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Deepening the Pak-Arab ties

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By: Showkat ali

On many fronts, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are working to deepen and formalize ties that have historically been determined by the quality of relationships between kings and prime ministers

The bilateral relations between the Islamic republic of Pakistan and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are historically close and extremely friendly, frequently described by analysts as constituting a special relationship. Despite Pakistan’s close relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with  India, Pakistan has been called “Saudi Arabia’s closest Muslim ally”.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia’s main intelligence agency, once described the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as ‘probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty’. Prince Turki himself was at the helm of Saudi decision-making for over three decades and oversaw the close cooperation between the two countries during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, the Afghanistan campaign, and in post-9/11 defense diplomacy.

There were difficulties in the relationship. The Pakistani parliament’s opposition to Islamabad’s military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in the ongoing war in Yemen sparked controversy and questions about the essence of the strategic relations between the two countries. However, Pakistan’s decision not to join their Saudi allies in that war was largely due to domestic preoccupations; these include fighting Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban and dealing with rebels from the country’s southwestern Baluchistan region. These issues have left Pakistan domestically exhausted and have influenced Islamabad’s decision to stay out of the Yemeni conflict so as to avoid opening up an additional front with Iran, the Houthi’s powerful external patron and source of resources, which could contribute even further to instability inside Pakistan.

Yet despite Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen crisis, Saudi-Pakistan relations remain strong and largely unaffected; Pakistan participated in exercise North Thunder, which took place in northern Saudi Arabia, along with 20 other Arab and Muslim countries in March 2016, and General Raheel Sharif, the former Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism. Still, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has often been seen over the years as being rooted in the personal relationships between Saudi kings and Pakistani prime ministers, rather than the formal institutions of the two countries.

For a long time, the relationship has been characterised by an exchange of capital flows from Saudi investors of various sectors, in return for military cooperation. According to the last available statistics, the value of trade exchange from mid-2012 to mid-2013 reached $5 billion. Over the preceding decade (from 2002 to 2012) the value of trade exchange reached approximately $30.7 billion. Saudi Arabia’s motives for capital investment in Pakistan have not only been financial, for the Saudis have offered support in more difficult times, and without direct commercial interests. For example, when a devastating earthquake hit Baluchistan in 2005, Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan with $10 million in humanitarian aid. Moreover, when floods swept across Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, Saudi Arabia granted Pakistan $170 million for relief operations and reconstruction activities in the affected areas. In January 2018, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan  pledged strengthen their economic ties with a preferential trade agreement that would fit in with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. This is seen as addressing the previously grey area of ties between two countries. where no one quite knew what was being signed and by whom.

Furthermore, military ties between Riyadh and Islamabad date back to the early 1960s when the Pakistani army contributed to the establishment of the Saudi armed forces. It also assisted the Royal Saudi Air Force with the introduction of their first fighter jets. There are over 1,200 Pakistani trainers in various Saudi security and military sectors, either under the Ministry of Interior or the armed forces.

In light of the current economic and political reforms in Saudi Arabia, in which the Kingdom is eager to implement Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are now hoping to  adopt a more strategic partnership, moving beyond from the whims of personal ties. Recently, the Saudis have sent two significant delegations to Pakistan with the aim of exploring trade investments and defence ties, sharing intelligence in the field of combat against terrorism, and forming strategic working groups to handle the future development of relations.

The Crown Prince, who also acts as Defence Minister, received the Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in Riyadh in February to discuss bilateral military relations, with particular focus on how to strengthen and develop military training, joint exercises, and the exchange of military expertise. The Saudis have given support to Pakistan in combating extremism. In a recent press conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir praised its partner and announced that Pakistan had a role to play in sharing with the world the lessons it had learned from its own war on terror.

More significantly, it appears that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are interested in an interdependent security relationship, one which does not infringe on either’s relations with other countries. Saudi Arabia, for one, is  strengthening its strategic ties with India without jeopardizing its relationship with Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan has explained to the Saudis that although going into Yemen was never an option for Pakistan’s military, Islamabad would defend Saudi Arabia when and if needed. Despite its recent rapprochement with Iran, Pakistan has made clear that it supports Saudi Arabia’s interest in guarding against Iranian interference in Gulf security and Saudi Arabia’s internal security. And, in turn, Saudi Arabia has supported Pakistan in disputes over the Kashmir problem at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

On August 13, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his  first foreign trip: a visit to Saudi Arabia in early september. In a statement released by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Khan praised Saudi Arabia for being one of Pakistan’s most trusted partners in world affairs and vowed to make preserving Saudi Arabia’s security a major priority of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded positively  to Khan’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Riyadh, by praising Pakistan’s economic potential and pledging to increase Saudi Arabia’s investments in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Display of Loyalty Toward Saudi Arabia

In addition to restricting the scope of the India-Saudi Arabia partnership, Imran Khan views his upcoming visit to Riyadh as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate Pakistan’s continued loyalty to Saudi Arabia. Over the past week, Pakistani officials have laid the groundwork for Khan’s visit by endorsing two of Mohammed bin Salman’s most controversial decisions.

