Blank, a senior Political Scientist with the Rand Corporation reported that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are a “wild card” for each other. The two Sunni majority strongholds need each other for their advancement and survival in the Eastern region. Saudi Arabia’s strong ideological approach is in conflict with the Iran’s ideological mindset. Additionally, Saudi Arabia serves as the customary voice of the Muslim world that it cannot spread to other Muslim nations without Pakistan.

Secondly, it needs Pakistan to diffuse the Iranian (Shiite) voice and, it also needs Pakistan’s military support from the chaos that spread to Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Egypt while Iran continues to create more challenges for the Saudis. Saudi Arabia’s stand is clear on Iran. The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud advised the United States Government against Iran to “cut off the head snake.” Such rhetoric had already set the seeds of hostility deeper. Presently, the US’ own approach towards Iran has changed with Iran’s promise to U.S.A to stall its nuclear objectives. Saudi Arabia understands such worrisome situation, but holds off from aggravating the West. Saudi Arabia hoped, or perhaps it still hopes that the U.S.A will come to protect the Kingdom if it continues to purchase the weapons from the US, but no guarantee is given to Saudi Arabia. This only leaves Saudi Arabia with Pakistan that is nuclear-equipped, holds some stability and stands ready with its globally recognized militia.

On the other hand, Pakistan gained much from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has an open credit line from the Kingdom without any strict rules or regulations. The Kingdom finds it in its favor to aid Pakistan with billions of dollars, low oil prices, and respects the Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff’s once-personal relations with the Royal family.

Pakistan’s chances of appearing as a strong nation in the Muslim world are now greater than before. Appearance as a leading nation along with Saudi Arabia opens doors of trust and companionship for Pakistan to other Muslim nations. Pakistan has now the upper hand of showing to the rest of the Muslim world that it can stand as a strong ally when called to defend another Muslim country; however, this begs another important question.

Why has Pakistan not stepped in to defend Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine from collapsing? The first reason is quite simple. Pakistan fights on both ends of its borders to protect itself from the affliction of terrorism in a time where the West watches every move the country makes. Secondly, it has to keep a constant eye on the India-Pakistan border with keeping in mind that India-Iran ties are strengthening.

More importantly, the Middle Eastern states like Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Egypt collapsed due to internal and regional conflicts that overlapped each other. The states were horribly affected by the administrative incompetence, ideological differences, and double-dealings where each Middle Eastern state displayed no true faith in each other. Pakistan could not be a part of the continuous power-struggle amongst the Middle Eastern nations. The Arab League proved futile, leaving Saudi Arabia to turn to Pakistan as an important Muslim collaborator. Nonetheless, there exist two different realities, a gap between political relations and the social relations of two nations.

The social reality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is much different. Pakistani Ambassador Mohammed Naeem Khan stated in Saudi Arabia that Pakistanis were “committed and conscientious workers” in the Kingdom because of their geographical closeness as well as religion and age-old ties. In Saudi Arabia where Pakistani citizens are the largest expat group, Pakistanis have little to no value in the Kingdom as they are seen as “miskeen,” another word for needy. This attitude of Saudis sets a discriminatory attitude, and the Saudi Kingdom is yet to change this view of their own countrymen. It failed to recognize that the labor class demands fair wages in return for the services.

Sultan Al-Sughair, a correspondent of the Arab News highlighted a study conducted in Kingdom that points out the very problem of expat workers suffering. He writes, “Occupational diseases are no longer physical in nature, but also extend to psychological injuries of workers that result in imbalances in their nervous systems, thus affecting their job opportunities and decreasing their capabilities and skills, a study has found.” The Kingdom recognizes the psychosocial damage that is being done yet it does not make any efforts to change the mindset of the nation.

The strict Saudi labor laws exist for the expats who mainly belong to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The Saudi government shows no mercy to the Pakistanis who demand an easy exit and re-entry into the Kingdom with respectable working conditions. Many Pakistani who belong to the labor class are stuck in the Kingdom because the Kingdom does not pardon the Pakistani citizens for little inconveniences that mainly come from the Kefeel system. The diplomatic relations between the two countries do not reflect the social reality of many Pakistanis who live and work in the Kingdom. With this, the Pakistani consulates in Riyadh and Jeddah sit idle with their inability to improve the working conditions of the 1.5 million Pakistanis currently residing in the Kingdom. The little effort that Pakistani Embassy in Saudi Arabia made to find the details of the Pakistani detainees in Saudi jails, the Kingdom turned down the request. This renders the very gap between the diplomatic relations and the social conditions of Pakistanis within the Kingdom.

If Saudi Arabia desires to build strong ties with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia also needs to execute fair labor laws for the expats, recognize Pakistani citizens as a strong backbone for its own economic progress, and nurture the Pakistani talent that could keep the Kingdom strong. Similarly, Pakistani citizens who find themselves close to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia must reflect on their working habit by working with honesty rather than fear, respect for the Kingdom’s law rather than challenging it. Pakistani government, on the other hand, needs to demand the Saudi government to open up more doors of opportunities for the Pakistani citizens, and in return show much stronger loyalty in diplomatic relations. This attitude could create an honest and sincere loyalty to each other where Pakistan and Saudi Arabia find themselves much closer because the diplomatic reality is in synch with the social reality.

Ahsan Qazi

Ahsan Qazi is the founder of One Voice-Pakistan and World Affairs in Sociological Perspective. He was born in Pakistan, but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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