Lawmaker Mushahid Hussain heads the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Pakistani Senate or upper house of the country’s parliament. In an interview with RFE/RL Gandhara, the former journalist weighed in on Islamabad’s recent spat with key ally Saudi Arabia and his country’s current standing in the region.
RFE/RL Gandhara: With all the hype about the Pakistani foreign minister’s comments, and the army chief’s visit subsequent visit to Saudi Arabia wherein the optics weren’t great for the Pakistani military’s top brass, how would you assess Pakistani-Saudi relations?
Mushahid Hussain: The regional context and the geopolitical scenario are changing. Both in the larger Muslim world and the Middle East, the relationship is still close. We have had differences with Saudi Arabia in the past; we had differences on the issue of Yemen in 2015 when we were asked for troops and declined.
We also have had differences on the issue of Pakistan’s relations with Iran, and on Saudi Arabia’s relationship with India. On the issue of Kashmir there are expectations from the Organization of Islamic Countries, the OIC, and people expect more from the OIC, to speak up for Muslim causes like Palestine and Kashmir.
I do not see a crisis in Pakistan-Saudi relations, but there can be a difference of policy and perception on specific issues. But strategically the relationship is still strong because both sides are mutually dependent on each other.
RFE/RL Gandhara: Pakistan has provided a security umbrella to Saudi Arabia since the 1960s. Do you think Pakistan has some leverage over Saudi Arabia because of its security cooperation with the kingdom, which is otherwise vulnerable?
Hussain: Both countries are mutually dependent, and both countries have clout in specific areas. The Saudis’ clout over Pakistan is essentially economic because there are 3 million Pakistanis who work in Saudi Arabia, sending home large remittances. Saudi Arabia gives a lot of economic support to Pakistan. And Saudi Arabia also has a certain significance as the home of Muslim countries, because the house of God is located in Mecca, and the Prophet’s final resting place is in Medina.
Saudi Arabia has also depended on Pakistani clout for security. Since the time of General Ziaul Haq in 1982, there was a special security agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia which allowed the stationing of Pakistani troops and advisers on Saudi territory for internal security purposes. That was there between ‘83 and ‘87, when we had a large division stationed in Saudi Arabia; it was there during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Pakistan sent troops as part of the larger coalition. During the Afghan war, Saudi Arabia gave about $2 billion in covert assistance to Pakistan’s military and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] to fund and arm the Afghan mujahedin, which in relation to the $2 billion sent by the CIA for that purpose was a matching fund. At the time, only three countries recognized the Taliban regime [in the 1990s]: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.
What Pakistan can provide to Saudi Arabia in terms of security no other country -- Arab or not, Muslim or not -- can provide. The Saudi government knows that; hence there is a strategic confluence of objectives and interests between Islamabad and Riyadh which remains unchanged despite some technical differences on some issues as they arise.
RFE/RL Gandhara: In a changing regional environment where key Saudi rival Iran is negotiating a major strategic agreement with Pakistan’s ally China, how do you see the Pakistani-Saudi relationship going forward?
Hussain: Saudi Arabia has a very close economic and political relationship with India, which also affects Saudi Arabia’s low-key position on Kashmir. And Saudi Arabia knows Pakistan has very close relations with Turkey and Qatar, two countries with which the Saudis do not have good relations. And they know that Iran, as a neighbor of Pakistan, [has] a very cordial rapport [with Pakistan].
The two countries can agree as friends to disagree on issues which are vital to their respective national interests. But as far as the strategic confluence is concerned, when the Saudis know they need Pakistan’s support for their security, for defense, for internal protection, they can count on Pakistan, and Pakistan can also count on Saudi Arabia when we need an economic bailout, when we need financial assistance.
RFE/RL Gandhara: We know about all the problems with CPEC [the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor]. Do you think CPEC is being revived? How does Iran fit into this project as it reportedly negotiates a major strategic agreement with China?
Hussain: We should be clear that CPEC today is the centerpiece of the Pakistan-China strategic relationship, which is the number one relationship in Pakistan’s foreign policy. And even the Pakistani prime minister last week for the first time in his interview on the second anniversary of his coming to power said the future of Pakistan lies with China. So … it is clear that [for] the state of Pakistan, the armed forces of Pakistan, the parliament and the political parties of Pakistan, China is a strategic partner we can rely on and a partner that has been there for the past four or five decades -- a resilient and reliable partner.
On the Iran-China cooperation, we welcome that because if China is displacing India from Chabahar, which is 170 kilometers from Gwadar Port, that is positive because China is a best friend. CPEC will be most secure on our western front, and Gwadar Port will be more secure if a Chinese presence is there, an economic presence or a political presence in Iran. So, this is something that is there because China is so close to Pakistan, and there is a comfort level between Pakistan and China which is not there with any other country.
RFE/RL Gandhara: As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can you give us an overall assessment of Pakistan’s foreign policy?
Hussain: Due to a number of factors, and it’s no thanks to any government, Pakistan’s regional position has been strengthened and we have got what I call strategic space and a geopolitical breather. Number one is the Afghan peace process; Pakistan has been pivotal in bringing the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban to the conference table, and the U.S. is beholden and dependent on Pakistan for this purpose. Hence the U.S. tone, the U.S. rhetoric, the U.S. statements regarding Pakistan have become more positive.
Secondly, after this beating that the Indians got from the Chinese in Ladakh in June, the Indians have been cut down to size in their own neighborhood. You can see India having problems with not just Pakistan, not just China, but also countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh for the first time because of [the Indian Prime Minister] Modi’s Hindutva extremist policies. Nepal has brought a new map where they say India is occupying part of their territory. Bangladesh for the first time has protested to India because of the citizenship amendment act, which affects Bangladesh also. So, there are new winds of change. And the recent elections in Sri Lanka have brought to power the Rajapaksa brothers, who are friends of China and who are also friends of Pakistan.
The recent scenario is changing, and CPEC is changing, which is driving CPEC forward. As you can see, three or four major agreements have been signed on CPEC, which were there especially on energy and also on the railway line. And just on August 20 we organized a big conference which included nine political parties, and they all agreed to protect and promote CPEC as the guarantor of a better tomorrow for Pakistan. We had messages off the president of Pakistan and the president of China, Xi Jinping, for this purpose. Relations with China are strong and resilient, and China needs Pakistan and Pakistan too needs China.
It is Modi whose Kashmir annexation and occupation have backfired, and I’ve never seen in my professional life so much criticism of India as we have seen in the last year. Pakistan is right now in a comfortable position regionally, and it has given us a breather and strategic space for the next couple of years. We should use that to our advantage and build better relations with other countries in the region.