On August 9, Pakistan expressed support for Riyadh’s decision to suspend trade deals with Canada and expel Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak. The Pakistani government defended Saudi Arabia’s actions, stating that Canada had violated the principle of noninterference by criticizing Riyadh for its decision to arrest human rights activist Samar Badawi. Six days later, Pakistan praised Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption campaign, which has been widely criticized by human rights observers as a cynical ploy to subvert political challengers. These actions have strengthened trust between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which was strained by Pakistan’s opposition to the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Khan will likely reiterate these pro-Riyadh positions, as expressing support for Saudi Arabia will be viewed positively by his allies within the Pakistani military establishment. The Pakistani military has maintained robust intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia since 1967. Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Sultan Al Saud famously described Saudi Arabia-Pakistan military cooperation as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries.”

While senior Pakistani military officials have refrained from criticizing Islamabad’s alignment with Qatar, former military dictator Pervez Musharaff’s condemnations of pakistan’s decision to turn its back on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resonated with many members of Pakistan’s Armed Forces. As the Pakistani military played a critical role in Khan’s election victory, resetting Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will help preserve the loyalty of Pakistan’s notoriously interventionist armed forces to Khan’s government.

Although Khan has vowed to maintain Pakistan’s close ties with Iran and Qatar, the new prime minister will use his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate his commitment to preserving Islamabad’s traditional special relationship with Riyadh. If Pakistan can prevent Saudi Arabia from pivoting more firmly toward India and demonstrate its reliability as a Saudi ally, Imran Khan will gain vital support from the Pakistani military and Pakistan’s economy could gain access to much-needed investment capital from Saudi Arabia in the months to come.

Pakistan’s Efforts to Counter the India-Saudi Arabia Partnership

Although India’s support for the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia’s frequent expressions of solidarity with Pakistan engendered hostilities between India and Saudi Arabia during the Cold War, Riyadh’s relationship with New Delhi has improved dramatically since the late 1990s. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made two state visits to Saudi Arabia since he took office in 2014. Modi’s trips have resulted in the expansion of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports to India, and an increase in the number of Indian guest workers finding employment in Saudi Arabia.

As India’s closest partner in the Middle East, Iran, is struggling to cope with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, Modi views Saudi Arabia as an increasingly important economic partner. In July, India’s oil imports from Saudi Arabia surpassed those from Iraq for the first time in over a year. As India’s Oil Ministry recently instructed major Indian refineries to prepare for a major cut in Indian oil imports from Iran, Saudi Arabia’s importance to the Indian economy is expected to grow significantly in the months to come.

While India’s energy partnership with Saudi Arabia remains largely transactional in nature, Pakistani policymakers have  expressed concern that India is seeking to undermine the strength of the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship. These fears grew dramatically after Saudi Arabia did not veto Pakistan’s inclusion on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list in February. To demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s continued commitment to an alliance with Pakistan, the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) authorized a $4 billion loan to Islamabad. This loan has temporarily assuaged Pakistan’s worsening balance of payments crisis, and eased concerns that India has pried Saudi Arabia away from its historic alliance with Pakistan.

In order to counter the growing perception in Saudi Arabia that Riyadh’s partnership with India is economically beneficial and its alliance with Pakistan is an economic liability, Khan will use his visit to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate Pakistan’s value as an economic partner for Riyadh. Pakistan has expressed enthusiastic support for Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia 2030 strategy, which seeks to wean the kingdom off its long-standing dependency on oil exports, and has highlighted the positive role of the 2.7 million Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia in promoting trade relations between the two countries. By emphasizing Pakistan’s support for Saudi Arabia’s economic modernization efforts, Khan will encourage Riyadh to balance between India and Pakistan, rather than pivoting more decisively toward New Delhi.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia recently  announced that it would join the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, a comprehensive strategic project of Pakistan’s ‘Vision 2025’ development programme, with a view to undertaking investments at Gwadar Port, which will strengthen the trade exchange between the two countries. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s leading English website, Arab News has launched special Pakistan bureau and website, the first such effort outside of the Kingdom.

In summary, the trajectory of Saudi-Pakistan ties seems to be heading in a strategic direction; it is becoming institutionalized, and it increasingly addresses both countries’ strategic interests.

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