Despite dispute with Riyadh over Kashmir, Saudi-Pakistan ties remain strong

Security and economic bonds mean that Islamabad’s recent disputes with Riyadh are unlikely to impact overall bilateral ties.

al-monitor Pakistani Kashmiris from the Pasban-e-Hurriyat Jammu Kashmir party shout slogans as they march during a protest against India in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani territory of Azad Kashmir, on Feb. 18, 2019. Photo by SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 20, 2020

Pakistan's army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia Monday for talks with the royal leadership. Although it was described as primarily a previously planned military meeting, it may have provided a good opportunity for removing any misunderstandings amid media conjecture that Riyadh may have been irked by recent criticism from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Saudi envoy to Pakistan, Adm. Nawaf Saeed Al-Malkiy, visited the army chief last week to discuss regional security and bilateral defense ties, suggesting that ties had already been smoothed.

On Aug. 5, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed frustration with the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) for its lackluster response to reported rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir, as the organization has not yet met to discuss the dispute. Speaking on an Urdu talk show, he hinted that alternatives to the OIC would have to be found. As Saudi Arabia has a prominent role in the OIC, the general perception is that the foreign minister's remarks could have offended the government in Riyadh.

As Qureshi’s outburst coincided with reports that Islamabad had prematurely repaid a $1 billion loan to Riyadh, the matters could be linked. Islamabad has apparently requested that Riyadh renew the $3.2 billion deferred payment facility for oil supplies after a one-year agreement between both countries expired in May this year.

However, such minor glitches cannot derail relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. Once described as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries” by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal, the historical relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have withstood the test of time.

Saudi-Pakistan dynamics date back to the pre-partition era of British India, when Arab delegations met the leadership of the All India Muslim League in 1940. Having worked together with Saudi Arabia on various global and regional forums, Pakistan was also a founding member of the OIC in 1969.

These historic ties are evident in many realms.

First, there is a significant security aspect to Pakistan-Saudi relations, as Pakistani armed forces have often helped the kingdom in various crises over the years. Being the only Muslim nuclear power, Pakistan also guaranteed the safety of the holy places of Mecca and Medina. The countries have had close military ties since the 1960s, when Pakistani soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom.

Since 2018, the countries have had a bilateral security pact and around 1,000 Pakistani troops remain deployed there. Saudi soldiers and pilots have received training at Pakistani military facilities on a regular basis. At one time, Riyadh was the largest importer of Pakistani small and medium conventional weaponry and it was one of the few countries to congratulate Pakistan when it carried out successful nuclear tests.

The relationship has hit hurdles, such as when Pakistan refused to be a part of the Saudi-led alliance fighting Houthis in Yemen, but there have never been any serious disagreements. That retired Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif was asked to lead the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism shows the level of mutual trust.

Secondly, the kingdom plays an important economic role and it has helped Pakistan with finances whenever it required assistance. Since the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia has helped Pakistan at various crucial junctures such as the economic sanctions that it faced in 1998-99.

Having provided crude oil worth $2 billion on deferred payments that were mostly converted into a grant later when Islamabad was under sanctions in 1998 and 1999, Riyadh has helped rescue the Pakistani economy.

Recalling those times, G.A Sabri, who was a top bureaucrat in Pakistan’s Petroleum Ministry, has said, “That’s when Saudi Arabia came to our rescue and offered us an oil credit for the first time. I remember it covered around 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) of furnace and crude oil. We got the shipments on a deferred payment, which means you take the oil today but pay much later. But really it was sort of a grant as the payments were waived.” 

Riyadh provided such a facility once again in 2018, when the newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan went there on his first official foreign trip to ask for help in staving off the imminent economic crisis in this country. This time, the kingdom provided a $6 billion bailout package to resuscitate Pakistan’s economy, out of which $3 billion were deferred payments on oil imports, while $3 billion went to boosting its foreign exchange reserves.

Around 2.5 million Pakistanis work in the kingdom and send sizable remittances back home, amounting to $6 to $8 billion annually. This diaspora contributed in the building of modern Saudi Arabia and many doctors, engineers and teachers have spent their lives working in the kingdom.

Recently, even though many migrants lost their jobs due to lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, the Saudi government has barred companies from laying off Pakistani workers for the next three months.

Last week, the Pakistan Embassy hosted a business meeting with Saudi investors and initiatives are being planned to increase the export share as well as boost foreign direct investment in Pakistan with Saudi help.

Finally, where bilateral foreign policy objectives are concerned, according to the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, Pakistan-Saudi relations have entered the “strategic domain where both countries are fine with each in pursuing their own interests independently.” Having formed strategic working groups, their bilateral ties have now been institutionalized and developed into an interdependent security relationship.

Accordingly, the relationship remains unaffected by their ties with other countries. For example, even though Islamabad improved bilateral relations with Iran and Riyadh with India, both countries have sustained close ties. Even though the equation may have needed a reset at times due to divergences over the regional situation, the countries have never had any trust issues.

An important diplomatic aspect to Pakistan-Saudi bilateral relations is that Islamabad has always offered to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. Maintaining balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been Pakistan’s successful foreign policy and it has been able to help maintain peace by remaining neutral.

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