For decades, two major Muslim countries were engaged in a symbiotic relationship. Saudi Arabia showered its petrodollars on impoverished Pakistan, and in turn, Islamabad’s military prowess became a bedrock of Riyadh’s security paradigm.
But financial disputes, lackluster diplomacy, and controversial comments by leaders this month highlighted rifts between the Sunni powers and former staunch allies. As the media scrambled to capture the fallout of a statement by the Pakistani foreign minister demanding that Saudi Arabia play a “leadership role” in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, one possibility was largely overlooked: that Islamabad is seeking to redefine its relationship with Riyadh.
Author Ayesha Siddiqa, a security expert, says Pakistan is reviewing its ties with Saudi Arabia. “It wants to be less dependent on Saudi Arabia and is shifting toward [its rival] Iran,” she told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “There is this expectation that with an Iran, China, Pakistan linkage around BRI [the Belt and Road Initiative], there is much more to be gained. Pakistan is looking to lessen its dependence on Saudi Arabia.”
In recent years, Islamabad and Beijing have touted the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship BRI project, as a game changer for the region. Tehran is reportedly negotiating a landmark deal in which Beijing will invest some $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years, including linking Iran to China via CPEC in China’s drive to create a 21st-century New Silk Road to cement its global power status.
“If Pakistan hopes to get more from BRI, it wouldn’t be bothered to keep bowing to Riyadh the way it has done in the past,” Siddiqa said.
This month, Islamabad turned to Beijing to quickly pay back a $1 billion loan to Saudi Arabia, which the latter recalled. Before visiting China on August 20, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his delegation “represents the stance of the political and military leadership of the country.” The next day, a joint communique by the two countries noted Beijing’s support for Islamabad in “independently choosing a development path based on its national conditions.”
Siddiqa sees no major break between the two but rather a gradual shift in relations. “If oil prices remain low, Saudi Arabia will have potential money issues. So, it can’t be a potential cash cow for Pakistan,” she said.
Remittances from millions of Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are a lifeline for Pakistan’s struggling economy. Riyadh has repeatedly bailed out Pakistan by providing cash and loans on oil imports. In return, Islamabad has provided key security support to Riyadh including protection and internal security for the ruling Saud dynasty.
“What Pakistan can provide to Saudi Arabia in terms of security, no other country -- Arab or not, Muslim or not -- can provide,” lawmaker Mushahid Hussain, chairman of Pakistan’s standing committee on foreign relations, told RFE/RL Gandhara.
He says that since the 1980s a security agreement between the two has allowed the stationing of Pakistani troops and advisers on Saudi territory. Since then, tens of thousands of Pakistani troops have been stationed there, and both supported Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in one of the largest covert wars in modern history. Currently, up to 4,000 Pakistani troops are believed to be in Saudi Arabia while former army chief Raheel Sharif and other senior officers serve as advisers to the Saudis. Their close cooperation led to speculations Riyadh could even deploy Pakistani nuclear weapons.
This, Hussain argues, has kept Riyadh investing in a bilateral relationship with Islamabad. “There is a strategic confluence of objectives and interests between Islamabad and Riyadh which remains unchanged despite some technical differences on some issues,” he said.
In Riyadh, an informal official statement echoed this sentiment. “The Saudi-Pak historic partnership is too important to fail,” Ali Awadh Asseri, a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, wrote in an op-ed. “It will blossom in future, just as it did in history, defeating any attempt to sabotage it along the way, with the love and devotion of our two peoples.”
But his reaction to Qureshi’s August 5 call for “Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia" showcases the Saudis’ fears. “The strategic partnerships between two nation states take years of patient hard work to build,” Asseri said. “Hence, they are unlikely to founder with the baseless rhetoric of a misguided individual that became the basis of the alleged rift in Saudi-Pak ties.”
Asseri highlighted what he sees as the futility of Pakistan exploring the possibility of an alternative Muslim bloc with Turkey and Iran. During the past year, Khan has publicly expressed enthusiasm for emulating Turkey and Malaysia and joining them in a new Muslim bloc. Reported Saudi pressure forced Pakistan to withdraw from a summit with Malaysia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar last December.
While Qureshi’s outburst was “a bit out of line,” says Siddiqa, it showcased some new thinking about Saudi Arabia. “The content of the message indicates a policy shift that has been coming about in the last two to three years,” she said.
In a commentary for London’s Royal United Services think tank, analyst Kamal Alam argued that a visit to Riyadh last week by Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was part of an effort to cement relations previously referred to as the closest of their kind without a formal treaty. “Close military cooperation has been developed into a broader corporate relationship on a more equitable basis, rather than being characterized by aid and dependence,” he wrote.
But Bajwa didn’t meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, arguably the kingdom’s most powerful figure, which led to speculation that the most powerful official in Pakistan had been snubbed.
“This was virtually unprecedented,” says Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan specialist at the London Chatham House think tank. “If there is, in fact, a move on Pakistan’s part to recalibrate relations, it would also be hard to explain why Pakistan would think the price worth paying would be the public humiliation of Bajwa -- Pakistan’s de facto leader.”
Shaikh says Islamabad might be inflating its role as Saudi Arabia’s sole defense umbrella. “There have been reports in recent months of Egypt assuming an increasingly salient presence as the chief guarantor of Saudi internal and external security,” she said.
In recent decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy ambitions, however, have rarely been checked by its actual financial, military, and diplomatic weight.